Abstinence-Only Sex Education May Do More Harm Than Good

Silhouette of young coupleAbstinence-only sex education may increase rates of unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), according to an analysis published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. The study also found abstinence-only programs promote harmful gender stereotypes, ignore the needs of sexual minorities, and may violate teens’ basic rights.

Previous research supports the conclusion that abstinence-only sex education does not work and may be harmful. A 2011 study found states with abstinence-only programs have higher rates of teen pregnancy. Other previous research found adolescent girls who take a “virginity pledge” are more likely to contract human papillomavirus (HPV) and have unintended pregnancies.

A 2009 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analysis of 23 abstinence-only programs found inconclusive evidence that the programs work.

How Abstinence-Only Sex Education Harms Adolescents

The study reviewed data on abstinence-only sex education dating back to 2006. Researchers also gathered data on sex education between 1995 and 2013 from the National Survey of Family Growth. Twenty-six states require sex education programs to stress the importance of abstinence. Nineteen require teaching that sex should only occur within marriage.

According to the study, as abstinence-only sex education became more popular, access to comprehensive information about sex and sexuality declined. From 1995-2013, rates of formal instruction on birth control declined. Eighty-one percent of adolescent males and 87% of adolescent females received such instruction in 1995. By 2011-2015, the figure had plummeted to 55% of teen boys and 60% of teen girls.

The data suggest abstinence-only programs may ignore, or even harm, sexual minorities. Eight states either require negative information about sexual orientation or forbid teaching about sexual orientation altogether.

Most abstinence-only programs primarily discuss heterosexual relationships, often in a context of rigid gender roles. The study found these programs highlight female passivity and male aggression. These stereotypes may harm adolescents, and previous research suggests they discourage the use of contraceptives when teens do decide to have sex.

Effects of Abstinence-Only Sex Education

A 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office found little oversight of abstinence-only programs. Consequently, these programs often contained factual errors. The study’s authors say this raises concerns about violations of teens’ basic human rights, as inaccurate health information can endanger teens.

The study found no evidence that abstinence-only programs delay the age at which teens first have sex, reduce the number of sexual partners teens have, or encourage safer sexual behavior. Instead, abstinence-only programs can discourage teens from using condoms and other contraceptives.


  1. Bersamin, M. M., Walker, S., Waiters, E. D., Fisher, D. A., & Grube, J. W. (2005). Promising to wait: Virginity pledges and adolescent sexual behavior. Journal of Adolescent Health,36(5), 428-436. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2004.09.016
  2. Congress closer to finalizing funding. (2017, May). Retrieved from http://www.siecus.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=Feature.showFeature&FeatureID=2474
  3. HIV/AIDS, other STIs and teen pregnancy: Group-based abstinence education interventions for adolescents. (2009, June). Retrieved from https://www.thecommunityguide.org/findings/hivaids-other-stis-and-teen-pregnancy-group-based-abstinence-education-interventions
  4. Santelli, J. (2017, August 21). Abstinence-only education doesn’t work. We’re still funding it. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2017/08/21/abstinence-only-education-doesnt-work-were-still-funding-it/?utm_term=.2920552b3052
  5. Santelli, J. S., Kantor, L. M., Grilo, S. A., Speizer, I. S., Lindberg, L. D., Heitel, J., . . . Ott, M. A. (2017). Abstinence-only-until-marriage: An updated review of U.S. policies and programs and their impact. Journal of Adolescent Health, 61(3), 273-280. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.05.031
  6. Stanger-Hall, K. F., & Hall, D. W. (2011). Abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates: Why we need comprehensive sex education in the U.S. PLOS ONE, 6(10). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024658

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  • kYm

    August 29th, 2017 at 3:22 PM

    Programs like this are setting our children up for failure! While I would love to believe that my children will wait until marriage or at least until their first real adult committed relationship to have sex, I know that it is very likely that it will not happen.
    I’ve been there, I remember the pressure and how hard it is to say no all the time.
    I at least would like to know that they have been educated about what their options are and if they DO decide to have sex then they know and feel confident about the steps that they need to take to be safe.

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