Do Abstinence-only Programs Work?

Do studies with good evidence demonstrate that one or more abstinence-only programs actually delay sexual activity and/or reduce teen pregnancy? Are the findings about abstinence-only programs outdated?

In May of 2001, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy published a thorough review of programs designed to delay sexual activity, increase condom and contraceptive use and reduce teen pregnancy. The review stated at the time that “the evidence is not conclusive about the impact of abstinence-only programs”. The review also stated that “there do not currently exist any abstinence-only programs with reasonable strong evidence that they actually delay the initiation of sex or reduce its frequency.” This review titled, “Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy”, also suggested that “one should not conclude that all abstinence-only programs either do or do not delay sex.”

The Top Studies identified as effective abstinence-only programs were:
1. Virginity Pledge Programs. This study examined the impact of pledging to remain abstinent. It provided some evidence that sexual activity was postponed until later.

2. Not Me, Not Now. This program was a mass communications effort to promote abstinence through advertising on TV and radio, billboards, posters,and other educational materials distributed though schools, websites and the community. This program did delay sexual activity of youth aged 15 and younger, but did not have significant effect on those aged 17 and younger.

3. Operation Keepsake. This study did not measure the impact on initiation of sex for at least six months. It only measured the impact for a very short period of time (14 weeks). Findings were not statistically significant..
4. Abstinence by Choice. This study did not have pre-intervention or post-intervention data from a comparison of the same age group.

5. Virginity Pledge Movement. This study scientifically studied the impact of taking a virginity pledge on sexual behavior and pregnancy but it did not provide evidence that taking a pledge will delay the initiation of sex. It also did not include an experimental design. The study did appear to delay the onset of sex but only under certain circumstances. It did not have a significant impact on girls younger than 14 or older than 17.

6. Teen Aid, Sex Respect, and Values and Choices. This study viewed the impact of three different abstinence-only programs. The results indicated that students with the most permissive values did delay the initiation of sex but these results were not the same with all high school students. Other students with less permissive values did not delay the initiation of sexual activity.

7. Family Accountability Communicating Teen Sexuality (FACTS). This study had an inadequate evaluation design. Families volunteered for this program study group. It was concluded that these families were probably different from the families that did not volunteer.

8. Postponing Sexual Involvement (PSI). This study was done as part of an abstinence plus program. It provided some evidence that an abstinence plus program did have some effect but as an abstinence-only program the results were not promising.

9. Project Taking Charge. The study of this program showed that the initiation of sexual activity was not significant because it did not adjust for the fact that some students were assigned to treatment and control groups.

10. Teen Aid Family Life Education Project. The same data in this study was analyzed as in the previous study of Teen Aid, Sex Respect, and Values and Choices.

Out of these studies, findings were not significant to determine whether or not abstinence only programs do in fact work. These studies also did not take into consideration whether or not students had already been sexually active before these programs were introduced or if students refrained from additional sexual activity after the initiation of these programs.
According to a report in the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, “these programs so far have not proved effective in promoting abstinence or preventing STDs and unwanted pregnancy.” Problems with the accuracy of abstinence only curricula may explain why these programs have not been shown to protect youth from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Those who pledge abstinence are less likely to make informed choices when they do participate in sexual activity at a later date.

Even if abstinence only programs were found to be effective, they fail the majority of minors who will not remain abstinent by not educating them on the proper use of contraception and protection against disease. Teaching abstinence only could be like a driver’s education course where the students are shown horrific pictures of traffic accidents but not told to stop at red lights or use their seat belt. Young people need a broad curriculum with reliable information on contraception and protection from STD’s.

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