Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

05/20/2009 (2:11 pm)

Abstinence Ed Outperforms Comprehensive Sex Ed

In a survey of more than 100 studies covering the past 20 years of research in the social sciences, the Institute for Research and Evaluation concluded that “…when measured by the same standards of effectiveness, comprehensive sex education programs in America’s classrooms do not show more evidence of success than abstinence education programs.” Quite the contrary, in fact: when the criteria applied to the programs include measurements of changed behavior lasting more than a year following teens’ program participation, practically none of the comprehensive sex education (CSE) programs produced any measurable change, whereas at least three of the abstinence programs sustained significant reduction in teen sexual activity more than a year after the teens finished the program.

Significant findings from the comprehensive survey of the literature included the following:

  • No school-based CSE programs had been shown to increase the number of teens who used condoms consistently for more than 3 months.
  • No school-based CSE programs demonstrated a decrease in teen pregnancy or STD rates for any subgroup for any period of time.
  • No school-based CSE programs demonstrated that they had increased both teen abstinence and condom use (by the sexually active) for the target population for any time period.

By contrast to these results, school-based abstinence education programs produced the following results:

  • Three recent peer-reviewed studies of school-based abstinence education found significant reductions in sexual activity for the target population of program participants. Two of the programs, Heritage Keepers and Reasons of the Heart, reduced the number of teens who became sexually active by about one-half, 12 months after the program. A third abstinence program, Making a Difference, produced significant reductions in teen sexual activity 24 months after the program.
  • In Emerging Answers 2007 one study of school-based abstinence education found a significant delay in the onset of teen sexual intercourse for the target population of middle school students, 18 months after the program.
  • Several studies have also found that abstinence education did not decrease condom use for teens who later became sexually active.

The last finding is crucial because the usual argument raised against abstinence education is that it leaves kids ignorant of responsible condom use. That’s always seemed ridiculous to me. I would guess that if you surveyed 1,000 middle school kids, you wouldn’t find a single one that didn’t know what a condom was, or how and when to use it; and if you did find such a kid, it would be one of those least likely to actually need the knowledge for the next decade. Hell, I knew how to use condoms at that age, and that was 1966!

The survey disputes commonly-reported findings suggesting that abstinence education produces no effect, while comprehensive sex education does produce positive effects.

From the IRE press release:

Since the purported advantage of CSE is that these programs can increase both abstinence and condom use (among the sexually active), IRE examined whether there were programs that succeeded at both. While 44% of the CSE studies showed improvement in abstinence, there weren’t any school-based CSE programs that demonstrated increases in both abstinence and condom use for the target population (two had subgroup effects), thus showing no real advantage over abstinence programs.

IRE then analyzed these school-based programs according to what it considered to be more meaningful standards of effectiveness: 1) Did the program increase teen abstinence or consistent condom use? 2) Did this behavior change occur for the target population and not just for a subgroup of students? 3) Did the effect last at least one year, that is, from one school year to the next? Applying these criteria, IRE found that a higher percent of school-based abstinence programs were effective than CSE programs: 36% vs. 25%.

This review contradicts recent claims made in Time, Newsweek, and a Congressional letter circulated by Rep. Paul Hodes (D-New Hampshire) that abstinence education has failed while comprehensive sex education has been successful. Dr. Weed expressed surprise that the lack of evidence of CSE success in schools had not been reported: “Research evidence does not support the widespread distribution of comprehensive sex education in the schools or the elimination of abstinence education as a viable prevention strategy.”

The survey suffers from the relatively small number of studies analyzing abstinence education programs; however, the studies that were available were peer-reviewed and published in scholarly journals. A survey by the Heritage Foundation of at least 10 studies showing positive results from abstinence education can be found here.

Personally, I found the emphasis on condom use disappointing. Condoms are notoriously weak at preventing pregnancy among the young (their effectiveness increases with the age of the participants), and they don’t do much at all to prevent the spread of disease. Perhaps I should not be surprised — researchers frequently sport agendas, just like anybody else — but I found it disturbing how many of the studies purporting to measure the effectiveness of sex education programs did not even bother to examine the rates of pregnancy or incidence of sexually-transmitted disease; they simply assumed that condom use would take care of all that. Studies of abstinence education made a similar assumption — those who abstain would not get pregnant or contract an STD — but they’ve got a somewhat better case for that assumption.

It appears to me that the American press and social progressives generally cannot be trusted on any topic that involves the choice to engage in sexual contact whenever and however the individual chooses. On all topics touching this arena, the press, staffed as it is almost entirely by social progressives, routinely reports fiction to mask the astoundingly dire consequences of sexual licentiousness. Folks who rely on the press believe that gays are just straights with a binary switch turned the other way, homosexuality is caused by genes, abortion is a harmless procedure with no serious side-effects, there’s no way to stop kids from engaging in rampant sexuality, there are no serious health consequences from early sexual activity, condoms actually help prevent the spread of STDs, and sex ed classes train kids to engage in sex responsibly. All of the above are urban myths, the new fantasy world of the American libertine culture. Not one of those statements stands after reviewing the relevant research, of which there is plenty. And yet, incredibly, the folks who have bought all these myths, actually believe they’re supported by sound research.

There may be no way to stop all teen sex, but we certainly prevented a lot of it by constructing a culture in which it was taken for granted that well-behaved kids waited until they were ready to marry. The fact that the 1960s culture did not engage in anything within several orders of magnitude of the current level of teen sexuality is proved by the incredibly low numbers of teen pregnancies and of venereal diseases in the 1960s culture, when compared to modern statistics.

Make no mistake; it makes a difference if you tell your kids consistently that they’re not ready for sex, and that they should refrain until they are. It’s not an instant cure-all, and it’s not the only thing you have to do, but doing it makes a difference.

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