The students did participate in the
sexual abstinence programs, but did
they really abstain from sex?
According to a study authorised by
United States Congress way back in
1997, teaching teens about abstinence
is one thing and actual abstinence is
The long-awaited study showed that
students who participated in sexual
abstinence programs were just as
likely to have sex within a few years
as those who did not.
There is more. The teenagers who
attended the abstinence classes
reported having similar numbers of
sexual partners as those who did not
attend the classes, and they first had
sex at about the same age as their
‘control group’ counterparts – 14
years and nine months, according to
Mathematica Policy Research Inc.
According to Harry Wilson,
commissioner of the Family and Youth
Services Bureau at the Administration
for Children and Families, the
Congress report “confirms that these
interventions are not like vaccines.
You can’t expect one dose in middle
school, or a small dose, to be
protective all throughout the youth’s
high school career.”
Mathematica’s study included students
in four abstinence programs around the
United States as well as peers from
the same communities who did not
participate in the abstinence
The 2,057 youths came from big cities
(Miami, Florida, and Milwaukee,
Wisconsin) and from rural communities
(Powhatan, Virginia, and Clarksdale,
The students’ participation in
abstinence education lasted for one to
three years. Their average age at the
beginning of the study, back in 1999,
was 11 to 12.
Mathematica then did a follow-up
survey in late 2005 and early 2006,
when the participants’ average age was
about 16 years and 5 months. It was
found that about half of the
‘abstinence’ students and about half
from the ‘control group’ reported that
they remained abstinent.
Chris Trenholm, a senior researcher at
Mathematica who oversaw the study,
said he thinks it is a two-part story.
First, there is no evidence that the
programs increased the rate of sexual
abstinence. The second part of the
story that there was no evidence that
the programs increased the rate of
Trenholm said his second point of
emphasis was important because some
critics of abstinence programs have
contended that they lead to less
frequent use of condoms.
There are also critics who insist that
the programs, which cost the US
federal government some $176 million
annually, are inefficient.
Officials of the Bush Administration
recommended a cautious approach to the
study’s findings. They said that, out
of the four programs reviewed – among
several hundred across the United
States – some of the very first were
set up after Congress overhauled the
nation’s welfare laws in 1996.
The officials said that one lesson
they learnt from the study was that
the abstinence message should be
reinforced in subsequent years to
truly affect behavior.
There were some who praised the study.
Among them is Sarah Brown, executive
director of the National Campaign to
Prevent Teen Pregnancy, who says there
is a lot of good news here for people
who pin their hopes on abstinence-only