You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Does Abstinence-Only Education Work After All?

During the Bush years, when abstinence-only education got an unprecedented boost in federal money, many liberal critics pointed to studies showing such programs failed to delay sexual activity among teenagers and had a negative impact on condom use. But a new study released this week seemed to turn this consensus on its head, as Hanna Rosin explains on the XX Factor:    

The study reported yesterday that shows a certain abstinence curriculum to be effective was, in fact, an excellent study. Unlike previous studies, it looked at the most updated curriculum. It randomly divided students into several groups. The kids in the abstinence-focused curriculum were measurably less likely to have sex after two years….

Now for the caveats, and the contrary conclusion. First, this was an updated curriculum. It did not talk about delaying sex until marriage and it did not disparage condom use. It asked students to delay sex until they were ready, and then had them role-play strategies to resist pressure. This is different from the moralistic tone that tends to accompany some abstinence-only programs.

Second, these kids were very young—12 and 13. At this age, they tend to be less likely to have sex, anyway, and more open to such messages. “I'm not surprised that—especially among this younger group of teens—an apparently empowering message of saying no is working out OK,” says Mark Regnerus, author of Forbidden Fruit. “Not sure I'd advise a simple say-no answer when kids are 17 or 18. The developmental trajectory for sex is steep.”

Rosin goes on to argue that the findings should encourage policymakers “to be flexible and open to what the evidence says works,” perhaps considering abstinence-only curricula for younger teenagers and comprehensive sex ed for older ones who are much more likely to be sexually active. That is, we should heed what the science says rather than let disregard them out of hand, as some liberal agitators have already begun to do. But, as Rosin also notes, the danger also lies in overinterpreting the results of this carefully designed study and applying them wholesale to all teenagers in the U.S., when the abstinence-only program under review diverged significantly from many of the moralistic, wait-until-marriage programs that religious right-wingers promoted under Bush.

The Obama administration now has the opportunity to ensuring that evidence-based science will prevail over inflamed rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum. Having originally pledged a $114 million pregnancy prevention initiative, the White House proposed expanding the effort to $183 million in its new 2011 budget. Such money will “fund only programs that have been shown scientifically to work,” according to The Washington Post. While Obama had previously eliminated $170 million in federal funds for abstinence-only education, citing the earlier studies that had discredited the approach, the White House should make good on its stated promise to heed the evidence and be willing to adjust its policies to the extent that the latest science warrants.

Follow Suzy Khimm on Twitter: @SuzyKhimm