Tuesday, February 2, 2010

"A New (and Improved) Abstinence Only?"

By Stacie Murphy, Policy Associate

There’s a lot of talk in the press today about a new study indicating that there’s an abstinence-only program out there that appears to actually work. I have to admit, I did a double-take when I saw the headline. Really? One of those horrible, hectoring, having-sex-makes-you-as-appealing-as-a-spit-covered-sucker programs actually works?

Well, no, in fact. The new study examines a program that wouldn’t even have been eligible for funding under the Bush Administration guidelines (although, ironically, it appears that the new Obama Administration initiative would be willing to fund an effort like this one). Unlike traditional abstinence programs, this program didn’t tell students that they should wait until marriage, just that they should wait until they were really ready to deal with sex and its consequences. It didn’t talk about sex in a negative way and didn’t sermonize about the evils of all non-marital sex. It didn’t denigrate the effectiveness of condoms and contraception; on the contrary, teachers were instructed to correct such views if students offered them. The program focused instead on increasing students’ knowledge about HIV and other STIs, helping them to consider how early sex might interfere with their future goals, and teaching them how to resist pressure to have sex when they didn’t want to. And it seems like it worked: two years after completing the program, only a third of students had become sexually active, compared with half the students in the control group.

So am I an abstinence-only convert? Of course not (although I am a certified abstinence educator). I don’t doubt that a program like this one—straightforward, nonjudgmental, and truthful—could have a real impact for some kids. But I worry that the impact is limited—the kids in this program were between 12 and 14. Will a program that works for younger teens be as effective for 16 and 17-year olds? And what about the kids who aren’t convinced by the lessons? What about the kids who were already having sex when the program started? What about the one third of kids who had sex anyway after going through the program? Do they have access to the tools and information they need to make healthy decisions about their “post-abstinence” sexuality?

I’d argue that “later is better” is a perfectly appropriate message for teens, especially very young teens, to hear about sex—and one that many comprehensive sex education advocates have been including for years. But it can’t be the only message. If the price of convincing some to abstain is leaving others totally unprotected and ill-prepared, then we’ve failed.