Abstinence-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.
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.
- 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
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- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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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