July 22, 2002
By Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
Let's be realistic, say critics of President Bush's proposal to
spend $135 million next year on "abstinence only" sex education:
Kids are gonna be kids.
So it would be "dangerous and unnecessary" to increase spending on
abstinence programs, Rep. James Greenwood, R-Pa., wrote in a letter
to the president. "There is no scientific evidence that 'abstinence
only until marriage' programs work."
But there is. In fact, my Heritage Foundation colleague Robert
Rector has found that "abstinence only" programs have a record of
success that the "if you're gonna do it, do it safely" programs
One "abstinence only" program, for example, calls on teenagers
to take a "virginity pledge." Researchers used a sample of more
than 5,000 students to evaluate it for the American Journal of
They found that taking the pledge reduces by one-third the
probability that an adolescent will begin sexual activity. Pair the
pledge with strong parental disapproval of pre-marital sex, and the
probability that teens will become sexually active drops by 75
percent or more.
Another program, called "Not Me, Not Now," used radio and TV ads to
promote abstinence among teenagers in Monroe County, N.Y. A study
published in the Journal of Health Communications found that during
the period the ads were being aired, the pregnancy rate for girls
aged 15 to 17 fell from 63.4 pregnancies per 1,000 girls to 49.5
pregnancies. The sexual activity rate of 15-year-olds across the
county, meanwhile, dropped from 46.6 percent to 31.6 percent.
Then there's the Abstinence by Choice program, which operates in 20
schools in the Little Rock, Ark. area. It targets seventh-, eighth-
and ninth-grade students and reaches about 4,000 youths each year.
A researcher at Case Western Reserve University's School of
Medicine, using a sample of nearly 1,000 students, found the
program reduced the sexual activity rates of girls by about 40
percent and the rate for boys by approximately 30 percent, compared
with similar students who weren't in the program.
Other "abstinence only" programs, from Operation Keepsake in
Cleveland to the Teen Aid Family Life Education Project in
California and five other states, show similar results. Research
conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that the
Postponing Sexual Involvement program in Atlanta reduced sexual
initiation rates among eighth-grade boys by 60 percent and among
eighth-grade girls by 95 percent.
So-called "safe sex" programs, by contrast, can't boast such a
success rate. But considering that most are little more than thinly
disguised efforts to promote condom use, how could they? Programs
that carry the caveat "if you have sex, here's how to do it"
undermine warnings against pre-marital sex. Small wonder that many
such programs are now called "abstinence-based" or
"abstinence-plus," when they usually include only a casual-and
often winking-nod to the idea of avoiding sex.
These programs send a clear message that society expects, and
accepts, early sexual activity. Guidelines developed by the
Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States
(SIECUS), for example, recommend teaching children as young as 5
about masturbation, teaching nine-year-olds about oral sex, and
teen-agers about anal intercourse. (Hard to believe, I know, but
This despite the fact that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
in this country have reached epidemic proportions among young
people. Some 3 million teen-agers contract STDs each year,
afflicting roughly one out of every four teens who are sexually
True abstinence programs help young people build an understanding
of commitment, fidelity and intimacy that will serve as the
foundations of healthy marital life. Can the same be said for
classroom demonstrations involving condoms and cucumbers?
J. Feulner, Ph.D. is president of The Heritage Foundation,
a Washington-based public policy research institute.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire
"Safe Sex": Time To Abstain
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
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