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Abstinence-Only Sex Education in Schools

Is Abstinence-Only Sex Education Working?


Updated February 25, 2009

Abstinence-only sex education has recently been the prevailing way schools have been approaching sex ed. People often have strong opinions about how we as a society should be discussing sex with our teens. One way to approach sex education is through these abstinence-only programs. Between 1998 and 2003, half a billion dollars in state and federal funds were spent on abstinence-only programs that were to be presented in schools and other community-based agencies.

Still, according to the most current data, the teen pregnancy rate is on the rise. In 2006, for the first time since 1991, the teen pregnancy rate went up and not down -- a very disturbing trend. The Unites States, compared to other industrialized countries, has a very high number of teen pregnancies and a high rate of STD infection in teens.

What is Abstinence-Only Sex Education?

Title V of the Social Security Act is a federal act that defined what abstinence-only programs were to be teaching. Here is the federal definition of what an abstinence-only program could teach:

  • has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity
  • teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children
  • teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems
  • teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity
  • teaches that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects
  • teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society
  • teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances
  • teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity

Problems with Abstinence-Only Programs

As written, the topics that abstinence-only programs address appear like important things to discuss with teens. A few problems with these types of programs have been raised, however -- some that may seem like common sense, others that might be surprising.

Abstinence-only programs were not always based on fact.
Some of the misinformation presented in these programs included statements saying that pregnancy could occur by just touching someone's genitalia, or that half of gay male teens in the United States were HIV positive. Teens are savvy consumers of information. If they feel as if they are being lied to, or that the information is wrong, they will tune the message out.

Most people prefer comprehensive sex education to abstinence only programs.
According to two separate polls, only 14 to 15% of people prefer abstinence-only programs. Most adults asked preferred that teens were taught about HIV/AIDS prevention, how to use a condom and how to access other contraception. Because these programs are federally funded, it is important that programs offered to our teens reflect the majority's needs and desires.

Abstinence-only programs do not help reduce sexual behavior, teen pregnancy, or STDs transmission in teens.
The purpose of sex education is to help reduce the risky behavior and teach how to minimize the risks if sexual behavior occurs. Abstinence-only programs have not been shown to do any of the things that they aim to do. Additionally, because condoms and other contraception are not discussed, teens are continuing to have sex but are not using contraceptives. Abstinence-only programs are not only not helping, but they may be creating a generation of teens who are ignorant of how to protect themselves during sex.

Current research shows that, of people who have sex, the vast majority have pre-marital sex. Additionally, abstinence-only programs completely ignore the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual or questioning teens. At some point, most teens will likely chose to have sex with someone. It will be important for them to have the facts and the tools to protect themselves. From the most current research, it does not look like abstinence-only programs can fill this need.

Importance of the Abstinence Message

Although abstinence-only programs may not be effective, abstinence itself still has an important role to play, particularly in discussions at home. Families should continue to promote abstinence with their children. Current research suggests that parents can help to delay a teen's first sexual experience by just talking to their teen about abstinence. This is tremendously important, and parents should continue to let their teens know that they expect that the teen will not have sex. Although abstinence isn't the only answer, it is part of one.

It is important for those who determine policy related to changes in funding for sexual education to find out what kinds of programs are most effective in reducing teen sexual behavior. These are the programs that we need to fund -- for the health and well-being of our teens.


Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs: Ineffective, Unethical, and Poor Public Health. Advocates for Youth. January 3, 2009. http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/policybrief/pbabonly.htm

Five Years of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education: Assessing the Impact. Advocates for Youth. January 2, 2009. http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/stateevaluations.pdf

Santelli, John MD, MPH, Ott, Mary MD, Lyon, Maureen PhD, Rogers, Jennifer MPH, Summers, Daniel MD, Schleifer, Rebecca JD, MPH. Abstinence and abstinence-only education: A review of U.S. policies and programs. Journal of Adolescent Health 38(1)72-81.

Sieving, Renee PhD, RNC, McNeely, Clea DrPH; Blum, Robert MD, PhD. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. 2000;154:809-816.

Teen Birth Rate Rises for the First Time in Fifteen Years. Centers for Disease Control. January 3, 2009. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/07newsreleases/teenbirth.htm

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