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Abstinence Ed Doesn’t Help or Hurt; Comprehensive Sex Ed Doesn’t Work Either

John on May 2, 2007 at 4:29 pm

A couple weeks ago a study was released which claimed to prove that abstinence education didn’t work. I didn’t have time to look at it when it was published. I also missed the responses that came out. So consider this my attempt to catch up and catch you up in case you missed it as well.

First up, Dawn Eden wrote a piece responding for NRO:

The case is closed! “Abstinence classes don’t work.” newspapers this weekend declared. Not so fast. Had anyone not in Planned Parenthood’s thrall analyzed the report, they would have discovered something far more important: If the data is to be believed, sex education doesn’t work.

Buried in the Associated Press account of the federally funded report by Mathematica Policy Research, which analyzed only four out of the hundreds of abstinence-only programs, is this striking observation from Chris Trenholm, who oversaw the study:”I really do think it’s a two-part story. First, there is no evidence that the programs increased the rate of sexual abstinence. However, the second part of the story that I think is equally important is that we find no evidence that the programs increased the rate of unprotected sex.”

Dawn goes on to explain that one of the key claims made by those in favor of “comprehensive sex education” (read: the condoms for kids corps) is the claim that by not teaching kids how to “protect themselves” we were irresponsibly abetting an increase in teen pregnancy and disease. Therefore the only responsible thing to do is break out the condoms and bananas. But according to this widely circulated meta-study, abstinence education is not making things better or worse. Of course this half of the story didn’t appear in headlines.

There are also questions about the breadth of the study itself. As Jennifer Morse notes, there’s a lot more information out there, much of which demonstrates that “comprehensive sex ed” is no more effective than abstinence based classes:

A 2002 study published in the British Medical Journal examined 26 programmes that included school based programmes, multi-faceted programmes, family planning and clinic based programmes, as well as abstinence programmes in the US and Canada. The results: “The interventions did not delay initiation of sexual intercourse in young women or young men, did not improve the use of birth control at every intercourse, or at last intercourse for either men or women, did not reduce pregnancy rates in young women.”

Another study of a very well-designed and well-delivered sex-ed programme in Scotland was also published in the BMJ. The result: “When the intervention group was compared with the conventional sex education group, there were no differences in sexual activity or sexual risk taking by the age of 16 years.”

Then there is Douglas Kirby’s 2001 survey of over 300 programmes of all sorts. “Most studies of school-based and school-linked health centers revealed no effect on student sexual behavior or contraceptive use.”

Finding programmes that don’t work is not very difficult. Programmes based in schools, whether of the sex-ed or abstinence variety, do not work very well at reducing teen pregnancy. Adults coming into the classroom and yammering about sex, whether for it or agin’ it, just do not have much impact on teens.

So it appears that school based sex-ed of all kinds simply doesn’t change kids behavior. So if that type of sex ed doesn’t work, what does?

We know from other kinds of studies that the biggest protective factors for delaying teen sex are married parents and religious observance. Some of the sex-ed studies confirm this by showing that within their little samples, family composition, parental supervision, parental expectations for behavior are among the biggest protective factors. In other words, what is going on at home completely dwarfs anything that is going on at school. As Dr Trevor Stammers, a wise British commentator put it: “Much teenage sex has little do with sex itself, but is connected with searching for meaning, identity and belonging.”

That is why some of the more successful programmes include substantial after school and community-based components. The Best Friends abstinence programme, for instance, is not a classroom-based curriculum. It promotes abstinence among teens from inner-city school districts by fostering self-respect and sound decision-making. It includes mentoring for at least 45 minutes a week, group discussions every three weeks, role model presentation, and enrollment in fitness and dance classes. It has had great success at reducing teen pregnancy both at the middle school and high school levels.

Some successful programmes don’t even talk about sex. Douglas Kirby again: “One group of effective programs were service learning programs. These programs include voluntary or unpaid service in the community (eg, tutoring, working as a teachers’ aide or working in nursing homes) and structured time for preparation and reflection before, during and after service, (e.g. group discussions, journal writing or papers). …(S)tudies, have consistently indicated that service learning either delays sexual activity or reduces teenage pregnancy.

A solid family and service-oriented community involvement. Sounds to me like the best bet for parents to help their kids avoid the hazards of teen promiscuity is to get involved in a good church.

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Category: Marriage & Family |

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