August 23, 2002 | Backgrounder on Sex Education and Abstinence
Teenage sexual activity is a major national problem that contributes to the rising incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), emotional and psychological injuries, and out-of-wedlock childbearing. Significantly, President George Bush has endorsed abstinence education as an effective means of reducing early sexual activity and providing a foundation for personal responsibility and enduring marital commitment. Many Washington policymakers are aware not only of the consequences of early sexual activity, but also of the undesirable contents of conventional "safe sex" education programs and the findings in the professional literature concerning the effectiveness of genuine abstinence programs.
The U.S. House of Representatives, as part of welfare reauthorization, recently voted to continue spending $50 million a year over the next five years on programs that take an abstinence-in-preparation-for-marriage approach to sex education. The House legislation, the Personal Responsibility, Work, and Family Promotion Act of 2002 (H.R. 4737), reaffirmed a policy decision Congress first made in 1996 to begin offering money to such programs through welfare reform. President Bush is seeking to increase the amount of money set aside next year to help states teach authentic abstinence as the way to avoid not merely unwanted pregnancies, but also STDs, AIDS, and the psychological damage associated with early casual sex.
However, some legislators support funding the failed sex education programs that do not teach authentic abstinence. For example, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) has added an amendment to the House bill that takes such an approach.
In considering this issue and examining the data on teen sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and sex education, Members of Congress should keep five crucial points in mind:
Critics of abstinence education often assert that, while abstinence education is a good idea, there is no evidence that such education reduces sexual activity among young people. Such criticism is erroneous. The Heritage Foundation recently identified 10 scientifically evaluated abstinence programs that have reduced teen sexual activity by 17 percent to 50 percent. Each of the programs evaluated is a real abstinence (or what is conventionally termed an "abstinence only") program--that is, it does not provide contraceptives to participants or encourage their use.2
Furthermore, one study indicated that more than 90 percent of the public now believes that abstinence is the right standard for school-age youth.3
Evidence that young people are responding to an unambiguous message about abstinence is growing. For example, new federal data reveal that virginal teens now outnumber sexually active ones. The 2001 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) report of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)--which asked 13,601 teens about such things as substance abuse, sexual behavior, and physical activity--found that 45.6 percent of high school youth said they had had sex. This is significantly lower than the 54.1 percent found in 1990.4
The largest social change occurring within this same time frame that could have contributed to this significant decline in teen sexual activity was the substantial growth in abstinence education programs.5 Among those who cite the relationship is Peter Brandt of Colorado-based Focus on the Family: "The federal Title V abstinence program is having a tremendous impact."6
Similarly, a study conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based research group Child Trends suggests that teen pregnancy and birth rates declined in the 1990s partially as the result of increased abstinence (reduced levels of sexual activity). For example, the study found that the percentage of teens who reported ever having sexual intercourse declined for both males and females from 1988 to 1995.7 Furthermore, the greater availability of contraception and abortion during the past 25 years did not prevent an increase in teen pregnancies and births, especially those out of wedlock.8
Health authorities must now contend with more than 20 sexually transmitted diseases, up from two (syphilis and gonorrhea) before the introduction of "safe sex" education. Moreover, STDs caused by three types of virus--the herpes virus, the human papilloma virus (HPV), and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)--are incurable and proliferate despite "safe sex" practices.9
One-fourth of sexually active teens have contracted an STD. Overall, two-thirds of all STDs occur in people ages 25 and younger. Research shows that condom use offers relatively little protection (from "zero" to "some") against herpes and no protection from the deadly HPV,10 the leading viral STD and the cause of nearly all cases of cervical cancer that kill approximately 4,800 women a year.11 A review of scientific literature also shows that, on average, condoms failed to prevent the transmission of the HIV virus, which causes the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), between 15 percent and 31 percent of the time.12
With roughly 20,000 new AIDS cases being diagnosed each year among people ages 25 and under,13 it is apparent that "safe sex" is not safe at all. Clearly, abstinence is the only certain way to prevent pregnancy among America's youth and to stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
In recent years, with the failure of traditional "safe sex" and pregnancy prevention programs, parental support for authentic abstinence education has grown. Because of this, many traditional safe-sex programs have begun to call themselves "abstinence-plus," "abstinence-based," and now "abstinence-first" education.
Regrettably, there is little abstinence training in these programs. Instead, they are thinly disguised efforts to promote condom use and alternative sexual activity, such as masturbation. The content of most "abstinence-plus" curricula would be alarming to most parents. For example, such programs typically have condom-use exercises in which middle school students practice unrolling condoms on cucumbers or dildos.14 Despite the growing popularity of abstinence-only programs and mounting evidence of their effectiveness, some policymakers continue to promote these old-style safe-sex programs disguised as abstinence. For example, the Baucus WORK Act passed by the Senate Finance Committee in July would create a new "abstinence-first" program for teens.15 The curricula it would fund would be the same as that of the controversial (now defunct) "Programs That Work" initiative of the Centers for Disease Control.16 Despite its name, the Baucus program would have nothing to do with abstinence, but it would promote condom use in the nation's schools. Such "abstinence-first" programs send the implicit message that society expects and accepts casual sexual activity by teens.
Also typical of the curricula that the Baucus WORK bill would fund is "Focus on Kids," an "abstinence-plus" program promoted by CDC that teaches middle school and high school students:17
There are other ways to be close to a person without having sexual intercourse.... The list may include body massage, bathing together, masturbation, sensuous feeding, fantasizing, watching erotic movies, reading erotic books and magazines....18
Brainstorm ways to increase spontaneity and the likelihood that they'll use condoms. (Examples: Store condoms under mattress, eroticize condom use with partner.) Now ask [students] to suggest ways to make condom use fun and pleasurable by finishing these sentences... "Condoms could make sex more fun by.... Condoms would not ruin the mood if we...."19
To call these programs abstinence is a travesty. Yet these are types of programs that the Baucus WORK bill would fund. Not only do such programs, by their very nature, minimize the abstinence component of sex education, but they also send an explicit message condoning sexual activity among the youth they teach.20 Abstinence-first programs assume that some teens will be sexually active and seek to equip them for the activity. But those that essentially convey the message "when you decide to engage in sex (after abstaining), here's how to do it" substantially weaken any admonition against early non-marital sexual activity.21
Furthermore, since all sexual activity originally follows abstinence, "abstinence-first" by name implies that the program is concerned only with teaching abstinence up until a young person decides to have sex--yet another mixed message for today's youth. On one hand, the name urges young people to abstain, but on the other, the program itself supplies them with the information and means to engage in promiscuity and casual sex.
The government already spends massive amounts of money on "safe sex," contraceptive promotion, and pregnancy prevention. In fiscal year 2002 alone, the federal government spent roughly $1.1 billion on such programs (see Table 1). By contrast, that same year it spent only $102 million on abstinence education. Thus, for every dollar spent on abstinence, the government spent around $11 on safe sex and contraceptive promotion.
Despite this sizeable difference in funding, the Baucus WORK bill would create yet another safe-sex program; and at a cost of $250 million over five years, it would create an even greater imbalance between spending on abstinence and spending on safe sex and contraceptive promotion. Clearly, the evidence shows that Congress should address its concerns about teenage sexuality by increasing abstinence funding, not by creating another safe-sex program.
Real abstinence education is essential to reducing out-of-wedlock childbearing, preventing sexually transmitted diseases, and improving emotional and physical well-being among the nation's youth. Real abstinence education 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.22
Authentic abstinence programs are the best defense against the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases afflicting America's youth. Abstinence programs inform young people of this truth: The most important risk factor for contracting venereal disease or an STD is the number of sexual partners one has; and the earlier one begins sexual activity, the more sexual partners a person is likely to have.
Abstinence education teaches that human happiness is most likely to be found in marital commitment, not casual sex, and that abstinence is the best preparation for intimacy and love in later years. As President Bush points out, "abstinence works every time."23 Promoting abstinence is clearly the best policy for reducing early sexual activity, STDs, and out-of-wedlock births-anything else is dishonest and unsafe.
Many harmful programs, such as the proposed "abstinence-first" program in the Baucus WORK bill, are disguised as abstinence education but in reality offer only well-worn "safe-sex" instruction. They lack the positive messages of real abstinence. They have little to do with delaying sexual activity among youth and nothing to do with preparing youth for lives of loving commitment.
[W]hen our children face a choice between self-restraint and self-destruction, government should not be neutral. Government should not sell children short by assuming they are incapable of acting responsibly. We must promote good choices.24
Jennifer Garrett is a Research Associate in Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
3. John DiIulio, "Compassion 'in Truth and Action': How Sacred and Secular Places Serve Civic Purposes, and What Washington Should--and Should Not--Do to Help," speech delivered before the National Association of Evangelicals, Dallas, Texas, March 7, 2001.
4. See Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System: United States, 2001," at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/ss5104a1.htm.
7. Elizabeth Terry and Jennifer Manlove, "Trends in Sexual Activity and Contraceptive Use Among Teens," Child Trends Research Brief, March 2000, at http://www.childtrends.org.
10. Dr. Susan Weller, "A Meta-Analysis of Condom Effectiveness in Reducing Sexually Transmitted HIV," Social Science and Medicine, Vol. 36, No. 12 (1993). See also National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, "Summary," Scientific Evidence on Condom Effectiveness for Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Prevention, July 20, 2001, at http://www.niaid.nih.gov/dmid/stds/condomreport.pdf.
11. American Cancer Society, "Cancer Facts and Figures," 1998, at http://www.cancer.org.
13. Advocates for Youth, at http://www.advocatesforyouth.org.