Science Says Abstinence-Only Programs and Policies Are Failing

The debate surrounding abstinence-only education for tweens and teens is a divisive one—but if new research is any indication, many experts are on one side. 
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Abstinence-only sexual education policies and programs have definitely become political touchstones, with both sides passionately defending their beliefs. But with all the debate surrounding this approach, it's easy to forget that this issue isn't just a political one—it also has some undeniable health implications. And while we imagine there will never be a total consensus, recent research falls squarely on one side of the argument. 

Abstinence-only programs are not effective, according to findings, which appear in the Journal of Adolescent Health. In fact, programs of this nature don't appear to delay the age of sexual initiation or decrease odds of risky sexual behaviors. 

The researchers studied previously collected data to come to this finding, which is based on both research and expert opinion. According to Columbia University researchers, abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs pose both scientific and ethical issues. 

It's undeniable that many Americans are having sex before marriage: According to the findings, females are sexually active for 8.7 years, on average, before they get married, while males are usually sexually initiated 11.7 years before marriage. This news may make many uncomfortable, but abstinence-only education represents steps back for issues like family planning and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. 

Can't talk about the birds and the bees? Betsy Brown Braun, author of "Just Tell Me What to Say," gives you the matter-of-fact ways to talk about sex.

“Young people have a right to sex education that gives them the information and skills they need to stay safe and healthy,” Leslie Kantor, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School of Public Health and vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a release for this news. “Withholding critical health information from young people is a violation of their rights. Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs leave all young people unprepared and are particularly harmful to young people who are sexually active, who are LGBTQ, or have experienced sexual abuse.”

Again, we imagine public attitudes towards abstinence-only focus will never completely align, but this research was based on a combination of extensive scientific research and input from experts in the field. For those reasons, it may be worth reconsidering our recent departure from a more comprehensive approach to sex ed.

"Many AOUM programs reinforce gender stereotypes about female passivity and male aggressiveness. Rigid gender beliefs and gender power imbalance are associated with risky sexual health behaviors including reduced likelihood of condom and contraceptive use. In contrast, programs that critique gender norms and gender-based power imbalances positively impact sexual and reproductive health knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, and health outcomes," the authors wrote in the abstract for this research. "AOUM programs ignore the realities of adolescents who have experience of sexual abuse or exploitation. These young people cannot easily choose abstinence and may be made to feel guilty for their experiences rather than supported by the education and health care systems."

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