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Abstinence-Only Education: Just As Much Sex, But With Less Condom Use

In theory, abstinence from any and all sexual activity is the best way to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancies. Also, in theory, barricading yourself in the library for all four years of college is your best chance to get good grades. Most likely, however, if someone suggested this strategy for academic excellence to you as your only option to do well in school you would roll your eyes and then look for someone who could provide you with more feasible study tips – like how to form a study group or how to take effective notes.

Like expecting a student to be a library hermit, I have always felt that abstinence-only education was unrealistic and misguided. And Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health agrees. A recent study by John Hopkins researcher Janet Rosenbaum, Ph.D., concludes that teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until their wedding night are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not. Moreover, pledgers in the study were less likely to take precautions against STIs and unwanted pregnancies than a peer control group with similar backgrounds who did not make a pledge. Only 24% of the students who had previously made a virginity pledge reported consistent condom use while the control group’s consistent usage was 10 points higher at 34%.

And frankly, why should we be surprised about these statistics when abstinence-only education curriculum often contains incorrect, limited or misleading information about contraceptives and condoms? For example, one curriculum states “Condoms provide no proven reduction in protection against Chlamydia, the most common bacterial STD.” (Choosing the Best PATH, Leader Guide, pg. 18). This is statement is wrong; barrier methods, such as condoms, are 98% effective in preventing most STIs with perfect use and 85% effective with average use. The risk with Chlamydia is that if it goes undetected in a woman she can get pelvic inflammatory disease that can lead to infertility. But abstinence-only education means just that – that students only receive information about abstaining from sex. Abstinence- only educators assume 100% compliance; that students who pledge to remain virgins until marriage do not need information about how to get tested for STIs because they will never have sex with any one other than their virgin spouse. Yet in fact Rosenbaum’s study found that pledgers and non-pledgers have a similar average of sexual partners. And even if the pledgers were to abstain until marriage, they still might want to have some information about spacing and timing pregnancies through the use of contraceptives.

To date, the federal government has spent over one billion dollars of taxpayers’ money to fund abstinence-only education, a sexual health program that does not work and in fact does a disservice for those who receive it. We need to hold our government responsible for this gross mismanagement of funds and expect that they should re-distribute this funding stream towards best-practice public health programs such as comprehensive sexual education.

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  1. This is exactly right, and has been proven to be problematic. This is not to say that abstinence isn’t an important option to promote, it just needs to be taught as part of a more comprehensive approach to sex education, so that young people don’t fall through the cracks if they fail to remain abstinent until marriage. Our government does indeed need to wise up if they intend to actually slow the transmission of STDs, and improve sexual health among young people. Until then, don’t be stupid! Not knowing is bad enough; don’t be one who knows and doesn’t do the right thing.

  2. Great post, Melanie!

    I thought I read recently that a few brave states are refusing funding earmarked for abstinence-only education. Do you know which states those are? And further, what happens to the money they refuse? Is that simply divided amongst accepting states? Or does it eventually find it’s way to more worthwhile causes?

    Of course when I say “worthwhile causes,” I mean causes I believe to be a better option. But in such a diverse country, any education program is likely to ruffle someone’s feathers somewhere. I know California has adopted an “opt out” option that allows parents to remove their children from a lesson they feel conflicts with their religious or moral priorities. Do you think this is something that should be implemented on a federal level? Couldn’t that further polarize us as a nation, by creating differences in knowledge bases on top of differences in values?

    Thanks in advance for your research and response, and I look forward to your next blog post!