Abstinence-Only Education Fails Teens

A 2006 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that 95 percent of Americans reported having premarital sex by age 44. In fact, according to survey data, premarital sex has been the norm in this country since at least the 1940s.

The average age at first sex has declined over the past few decades to 17. By age 22-24, 89 percent of men and 92 percent of women have already had sex. Meanwhile, the average age at first marriage has increased—to 28.7 for males and 26.5 for females. Young adults—on average—now have about ten years between becoming sexually active and getting married.

Until recently, the only sex education programs that received federal funding were ineffective abstinence-only programs. Fortunately, beginning in 2011, the majority of federal funds now goes to programs emphasizing the benefits of abstinence while also equipping students with information about safe sex and contraception.

Derek Dye, a.k.a. Derek the Abstinence Clown. According to LinkedIn, Mr. Dye’s educational training for his role as abstinence educator was a Bachelor of Fun Arts from the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College. Photo: Feministe

What Doesn’t Work: Abstinence-only

After spending $1.5 billion on abstinence-only programs over the past 15 years, there is no evidence that they have reduced teen pregnancy. Indeed, a number of evaluations of federally funded programs show exactly the opposite—that they have been a colossal waste of money, or worse, that they have actually done harm. A number of surveys and investigations have found that abstinence-only programs are rife with inaccuracies and trite slogans. Many programs portray offensive, outdated gender stereotypes as scientific fact, grossly exaggerate contraceptive failure rates, and provide incorrect information on how sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, are spread.

For example, one curriculum that received federal funds compared the use of condoms to a game of Russian Roulette— implying not only that condoms have a high failure rate (they don’t, if used properly), but also that condom use can lead to death. Another program used “Derek the Abstinence Clown” to demonstrate that using condoms is like taking one’s chances lying under machetes being juggled overhead. A third program informed students that “men tend to be more tuned in to what is happening today and what needs to be done for the future,” while women are “not as concerned” about preparing for the future.

The federal agency responsible for distributing millions of dollars each year to these programs had no system in place for ensuring that the information being propagated was accurate. The agency simply prohibited the inclusion of any information about the benefits of birth control in preventing unwanted pregnancy and/ or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Mention of contraceptives was only permitted in a negative context, to incite fear.

A study by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. found that students of abstinence-only programs were just as likely to have unprotected sex, to initiate sex at the same age, and to have as many sexual partners as students not in the programs. In fact, not a single abstinence-only program showed success in increasing abstinence among teens. Instead, between 2001 and 2007, the period during which the highest levels of federal funding were spent on abstinence-only programs, the percentage of sexually active (i.e. had sex during the three months before the survey) high school students increased from 33.4 percent to 35 percent. During the same time, the percentage of teens who had ever had sex increased from 45.6 percent to 47.8 percent.

Meanwhile, the percentage of sexually active teens using condoms decreased from 63 percent to 61.5 percent between 2003 and 2007. John Santelli, chairman of the Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University, said in 2008, “Since we’ve started pushing abstinence, we have seen no change in the numbers on sexual activity. The other piece of it is abstinence education spends a good amount of time bashing condoms. So it’s not surprising, if that’s the message young people are getting, that we’re seeing condom use start to decrease.”

In a 2004 Kaiser Foundation poll, 95 percent of parents of middle school students believed contraception was “an appropriate topic” for school sex education. Therefore, besides being at odds with research demonstrating their ineffectiveness, abstinence-only programs also contradict public opinion.

Virginity Pledges

In the real world, intentions to remain abstinent almost always fail. Dr. Janet Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins University found that 82 percent of young people who take “virginity pledges” break them before getting married, and most later deny that they ever made such a promise.

Because most have never been given comprehensive, unbiased information about other ways to protect themselves against unwanted pregnancy and STIs, pledgers are far less likely to use condoms or other contraceptives than their non-pledging peers. They are also more likely to have anal and oral sex than peers who do not take virginity pledges.

Teen Pregnancy in the U.S.

The United States has the highest rate of teen pregnancy and birth in the industrialized world. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 750,000 young women between the ages of 15 and 19 become pregnant each year. Eighty-two percent of those pregnancies are unintended. More than a quarter of them end in abortion.

In 2006, the teen birth rate increased by 3 percent, after a 14-year decline. In 2007, the rate went up another 1 percent. National data show that 26 states saw their rates rise, with the highest increases in the South and Southwest regions of the country, where abstinence-only programs are most popular. Since 2008, the teen birth rate has resumed its descent. In 2010, the rate dropped to a historic low—34.3 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19*—a total of 367,752 births. According to the CDC, “If the teen birth rates observed in 1991 had not declined through 2010 as they did, there would have been an estimated 3.4 million additional births to teens during 1992–2010.”

Although our teen birth rate is once again trending downward, it is still unacceptably high. In 2010, 77 percent of births to teens were unintended. If all unintended births to teens were prevented, the U.S. teen birth rate would be just 9.2 per 1,000.

What Works: Comprehensive Sex Education

A report in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that comprehensive sex education is most effective at preventing pregnancy. While abstinence-only programs did not show any clear signs of preventing pregnancy or delaying sexual intercourse, teens were 60 percent less likely to get pregnant or get someone else pregnant if they received comprehensive sex education. The researchers also debunked the myths that comprehensive sex education encourages teens to engage in earlier sexual intercourse and raises rates of pregnancy and STIs.

California is the only state that has never accepted abstinence-only funding. Between 1992 and 2005, it saw the largest decrease in teen pregnancy in the country—a 52 percent decline, versus a national decline of 37 percent. This trend has continued, and in 2010 the state’s teen birth rate had dropped to a record low of 29. “The continuing decline in teen birth rates underscores the importance of teen pregnancy prevention programs in California,” said Dr. Chapman. “We must continue our work to achieve yet another milestone next year.”

South Carolina is currently the only state that mandates that a certain number of hours—12.5 to be exact—be spent teaching sex education. Thanks in part to policies like the Comprehensive Health Education Act, which do not limit teachers to an abstinence-only curriculum, the teen birth rate in the state fell 26 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Researchers and doctors in Milwaukee attribute the decline in the local teen birth rate—which in 2010 hit its lowest level since 1979—to awareness-raising campaigns and more accessible contraceptives. However, this success is now jeopardized by a state law that requires sex education programs to promote marriage and abstinence, and permits abstinenceonly programs in schools.

In a 2006 survey, 29 percent of teens stated that they had not had a helpful discussion with their parents about delaying sex and avoiding pregnancy. More recent studies report that over 40 percent of young people had sexual intercourse before talking to their parents about safe sex, birth control, or STIs. For teens who do not learn about safe sex at home, comprehensive sex education programs are a critical resource.

Current Federal Funding Streams

The Obama Administration has been largely opposed to abstinence-only programs. Its 2010 budget proposal effectively eliminated $177 million in funding for abstinence-only programs, and instead appropriated $114.5 million to the new Teen Pregnancy Prevention Initiative (TPPI), which allocates funding to programs proven to be effective at reducing teen pregnancy. To qualify, programs must “reduce teenage pregnancy, behavioral risks underlying teenage pregnancy, or other associated risk factors.” Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. reviewed over 190 existing sex education programs and found only 28 that met the new criteria for funding under TPPI.

With TPPI, two funding streams for abstinence-only programs were completely eliminated (Community-Based Abstinence Education and the Adolescent Family Life Act). Unfortunately, a third stream, Title V, was renewed with the Affordable Care Act at a level of $50 million for each of five years (2010-2014). Title V, which targets low-income students, funds programs that teach, among other things, that sexual activity outside marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects. However, it is unlikely that the full $50 million will be claimed, as more states and school districts are unwilling to waste time and money on abstinenceonly gimmicks. In FY 2011, $37.6 million was granted to 37 states and Puerto Rico. The unclaimed funds were fed back into comprehensive sex education programs for youth in foster care.

With the Affordable Care Act, Congress also created the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), which is the first comprehensive sex education federal funding stream. Like Title V, PREP spans a period of five years (2010–2014), but the levels are higher, at $75 million per year. A total of $44.2 million in PREP grants was awarded to 46 states plus DC, Micronesia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands in 2010.

* Teen birth rate: The number of births to women aged 15–19 per 1,000 women aged 15–19.

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