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-only sex education is a mostly American form of sex education that teaches abstinence from sex, and often excludes many other types of sexual and reproductive health education, particularly regarding birth control and safe 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.

Evidence does not support the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education.[1] It has been found to be ineffective in decreasing HIV risk in the developed world,[2] and does not decrease rates of unplanned pregnancy when compared to comprehensive sex education.[1] It does not decrease the sexual activity rates of students, when compared to students who undertake comprehensive sexual education classes.[3]

The topic is controversial in the United States, with proponents of abstinence-only education claiming, in spite of existing evidence to the contrary, that comprehensive sex education encourages 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:[4]

(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.


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.[1][5] According to a 2009 review of high quality evidence from “high-income” countries, there is no evidence that abstinence-only education increases or decreases HIV risk.[2]

It has been found to be ineffective in decreasing HIV risk in the developed world.[2] 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.[3]

According to SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a "...study found that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are ineffective."[6] 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.[7]

Society and culture[edit]

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.[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11][12][13][14][15] 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.[16]

Another problem for abstinence education is the definition of abstinence. Santelli (2006)[17] 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.

Global impact[edit]

Religion and sexual education[edit]

Religious doctrines take varying stances on contraception and pre-marital sex.

See also[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Ott, MA; Santelli, JS (Oct 2007). "Abstinence and abstinence-only education". Current opinion in obstetrics & gynecology 19 (5): 446–52. doi:10.1097/GCO.0b013e3282efdc0b. PMID 17885460. 
  2. ^ a b c Underhill, K; Operario, D; Montgomery, P (Oct 17, 2007). Operario, Don, ed. "Abstinence-only programs for HIV infection prevention in high-income countries". Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online) (4): CD005421. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005421.pub2. PMID 17943855. 
  3. ^ a b Kohler, Pamela; Lafferty, William; Manhart, Lisa (Apr 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. 
  4. ^ Social Security Act, Section 510
  5. ^ Kirby, D. (2007). "Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases". National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.  [1]
  6. ^ SIECUS Fact Sheet (includes research citations).
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ PBS, February 4, 2005 Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Episode 823 Retrieved on 2007-14-03
  9. ^ Shorto, Russel (May 7, 2006). "Contra-Contraception". New York Times Magazine. [2]
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ 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."
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ Effective Sex Education, Brigid McKeon, 2006; http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=450&Itemid=336
  17. ^ 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. 
  • Williams, Mary E. (Ed.). (2006). Sex: opposing viewpoints. Detroit: Greenhaven.