Sex Ed: Teaching Abstinence Is Not The Problem. “Only” Is.

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A new study suggests that the more abstinence-only sex ed is emphasized, the more likely the average 15-19 year-old girl will become pregnant.

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Photo: evmaiden

"If teens don’t learn about human reproduction, including safe sexual health practices... in school, then when should they learn it, and from whom?" ~Stanger-Hall & Hall, 2011

Teenage girls in the U.S. are 2.4 times more likely to get pregnant than teenage girls in Canada.

They are 3 times more likely to become pregnant than teenage girls in France.

6 times more likely than in the Netherlands.

Does “Abstinence-Only” Education Lead To More Pregnancies?

Abstinence-only education has been struggling to reduce teen pregnancies in the U.S. In fact, it may even be having the opposite effect. A recent study suggests that teenagers in states (such as Indiana) with abstinence-only sex education are more likely to become pregnant.

The researchers divided abstinence education into four levels: No specific mention of abstinence, covering abstinence as part of a comprehensive curriculum, promoting abstinence and not requiring information about contraception, and only teaching abstinence-only until marriage.

After accounting for factors such as socio-economic status, ethnicity, and education, abstinence-only states were found to have the highest rate of teen pregnancies (~7.3% of girls ages 15-19). The lowest rates were found in states in which abstinence is included as part of a comprehensive curriculum (~5.6%).

What About “Abstinence-Plus” Education?

Abstinence education itself does not appear to be the problem. In fact, no discussion of abstinence in sex-education may lead to higher teen pregnancy rates as well (5.9%). Regardless, the article points out that instruction on HIV, contraception, and condom use along with abstinence as the “recommended behavior” is related to the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. This is known as “Abstinence-Plus” sex education, which data suggests is more effective at reducing teen pregnancies than abstinence-only pedagogy.

What Do We Really Value?

Over 80% of adults in the U.S. support comprehensive sex education, yet federal funding continues to support abstinence-only education, and in effect, facilitate more teen pregnancies. Europe still has lower teen pregnancy rates than the states in the U.S. with the lowest rates. Teenage girls who become pregnant are less likely to receive a high school diploma or attend college.

While 80% may agree on promoting abstinence-plus sex education, many of us may still have differences in values and what constitutes moral behavior. The researchers’ discussion of the results assumes that we all value the reduction of teen pregnancies and STD rates. From that starting point we can begin to evaluate what is actually working to address this goal.

Some abstinence-only proponents may still argue that comprehensive sex education will promote teenage sexual activity. However, this does not seem to be the case: Teaching about contraception has not been found to be associated with increased risk of adolescent sexual activity or STDs (if you click on the link, remove “%20″ from the URL to make it work).

What Would You Recommend?

The article offers two recommendations for individual states: Require comprehensive sex education in public schools while still promoting abstinence “as a desired behavior,” and provide specialized training for teachers in charge of sex education. Regardless, what do YOU think? What could states, families, and individuals do to better reduce teenage pregnancies and abortions?

Adam Fisher, M.A.

is a Ph.D. student in Counseling Psychology at Indiana University. Adam's professional interests include couple & sex therapy, parent education, and working with college students. His dissertation is investigating the effects of religious belief change on romantic relationships.
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