April 8, 2002 | News Releases on Sex Education and Abstinence

Abstinence Education Helps Reduce Early Sexual Activity, Analyst Says

WASHINGTON, Apr. 8, 2002-Critics of abstinence programs scoff at the notion of teaching teen-agers to "just say no" to sex. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that such programs are quite effective at reducing teenage sexual activity and the out-of wedlock births that often result, a new Heritage Foundation paper says.

The research review, authored by Heritage Senior Research Fellow Robert Rector, summarizes the findings of 10 scientific evaluations of "abstinence-only" programs (as opposed to "abstinence-based" ones, which usually include only the barest mention of avoiding sex altogether).

The "virginity pledge movement," for example, was examined in an article for the American Journal of Sociology. It found that taking a virginity pledge reduces by one-third the probability that an adolescent will begin sexual activity, Rector says. When a pledge is combined with strong parental disapproval of sexual activity, the probability of teens initiating sexual activity drops by 75 percent or more.

The "Not Me, Not Now" program, which used radio and TV ads to promote abstinence among young people in Monroe County, New York, also has proven successful, he says. One study 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.

"Safe-sex" programs, by contrast-which proponents have begun calling "abstinence-plus" or "abstinence-based"-"contain materials that would deeply offend most parents," Rector says. "These programs send the implicit 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, include teaching children as young as 5 about masturbation, children as young as 9 about oral sex, and teen-agers about anal intercourse.

Policy-makers who champion such programs should be aware that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the United States "have reached epidemic proportions" among young people in recent years, Rector says. Some 3 million teenagers annually contract STDs, afflicting roughly one out of every four teens who are sexually active.

But "true abstinence programs help young people develop an understanding of commitment, fidelity and intimacy that will serve them well as the foundations of healthy marital life in the future," Rector says.

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