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Success in Encouraging Teen Abstinence

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Experienced parents will tell you that if you can get your kids through the teen years, they likely will be just fine as adults. That's because teens face many of the temptations adults do but without the experience to appreciate the consequences of their decisions.

But what if we could somehow transfer some of that experience to teens? What if we could equip them with the information, courage and responsibility they need to say no to sex, smoking, drinking and drug abuse?

It's a question that's received a fair amount of study, and we've begun to find some approaches that work. One is to take on the issue directly with teens through what are known as abstinence-education programs. Among the most effective of these, according to a recent study by Dr. Robert Lerner published in the Institute for Youth Development's peer-reviewed journal Adolescent & Family Health, is the Best Friends program.

Lerner's study found that students who took part in Best Friends are:

  • 6 ½ times more likely to remain sexually abstinent. 
  • Nearly twice as likely to abstain from drinking alcohol.
  • Eight times more likely to abstain from drug use.
  • More than twice as likely to refrain from smoking.

Looked at another way, girls who took part in Best Friends had:

  • a 52 percent reduction in the likelihood they would smoke.
  • a 90 percent reduction in the likelihood they would use drugs.
  • a 60 percent reduction in the likelihood they would drink alcohol. 
  •  an 80 percent reduction in the likelihood they would have sex.

One would think that such numbers would cause lawmakers to rethink how government deals with destructive teen behavior. One would be wrong.

Despite overwhelming evidence that kids are receptive to an abstinence-only approach and that increases in abstinence-only education are largely responsible for a drop of 8 percentage points (from 54 percent to 46 percent) since 1991 in the number of high-schoolers who have had sex, the government continues to spend $12 on "safe sex" and contraception promotion for every $1 it spends on abstinence.

This doesn't stop groups such as the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) and Advocates for Youth from attempting to eliminate abstinence programs and replace them with "comprehensive" sex education. These "comprehensive" programs are often misleadingly labeled "abstinence-plus" and falsely claim to forge a middle ground between abstinence and "safe sex" education. In reality, these programs are virtually all "plus" and no abstinence.

Analysis of "comprehensive" sex-ed programs reveals that these curricula contain little if any meaningful abstinence information. On average, these curricula devote about 4 percent of their content to abstinence and the rest to such enlightening activities as "condom races," in which teams of teens race to see who can get a condom on a cucumber the fastest.

They explore "alternatives" to intercourse, such as sensual feeding, showering together and other activities that seem highly unlikely to discourage kids from having sex. In fact, out of 942 total pages of curriculum text reviewed from nine different "comprehensive" sex-ed curricula, not a single sentence was found urging teens to abstain from sexual activity until they had graduated from high school. The overwhelming focus of these curricula (28 percent of the curriculum content) is devoted to promoting contraception among teens.

Sadly, these programs have friends in high places. Opponents in Congress continue to attempt to introduce legislation that would abolish federal abstinence education assistance. A proposal by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) would take federal funds devoted to teaching abstinence and turn them over to state public health bureaucracies to spend as they wish.

Given the fact that such bureaucracies, through the encouragement of federal funding, have been wedded to the "safe sex" approach for decades and fiercely oppose teaching abstinence, such a proposal would effectively abolish federal abstinence-education programs. Meanwhile, federal support for "safe sex" and contraception promotion would continue, unchecked.

Opponents of abstinence education will continue to try to eliminate it from America's schools. But they have got a tough pitch to make: Parents overwhelmingly support the abstinence message. Students want to hear it. The evidence of abstinence programs' effectiveness is increasing. And the evaluation of the Best Friends program provides one more argument in favor of abstinence education.


Melissa Pardue is the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Fellow in Social Welfare Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

First appeared on Knight-Ridder Tribune

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