Ab-Only May Help PreTeens Delay Sex

James Wagoner

Research released this week on an "abstinence-only" program for young, urban African American preteens found success in delaying sex for up to 24 months, but does not support the failed ab-only-until-marriage programs of the Bush era.

This article originally appeared at Advocates for Youth.

You may have seen a few newspaper articles with titles like “Abstinence-only programs might work, study says” in the past couple of days.  But are newspapers telling the whole story?  

The articles are based on a recent study by respected researchers John B. and Loretta S. Jemmott
and compare results for young people receiving three kinds of
programs:  an “abstinence-only” intervention, designed to help teens
wait until they are ready; a “combined intervention” which included
information about abstinence as well as contraception and condoms; and
a safer-sex-only intervention with no information about abstinence. 

study focused on young African American preteens in an urban area and
found that this new type of abstinence-only program can help some very
young adolescents (average age 12) delay sexual initiation for up to 24

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is important to note that the study provides no data in support of the
failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs of the Bush era

The abstinence-only program in this study would not have been eligible
for federal funding during the Bush years because it did not fit the “8
point definition.” The program goal was to help early teens avoid sex
until they are ready—a totally different objective than the federally
funded abstinence programs already proven ineffective by the long-term
Mathematica study “which showed no impact on teen behavior.”

In the Jemmotts’ own
words: “It [the abstinence-only intervention] was not designed to meet
federal criteria for abstinence-only programs. For instance, the target
behavior was abstaining from vaginal, anal, and 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.”

Public Policy Implications: Five Points to Keep in Mind

1. Almost one-quarter of the young people in the study were already sexually active when the study began
This is the problem with the “only” component of any “only-type”
program.  An abstinence-only program provides no information about
condoms and contraception even though, in this case, approximately
one-quarter of the young people in the intervention already had had

2. Previous research on virginity pledges (Bearman and
Bruckner), demonstrated that initial delays in sexual activity wore off
in the later teen years.  Half of all teens are sexually active by the age of 17 and 70 percent of youth have had sexual intercourse by age 19.  These teens need information about both abstinence and contraception.

There is good research showing that many comprehensive sex education
programs — programs that provide information about both abstinence and
contraception/condoms — are effective at helping young people delay
sexual initiation as well as at using contraception/condoms
when they do become sexually active.  Thirty years of public health
studies have clearly determined that the provision of information about
condoms and contraception does not increase sexual activity among teens
or lower the age of sexual initiation.

4. Given limited
resources, shouldn’t we invest tax payer dollars in programs that can
deliver both delay in sexual initiation and increased contraceptive and
condom use by those who are sexually active? 

Further, shouldn’t we respect young people enough to provide them with
all of the information they need to take personal responsibility for
their sexual health?

The Obama administration is on the
right track in funding only science-based programs with evidence of
effectiveness.  The administration should also consider how scarce
resources are best invested and recognize the rights of all young
people to complete, accurate and honest information about their sexual

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