Abstinence-only sex education

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Laura Bush with an AIDS orphan at a center in Zambia that promotes abstinence and faith for youth.

Abstinence education is a form of sex education that teaches abstinence from sex. This type of sex education promotes sexual abstinence until marriage and avoids discussion of use of contraceptives. Comprehensive sex education, by contrast, covers the use of contraceptives as well as abstinence.

The topic is controversial in the United States, with proponents of abstinence-only education claiming that it discourages premarital sexual activity, and critics arguing that abstinence-only education is religiously motivated and that the approach has been proven ineffective and even detrimental to its own aims.


Abstinence education teaches children to abstain from sex as the only certain method of avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and that abstinence until marriage is a standard by which to live. In the U.S., states may apply for federal funding of abstinence-only sex education programs. To be eligible for funding programs must satisfy requirements given under the Social Security Act:[1]

(2) For purposes of this section, the term "abstinence education" means an educational or motivational program which—

(A) has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;
(B) teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children;
(C) teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;
(D) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;
(E) teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;
(F) teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society;
(G) teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances; and
(H) teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.


Proponents of abstinence-only sex education argue that this approach is superior to comprehensive sex education because it emphasizes the teaching of morality that limits sex to that within the bounds of marriage, and that sex before marriage and at a young age has heavy physical and emotional costs.[2] They suggest that comprehensive sex education encourages premarital sexual activity among teenagers, which should be discouraged in an era when HIV and other incurable sexually transmitted infections are widespread and when teen pregnancy is an ongoing concern. Many supporters of abstinence-only education do so out of the belief that comprehensive guides to sex or information about contraceptives will ultimately result in teens actively pursuing and engaging in sexual activities[citation needed] while others oppose the endorsement of contraception for religious reasons.[3]

Opponents and critics, which include prominent professional associations in the fields of medicine, public health, adolescent health, and psychology, argue that such programs fail to provide adequate information to protect the health of adolescents. Some critics also argue that such programs verge on religious interference in secular education. Opponents of abstinence-only education dispute the claim that comprehensive sex education encourages teens to have premarital sex.[4] The idea that sexual intercourse should only occur within marriage also has serious implications for people for whom marriage is not valued or desired, or is unavailable as an option, particularly LGBT people living in places where same-sex marriage is not legal or socially acceptable.[5][6][7][8][9] According to Advocates for Youth, abstinence-only sex education distorts information about contraceptives, including only revealing failure rates associated with their use, and ignoring discussion of their benefits.[10]

Another problem for abstinence education is the definition of abstinence. Santelli (2006)[11] notes that there is no strict definition of abstinence within the US federal government guidelines for teaching abstinence only sex education, using a mixture of non-specific terms, like “postponing sex” or “never had vaginal sex”, while also using moralistic terms like "virgin", "chaste", and "making a commitment". This has resulted in some sexual activities, including mutual masturbation, oral sex and anal sex, being considered outside of the scope of abstention from sex.


Systematic reviews of research evaluating abstinence-only sex education have concluded that it is ineffective at preventing unwanted pregnancy or the spread of STIs, among other shortfalls.[12][13] According to a 2009 review of randomized and semi-randomized controlled trials in “high-income” countries, as defined by the World Bank Organization, there is no evidence that abstinence-only education increases or decreases HIV risk.[14]

It has been found to be ineffective in decreasing HIV risk in the developed world.[15] The results of the National Survey of Family Growth show that American students who receive abstinence-only sex education are at a significationly higher risk of pregnancy as compared with those who receive comprehensive sex education.[16]

According to SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, an organization that promotes comprehensive sex education[17] in the United States,[18] a "...study, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are ineffective."[19] In 2007, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy published an overview of policy and research on "programs designed to prevent teen pregnancy and STD/HIV" titled Emerging Answers 2007.[13] The report included a comprehensive metastudy examining research on the efficacy of abstinence-only as well as comprehensive sex education. Despite "[t]wo less rigorous studies suggest[ing] that abstinence programs may have some positive effects on sexual behavior", Emerging Answers concluded that "studies of abstinence programs have not produced sufficient evidence to justify their widespread dissemination." In contrast, the report judged the evidence for comprehensive sex education favorably, finding it effective for a wide range of students.

A federally funded University of Pennsylvania study published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that only one third of sixth- and seventh-graders who completed abstinence-focused programs had sex within the next two years, compared to nearly half of the students who attended other classes, including ones that taught combined abstinence and contraception.[20] Critics pointed out that the abstinence program used in the study was not representative of most abstinence programs; it did not take a moralistic tone, encouraged children to delay sex until ready instead of until married, did not portray extramarital sex as inappropriate, and did not disparage contraceptives. The sample groups were also exclusively African-American and therefore not demographically representative of the entire population.[21]

A 2010 report by the Guttmacher Institute pointed out that pregnancy rates for teens 15-19 reversed their decline in 2006, near the peak of the Abstinence Only campaign in the United States.[22] Sarah Kliff of Newsweek pointed out that there was no corresponding "indication of an uptick" in teen pregnancy rates when abstinence-only sex education funding was increased during the Clinton years, but in fact a small decline.[23] James Wagoner, president of the nonprofit group Advocates for Youth, blames the poor quality of Bush era abstinence-only programs as compared to abstinence-only programs under Clinton's administration for the difference in outcomes.[24]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Social Security Act, Section 510
  2. ^ PBS, February 4, 2005 Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Episode 823 Retrieved on 2007-14-03
  3. ^ Shorto, Russel (May 7, 2006). "Contra-Contraception". New York Times Magazine. [1]
  4. ^ Douglas Kirby, Ph. D.: Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy. National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2001. Homepage of the study.
  5. ^ K Van Wormer, R McKinney: What Schools Can Do to Help Gay/lesbian/bisexual Youth: A Harm Reduction Approach. http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&se=gglsc&d=5002082003
  6. ^ Journal of Adolescent Health: Volume 38, Issue 1, Pages 83-87 (January 2006): Abstinence-only education policies and programs: A position paper of the Society for Adolescent Medicine: John Santelli, M.D., M.P.H.a, Mary A. Ott, M.D.b, Maureen Lyon, Ph.D.c, Jennifer Rogers, M.P.H.d, Daniel Summers, M.D.e http://www.jahonline.org/article/PIIS1054139X05002764/fulltext - "abstinence-until-marriage programs discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth, as federal law limits the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples."
  7. ^ United States Ignorance Only Hiv/aids, Human Rights and Federally Funded Abstinence-only Programs in the United States Texas: a Case Study; Human Rights Watch, September 2002, Vol. 14, No. 5(G)., Page 39.
  8. ^ Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond straight and gay marriage: valuing all families under the law; Politics, Culture and Society Series, Beacon Press, 2008 ISBN 0-8070-4432-6, ISBN 978-0-8070-4432-2
  9. ^ Debran Rowland, The boundaries of her body: the troubling history of women's rights in America, SphinxLegal, 2004, ISBN 1-57248-368-7, ISBN 978-1-57248-368-2
  10. ^ Effective Sex Education, Brigid McKeon, 2006; http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=450&Itemid=336
  11. ^ Santelli, John; et al; Lyon, Maureen (January 2006). "Abstinence and abstinence-only education: A review of U.S. policies and programs". Journal of Adolescent Health 38 (1): 72–81. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2005.10.006. 
  12. ^ Ott, MA; Santelli, JS (October 2007). "Abstinence and abstinence-only education". Current opinion in obstetrics & gynecology 19 (5): 446–52. doi:10.1097/GCO.0b013e3282efdc0b. PMID 17885460. 
  13. ^ a b Kirby, D. (2007). "Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases". National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.  [2]
  14. ^ Underhill, K; Operario, D; Montgomery, P (2009). "Abstinence-only programs for HIV infection prevention in high-income countries". Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 
  15. ^ Underhill, K; Operario, D; Montgomery, P (Oct 17, 2007). "Abstinence-only programs for HIV infection prevention in high-income countries". In Operario, Don. Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online) (4): CD005421. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005421.pub2. PMID 17943855. 
  16. ^ Kohler, Pamela; Manhart, Lisa; Lafferty, William (April 2008). "Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy". Journal of Adolescent Health 42 (4): 344–351. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.08.026. PMID 18346659. 
  17. ^ SIECUS - Comprehensive Sexuality Education
  18. ^ http://www.thebody.com/content/art2406.html
  19. ^ SIECUS Fact Sheet (includes research citations).
  20. ^ Jemmott Jb, 3rd; Jemmott, LS; Fong, GT (2010). "Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention Over 24 Months". Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine 164 (2): 152–9. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2009.267. PMID 20124144. 
  21. ^ Stein, Rob (February 2, 2010). "Abstinence-only programs might work, study says". The Washington Post. 
  22. ^ Table 1.0,"U.S. Teenage Pregnancies, Births and Abortions: National and State Trends and Trends by Race and Ethnicity." http://www.guttmacher.org/media/nr/2010/01/26/index.html, downloaded 20100127.
  23. ^ "Why Bush's Abstinence-Only Policies Are (Probably) Not to Blame for the Teen-Pregnancy Increase". Newsweek. January 27, 2010. 
  24. ^ http://www.aolnews.com/health/article/study-teaching-abstinence-works-better-than-sex-ed/19341448


  • Williams, Mary E. (Ed.). (2006). Sex: opposing viewpoints. Detroit: Greenhaven.