With U.S. teen pregnancy rates soaring above every developed country in the world and up to half of the annual 18.9 million new STD cases occurring in 15 to 24 year-olds, most agree on the importance of sex education. What everyone can’t agree on is the method.
The split of opinion lies between teaching an abstinence-only sex education and a comprehensive sex education. In a national survey, roughly 58 percent of principals in public secondary schools describe their sex education as comprehensive and roughly 34 percent report an abstinence-only sex education.
The difference between the two approaches is that comprehensive sex education promotes abstinence, while also providing teens with information about birth control and safe sex practices, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive health organization.
Abstinence-only programs, on the other hand, teach abstinence as the only way to truly remain safe from sex. Any information regarding birth control or safe sex is excluded, except when it comes to failure rates with various contraceptives. A common supplement to abstinence-only programs is the virginity pledge. Some groups estimate that approximately 2.5 to 3 million young people have pledged abstinence until marriage.
But how effective are these abstinence-only programs and these virginity pledges?
A recent study conducted by Janet Elise Rosenbaum yet again compares the sexual behavior between teens who take abstinence pledges and teens who don’t. She found that after five years of taking the pledge, 82 percent of the virginity pledgers deny having ever pledged and ultimately, there was no difference between the two groups in terms of sexual activity or sexually transmitted diseases. However, pledgers were less likely to use contraceptives, such as condoms, and Rosenbaum writes this may be because many abstinence-only programs disparage the effectiveness of contraceptives.
Her study was based off a nationally representative sample of teenagers under the age of 15 who, in 1995, had either taken the virginity pledge or claimed to have never had sex. The virginity pledgers were then compared to non-pledgers five years later in terms of self-reported sexual behavior and positive results for various STDs.
Virginity pledgers were often more religious, coming from religious families and were disproportionately female.
Denny Pattyn, founder and president of Silver Ring Thing, disagrees with the study’s findings.
“There are several problems with the data,” Pattyn said. “Not all abstinence pledges are the same; some are more informally done while others are followed up for accountability and Rosenbaum just clumps them all together.“
The data Rosenbaum uses for her study collected from the organization True Love Waits is more than 10 years old, he said.
“We don’t do abstinence because it works, we do abstinence because it’s the truth,” he said.
But Heather Boonstra, senior public policy associate of the Guttmacher Institute says that the lack of information abstinence-only education provides regarding birth control and safe sex is dangerous for teens.
“Comprehensive programs are simply a way to provide them a fullness of information teens need,” she said.
“I think that comprehensive sex education proponents don’t see sex as necessarily a problem,” she said. “We see the problem as unprotected or coerced sex. But sex in itself outside of marriage is fine, whereas I think the abstinence-only proponents feel very differently about that.“
Federal funding has provided billions of dollars to abstinence-only programs since 1996, and while most major scientific and public health communities have criticized abstinence-only programs as being ineffective, federal funding for abstinence-only programs have increased from $73 million in 2001 to $204 million in 2008.
HELEN ZOU can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.