Sex Ed is for Life

Sex Ed is for Life

Andrea Lynch

In 2006, "abstinence-only-until-marriage" programs celebrated their tenth year of receiving federal funding. Over the past decade, over $1 billion of our tax dollars have been dedicated to these programs, even though there is still no evidence that they work, any proof that they are effective as a means of preventing unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), or any indication that they contribute positively to young people's psychosexual development. Evidence of the contrary - that they don't work, that they fail to prevent unintended pregnancies and keep young people safe from STDs, and that they undermine young people's psychosexual development - continues, however, to pile up.

The latest study to throw on the pile comes from the Guttmacher Institute: "Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003," published in the January/February 2007 issue of Public Health Reports. The study does not directly review the content or the effectiveness of "abstinence-only" programs (plenty of others have already done that). Instead, it seeks to highlight scientifically what those of us still living in the reality-based universe know intuitively: the vast majority of Americans not only have premarital sex, but also have been having it for decades.

In 2006, "abstinence-only-until-marriage" programs celebrated their tenth year of receiving federal funding. Over the past decade, over $1 billion of our tax dollars have been dedicated to these programs, even though there is still no evidence that they work, any proof that they are effective as a means of preventing unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), or any indication that they contribute positively to young people's psychosexual development. Evidence of the contrary – that they don't work, that they fail to prevent unintended pregnancies and keep young people safe from STDs, and that they undermine young people's psychosexual development – continues, however, to pile up.

The latest study to throw on the pile comes from the Guttmacher Institute: "Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003," published in the January/February 2007 issue of Public Health Reports. The study does not directly review the content or the effectiveness of "abstinence-only" programs (plenty of others have already done that). Instead, it seeks to highlight scientifically what those of us still living in the reality-based universe know intuitively: the vast majority of Americans not only have premarital sex, but also have been having it for decades. Some hard numbers:

  • Data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth indicate that by age 44, 99% of respondents had had sex, and 95% had done so before marriage. Even among those who abstained from sex until age 20 or older, 81% had had premarital sex by age 44.
  • Among women who were born in the 1940s, nearly 9 in 10 had sex before marriage.
  • Among cohorts of women turning 15 between 1964 and 1993, at least 91% had had premarital sex by age 30. Among those turning 15 between 1954 and 1963, 82% had had premarital sex by age 30, and 88% had done so by age 44.

Concerned-Woman-in-Chief Janet Crouse may see these findings as "too pat" ("Any time I see numbers that high, I'm a little suspicious," quoth Janet), but I personally found the numbers totally plausible, not to mention totally gratifying. First of all, they demonstrate with elegant simplicity why "abstinence-only-until-marriage" programs leave young people ill-equipped for situations they will almost inevitably confront at some point in their lives – whether it's during their adolescence, after their adolescence, or both. And second, they demonstrate that those who dream of restoring Americans to some sort of halcyon past of purity and chastity, unfettered by the evils of premarital sex, feminism, and contraception, are doing just that: dreaming. Newsflash, folks: your mom has had sex, and so will your kids.

Once we all get on board with the fact that there IS no halcyon past, we'll be in a much better position to craft legislation that responds to reality and invests responsibly in the future. Premarital sex rates may not have changed in decades, but a few other things have. First, HIV/AIDS is here to stay. And second, people are marrying later: according to the Guttmacher article, the median age at first marriage has increased from 22.1 to 25.8 for women and from 24.4 to 27.4 for men over the past 25 years, and the proportion of the population 18 and older that had never married increased from 16% to 25% between 1970 and 2004. This means that people's premarital sex lives are getting longer. And THAT means that people need to be even better equipped to negotiate those years in good sexual health, with accurate information at their fingertips.

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Of course, the Department of Health and Human Services under the Bush administration has another solution to this trend: target people as old as 29 with abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Then again, this bright idea comes from the same folks who posted the following on a government website as a means to encourage premarital chastity: "You're more likely to have better sex when you are married." And who thought the Iraqi people would greet us as liberators. Reality is such a tough pill to swallow sometimes.

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