About that Abstinence-Only Study…

In case you missed it, a study was recently published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine showing that abstinence-only sex ed programs were more effective than others at getting young people to hold off having sex. Or at least that’s the message you probably got from the news.

Ed Yong points us at a post by Petra Boynton explaining why the paper’s real conclusions aren’t quite the same.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the paper, and the library only has the January issue, so I can’t check Boynton’s assertions. But nothing in her article jumps out as strange. Basically, student volunteers were split up into four groups; each group got a series of 8-12 one-hour sessions on Saturdays. One group focused on abstinence, another on condoms, a third combined abstinence and condom use, and a fourth just covered health issues in general. This last group served as a control. The study found that students in the abstinence-only group were more likely than the other three groups to have put off having sex.

As with any study, there are problems and potential problems. For one thing, these students were volunteers (and presumably they participated with their parents’ approval). So presumably they take sex ed seriously enough to take time out on Saturday to do something about it, and their parents support them in this. Thus, they may not be representative of the general population.

Secondly, the results were all self-reported. So there are various potential biases like people lying, or misremembering, or just wanting to please the researcher by giving the “right” answer.

But the biggest “however” lies in the description of the “abstinence-only program”:

Abstinence information only
Focused on abstinence (not having sex) to “eliminate the risk of pregnancy and STIs including HIV. It was designed to (1) increase HIV/STI knowledge, (2) strengthen behavioural beliefs supporting abstinence including the belief that abstinence can prevent pregnancy, STIs and HIV, and that abstinence can foster attainment of future goals and (3) increase skills to negotiate abstinence and reduce pressure to have sex. It was not designed to meet federal criteria for abstinence-only programs. For instance, the target behaviour was abstaining from vaginal, anal or oral intercourse until a time later in life when the adolescent is more prepared to handle the consequences of sex. The intervention did not contain inaccurate information, portray sex in a negative light, or use a moralistic tone. The training and curriculum manual explicitly instructed the facilitators not to disparage the efficacy of condoms or allow the view that condoms are ineffective to go uncorrected”

In short, this program was something like “Of course you want to have sex, and that’s great. But it’s easier to go through college and get the job you want if you don’t have a baby to take care of. Here are some ways to resist people who are pressuring you into sex.”

Whereas the that the wingnuts have been pushing have been closer to “If you have sex before you’re married, you’ll make Baby Jesus cry and he’ll send you to hell. Using a condom won’t help you, because they don’t work.” Not quite the same thing.

Having said this, I’m still surprised that “abstinence-only” beat out “comprehensive”.

Another question I have is addressed neither by the study nor Dr. Boynton, and concerns the ultimate effects of the programs.

The reason we want to teach sex ed to young people is not that sex is evil or that abstinence is a good thing in and of itself. Rather, it’s because we don’t want them to catch a disease, or wind up supporting a child before they’re ready.

Other studies have found that with Jesus- and fear-based abstinence-only programs, students will put off sex for a teensy bit, but that when they do have sex, they’re far less likely to be safe about it. I’d be interested in seeing what works best as far as avoiding undesirable consequences.






3 responses to “About that Abstinence-Only Study…”

  1. menes777 Avatar

    I think one of the big mistakes with views on the pressure to have sex are put in the same categories as the pressure to drink or the pressure to smoke. While there is peer pressure to have sex, it’s more like the peer pressure to eat at a certain place (say McDonalds). The drive to eat is there the same as the drive to have sex is there. It’s easy to forget as you get older what it was like to be a hormone filled teenager who could care less what their friends thought about them and more about just getting off. I these studies underscore the real situations around which modern teen sexuality is based. While on the surface it could appear that teens are having sex due to peer pressure; with further investigation the true roots of teen sexuality are much deeper and more complex than some want to admit. One only need to take a look at the Palin family to realize that. The human drive to copulate doesn’t come from peer pressure it comes from hormones. The reason why teens overcome (or fail to) those drives varies, and that is where sex education should focus.

    Also there is a blur in the distinction as to what is considered sex. Someone might say it’s not sex because we used our hands to get each other off. Or that oral sex isn’t really sex. Some even consider anal sex (male-female) to not be sex as it keeps the female virginity intact. Therefore answering the question of have you had sex could be answered no as the person answering might not consider their activity to be “sex”.

  2. arensb Avatar


    Also there is a blur in the distinction as to what is considered sex.

    If you want to become less certain than ever about the distinction between sex and non-sex, you should read Greta Christina’s Are We Having Sex Now or What? and Are We Having Sex Now… And Why Should We Care?.