Study Shows Some Sex Ed Is Better Than None

Emily Douglas

A small study in Virginia demonstrated that an abstinence-only program showed a degree of effectiveness. But effective when compared to what alternative?

Study after comprehensive, Congressionally-mandated study has demonstrated that abstinence-only programs have no discernable effect on the age at which youth initiate sex, on the number of sexual partners youth have, or on the contraception and STI prevention methods youth use when they do become sexually active. Yet in the state that just became the fourteenth in the nation to reject federal funding for abstinence-only programming – the governor, Tim Kaine, "wants to see us funding programs that are evidence-based" – a small study just demonstrated that abstinence-only programs can be effective. But effective when compared to what?

This report, published today in the American Journal of Health Behavior, found that students who had been exposed to an abstinence-only curriculum "had a substantially lower risk of sexual initiation than did comparison students." A "substantially lower risk" means that 9.2 percent of the group that underwent an abstinence-only curriculum initiated sexual intercourse within one year of the class, while 16.4 percent of those in the control group did. Firstly, the fact that nearly 10 percent of the students treated had sex in a relatively short period of time after the program is "not that much to brag about," says David Landry, senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute.

But perhaps even more tellingly, the control group were students who were exposed to the default public school sex education curriculum in Virginia. "The control group was a standard sex education curriculum, which is extraordinarily minimal," says Landry. "That is not surprising – most school districts have awful, terrible programs. But it did show that when you put some resources behind sex education you can have this significant decline in the percent becoming sexually active."

And then there's the fact that abstinence-only education provides nothing for the teens it, invariably, does not convince to remain abstinent until their wedding night — the 9.2 percent of the group in this study that did initiate sex within a year of the program's end. The study evaluated the Virginia Abstinence Education Initiative, which funds two sub-grantees: the Alliance for Families & Children, and the Horizons Unlimited Youth and Development, Inc, says Maxwell Ciardullo, of the Sexuality Information & Education Center of the United States (SIECUS). Those sub-grantees use two abstinence-only curricula, Individuals Abstaining Until Marriage (I.A.M.) and WAIT (Why Am I Tempted) Training. WAIT Training depends on fear-mongering and shaming to push its abstinence message, and it provides nothing for teens who do become sexually active. When the abstract of the report was released, Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, which has lauded the report, said, "Abstinence education still provides teens information about contraception and STDs, but always within the context that abstaining from sex is the only way to avoid all physical and emotional risks associated with causal sex." That's laughable. In an exercise asking students to rank behaviors according to risk level, no mention is made of sexual activity using condoms that do not "leak or break," and the curriculum dramatically understates how effective, according to the CDC, condoms are in preventing syphilis, gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and HPV. Guttmacher's Landry notes that while isolated studies may show that abstinence-only programs have a certain result, they are still providing no information for teens who do engage in sexual activity.

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In fact, NAEA tried to push this issue several weeks before the journal article was published – they issued a press release when the abstract appeared, on November 16 – but they haven't found much traction in the mainstream media, Landry observed. When Huber tried to bring up the study on a recent MSNBC segment discussing abstinence-only programming, host Dan Abrams let her have none of it. "So the Congressional study wasn't true?" Abrams countered. Later, when Huber admitted that the Virginia abstinence-only program was evaluating itself, guest and Air America host Rachel Maddow pointed out, "Whenever I evaluate myself, I turn out to be doing awesome." (Amanda Marcotte skewered this bit on RealityCast.)

The bottom line is that the overwhelming preponderance of evidence has shown that abstinence-only programs are not effective. When the Mathematica study examined ab-only programs, it did a thorough job – it looked at four programs from around the nation that were a representative sample and that experts had deemed "promising." And even if abstinence-only programs do have a delay effect (which they don't), how long would the delay have to be sustained for ab-only programs to reach the very goals they set for themselves? A mere one-year delay cannot be considered an achievement on its face for an abstinence-only-until-marriage program. And even a delay right up until marriage – when the newlyweds are likely to be 27 (men) or 26 (women) and they will still have no information about how to regulate fertility or prevent STIs – can hardly be considered an educational success.

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