No-sex programs fall flat among US teens

Sexual abstinence programs in the US for students have no effect, says a study.

17 April, 2007

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 another.

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 programs.

The 2,057 youths came from big cities (Miami, Florida, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin) and from rural communities (Powhatan, Virginia, and Clarksdale, Mississippi).

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 unprotected sex.

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 education.



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