Reuters Health is reporting that abstinence-only sex education can work – if it’s based on established strategies for helping young people change their attitudes about other types of risky behavior like smoking and drinking, stunning new research shows.
Dr. David Stevens, CEO of the 16,000-member Christian Medical Association, released a statement calling this a “landmark study.”
“Science has finally caught up with logic and what parents have known for centuries by empirically demonstrating that equipping teens to abstain from sexual activity is an effective way to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”
The National Abstinence Education Association has noted, “A survey from Zogby International showing that when parents become aware of what abstinence education vs. comprehensive sex education actually teaches, support for abstinence programs jumps from 40% to 60%, while support for comprehensive programs drops from 50% to 30%. And 59% of parents said more funding should go to abstinence education; 22% said more should go to comprehensive sex education.”
Dr. Stevens added, “It is notable that John B. Jemmott III, the University of Pennsylvania professor who led the federally funded study, candidly admitted, ‘I think we’ve written off abstinence-only education without looking closely at the nature of the evidence.'”
Dr. Stevens explained, “What we should learn from this experience is that while science itself is objective, scientists themselves can be biased and can mislead the public and policy makers.
Dr. Stevens added, “Many groups and individuals up until yesterday had relentlessly railed against abstinence programs as totally ineffective, even counterproductive. They had used their own studies to convince many legislators, including President Obama, to eliminate federal funding for abstinence programs altogether, in the process depriving teens and their parents from a potent resource that can mean a lifesaving difference.
“It turns out that when it comes to educating their children on matters of sex, Mom and Dad really do know best.”
Conservative writer Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation also commented on the new report at National Review.
While abstinence helped students, he wrote: “By contrast, safe sex (promoting only contraceptive use) and comprehensive sex ed (teaching both abstinence and contraceptive use) programs didn’t affect youth behavior at all. Students in these programs showed no reduction in sexual activity and no increase in contraceptive use, in either the short or long term.”
“Employing state-of-the-art evaluation techniques, the study used random assignment to place students into four groups: a group that received instruction solely in abstinence; a safe-sex group instructed in contraceptive use; a comprehensive, or mixed message, group taught both abstinence and contraceptive use; and a control group that received health education unrelated to sex,” he noted.
Students in the abstinence program were one third less likely to initiate sexual activity when compared to students in the other three groups. They also were not less likely to use condoms if they did become sexually active.
“By contrast, safe sex and comprehensive sex-ed classes had no effect on student behavior; students in these classes did not reduce sexual activity nor increase contraceptive use when compared to the control group,” Rector said.
The study was conducted by Drs. John and Loretta Jemmott of the University of Pennsylvania.
“Prior to the current study, there had been 15 scientific evaluations of abstinence education, 11 of which had shown that abstinence programs were effective in reducing sexual activity,” Rector noted. “However, the new Jemmott study is the first evaluation showing positive results which employed full random assignment. As a result, it cannot be dismissed on methodological grounds.”
According to a report in Reuters Health, African-American sixth- and seventh-graders who completed the eight-hour program, which involved a series of brief activities and games (and no lecturing), were one-third less likely to start having sex in the next two years compared to their peers who took part in a similar program that targeted health issues unrelated to sex.
“The evidence is solid, and it’s new, because this has never been done before,” says Dr. John B. Jemmott III of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who helped conduct the new study and design the intervention, along with his wife Dr. Loretta S Jemmott and their colleague Dr. Geoffrey T. Fong of the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
Despite the massive amounts of money the United States has poured into promoting abstinence-until-marriage programs, there have been only a handful of flawed studies investigating the effectiveness of such programs, the investigators note.
These federally supported programs – initiated during the Clinton years at the behest of Congress – follow a series of guidelines focusing on the importance of abstaining from sex until marriage, and underscoring the allegedly harmful physical and psychological effects of premarital sex and out-of-wedlock childbirth.
“They’re not based on an understanding of the motivation of children to have sex or to practice abstinence, and that’s what this intervention was based on,” John Jemmott said.
He and his colleagues designed their program using techniques proven to help adolescents avoid risky behaviors like cigarette smoking, drinking and drug use.
Classes were conducted in groups of six to 12 children, with activities that included listing the pros and cons of abstinence versus the pros and cons of having sex.
“This activity is in the context of a whole intervention that begins with a consideration of what are their goals and dreams for the future, where do they see themselves five years from now, where do they see themselves 10 years from now,” Jemmott explained.
These and similar activities, he said, help young people realize on their own that abstinence is likely to be the better choice. Other activities included role-playing and games designed to help participants understand and resist peer pressure.
Jemmott and his team assigned 662 children to this program; an eight-hour “safer sex only” program designed to promote condom use; an eight- or 12-hour intervention combining both approaches; or a control group in which children underwent an eight-hour educational program on health issues unrelated to sex.
Among the 132 boys and girls who completed the abstinence-only program, about a third said they started having sex within the following 24 months, compared to half of the 129 control group participants. Around 20 percent of the abstinence-only group reported having sex during the past three months, compared to around 30 percent of the control group.
One criticism leveled at abstinence-until-marriage programs is that they discourage condom use and put kids at greater risk of sexually transmitted disease if they do decide to have sex, Jemmott said. But the current study found no evidence that the abstinence-only program had any effect on condom use. Students who participated in the comprehensive programs were slightly less likely than control group participants to report having multiple partners.
Getting young people to hold off on having sex can have major beneficial consequences down the road, Jemmott noted; it reduces their risk of contracting sexually transmitted disease and getting pregnant, while the older someone is when they do have sex for the first time, the more likely they will be to use contraceptives.