December 2, 2004 | WebMemo on Sex Education and Abstinence
A new report from Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) and the minority staff of the House Committee on Government Reform, The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs, is yet another attempt by aggressive proponents of comprehensive sex education to discredit and undermine the message of authentic abstinence education.
Waxman's report, released this week, is riddled with errors and inaccuracies about the effectiveness of abstinence education and the risks associated with early sexual activity. While Waxman portrays increases in abstinence education as excessive, his attacks blithely ignore the fact that government funding for contraception-based sex education far outweighs the spending for abstinence education. In 2002 alone, the government spent $12 promoting contraception and condom use for every $1 it spent to encourage teens to abstain from sexual activity. However, Waxman has consistently opposed funding for abstinence education and in this instance is doing so by making false and misleading statements about the effectiveness of abstinence education.
Waxman's report denies the well-established correlation between teen sex and increased risk of attempted suicide. Data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Wave II, 1996) provide important information about the link between teen sexual activity and emotional health. A 2003 Heritage Foundation analysis of these data found that sexually active teens are significantly more likely than their non-sexually-active peers to be depressed and attempt suicide.
Waxman's report also falsely asserts that no studies exist to show the effectiveness of abstinence education. His report claims that "abstinence-only education does not appear to decrease teen pregnancy or the risk of sexually transmitted diseases." This is simply not true. There are currently 10 evaluations showing the effectiveness of abstinence education in reducing teen sexual activity. Of these 10 evaluations, four were published in peer-reviewed journals.
Additionally, an April 2003 study published in Adolescent and Family Health found that increased abstinence was the major cause of declining birth and pregnancy rates among teen girls. This study found that increased abstinence accounted for 67 percent of the decline in pregnancy rate for teen girls ages 15 to 19. Similarly, 51 percent of the drop in the birth rate for single teen girls was attributed to abstinence. A similar study released in the August 2004 Journal of Adolescent Health attributes 53 percent of the decline in pregnancy rates for 15-17 year olds to decreased sexual activity, which was larger than the decline attributed to contraceptive use.
Recent government data also underscore the effectiveness of the abstinence message on America's teens. The Centers for Disease Control's Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows a decrease in the number of teens who are sexually active from 1991 (54.1 percent of teens) to 2003 (46.7 percent of teens). This report and others show that teens are listening to the abstinence message.
Representative Waxman's report also falsely asserts that virginity pledge programs have no positive effects on teenagers. This is yet another inaccurate statement by Representative Waxman. Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Wave III, 2001) find that teens who take a virginity pledge have substantially lower levels of sexual activity and better life outcomes when compared to adolescents who do not make such a pledge.
Adolescents who make a virginity pledge:
Representative Waxman's report also completely ignores the fact that parents overwhelmingly support the values and messages of authentic abstinence education. A recent Zogby poll, released in January 2004, found that:
These themes are central to abstinence education curricula. By contrast, comprehensive sex education curricula teach permissive values that are rejected and opposed by nearly all parents. Comprehensive sex education curricula focus almost exclusively on contraception and include very little, if any, material on abstinence. Parents do not agree with this approach. Only 2 percent of parents believe that teaching abstinence is not important. Only 7 percent of parents believe that teaching about contraception should have more emphasis than teaching about abstinence.
Comprehensive sex education programs that Representative Waxman supports contain sexually explicit material that is deeply alarming and offensive to nearly all parents.Most comprehensive sex-ed curricula contain very sexually explicit and graphic language considered inappropriate by the vast majority of parents. For example, curricula have students practice unrolling condoms on bananas, cucumbers, fingers, or model phalluses. Curricula also contain discussions of anal sex and homosexual role-playing and encourage teens to practice mutual masturbation and watch erotic movies.
Heritage Foundation analysis of comprehensive sex education programs found that such programs contain little, if any, encouragement to delay sexual activity. On average, these curricula devote only 4.7 percent of their page content to the topic of abstinence and zero percent to healthy relationships and marriage. Ironically, many of these programs are promoted under the label "Abstinence Plus." The primary focus of these curricula is on encouraging young people to use contraception. Furthermore, these curricula provide no clear standards as to the age at which sex is considered appropriate for students. Out of 942 pages of text from nine difference comprehensive sex education curricula reviewed by The Heritage Foundation, not one single sentence was found urging students to abstain from sexual activity through high school. This is in direct contradiction to what parents say that they want taught to their children.
This report is
sorely out of touch with the goals of parents and students in the
United States. It makes misleading statements about abstinence
education programs, and is therefore a tremendous disservice to
millions of American teenagers.
Melissa G. Pardue is Policy Analyst in Social Welfare Policy at The Heritage Foundation.
 Robert Rector, Kirk A. Johnson, and Lauren Noyes, "Sexually Active Teenagers Are More Likely to Be Depressed and to Attempt Suicide," Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. CDA03-04, March 17, 2003.
 National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, Wave II, 1996. See Rector, Johnson, and Noyes, "Sexually Active Teenagers Are More Likely to Be Depressed and to Attempt Suicide."
 U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Minority Staff Special Investigations Division, The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs, prepared for Representative Henry A. Waxman, December 2004, p. 3.
 Robert Rector, "The Effectiveness of Abstinence Education Programs in Reducing Sexual Activity Among Youth," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1533, April 8, 2002.
 Mohn, Tingle, and Finger, "An Analysis of the Causes of the Decline in Non-Marital Birth and Pregnancy Rates for Teens from 1991 to 1995," Adolescent and Family Health, Vol. 3, Issue 1 (April 2003), pp. 39-47. See also Melissa G. Pardue, "Increased Abstinence Causes a Large Drop in Teen Pregnancy," Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 872, May 2, 2003.
 Santelli et al., "Can Changes in Sexual Behaviors Among High School Students Explain the Decline in Teen Pregnancy Rates in the 1990s?" Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 35, No. 2 (August 2004), pp. 80-90.
 U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Minority Staff Special Investigations Division, The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs, p. 4.
 See Robert Rector, Kirk A. Johnson, and Jennifer Marshall, "Teens Who Make Virginity Pledges Have Substantially Improved Life Outcomes," Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. CDA04-07, September 21, 2004.
 See Robert Rector, Melissa G. Pardue, and Shannan Martin, "What Do Parents Want Taught in Sex Education Programs?" Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1722, January 28, 2004.
 Shannan Martin, Robert Rector, and Melissa G. Pardue, "Comprehensive Sex Education vs. Authentic Abstinence: A Study of Competing Curricula," The Heritage Foundation, 2004.