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Executive Summary #2372 on Sex Education and Abstinence

February 19, 2010

Executive Summary: Evidence on the Effectiveness of Abstinence Education: An Update

By and

Teen sexual activity remains a widespread problem confronting the nation. Each year, some 2.6 million teenagers become sexually active--a rate of 7,000 teens per day. Among high school students, nearly half report having engaged in sexual activity, and one-third are currently active.

Sexual activity during teenage years poses serious health risks for youths and has long-term implications. Early sexual activity is associated with an increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), reduced psychological and emotional well-being, lower academic achievement, teen pregnancy, and out-of-wedlock childbearing. Many of these risks are avoidable if teens choose to abstain from sexual activity. Abstinence is the surest way to avoid the risk of STDs and unwed childbearing.

Abstinence education "teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children" and stresses the social, psychological, and health benefits of abstinence. Abstinence programs also provide youths with valuable life and decision-making skills that lay the foundation for personal responsibility and developing healthy relationships and marriages later in life. These programs emphasize preparing young people for future-oriented goals.

The Evidence. Studies have shown that abstinent teens report, on average, better psychological well-being and higher educational attainment than those who are sexually active. Delaying the initiation of or reducing early sexual activity among teens can decrease their overall exposure to risks of unwed childbearing, STDs, and psycho-emotional harm. Authentic abstinence programs are therefore crucial to efforts aimed at reducing unwed childbearing and improving youth well-being.

This paper discusses 22 studies of abstinence education. Sixteen studies examined abstinence programs that were intended primarily to teach abstinence. Of these 16 studies, 12 reported positive findings. The other six studies analyzed virginity pledges, and of these six studies, five reported positive findings. Overall, 17 of the 22 studies reported statistically significant positive results, such as delayed sexual initiation and reduced levels of early sexual activity, among youths who have received abstinence education. Five studies did not report any significant positive results.

The Current Environment. Today's young people face strong peer pressure to engage in risky behavior and must navigate media and popular culture that endorse and even glamorize permissiveness and casual sex. Alarmingly, the government implicitly supports these messages by funding programs that promote contraception and safe-sex. In FY2008, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spent $610.1 million on such programs targeting teens--at least four times what it spent on abstinence education. Last year, the Obama Administration and Congress disregarded the social scientific evidence on abstinence education and eliminated all federal funding for it. Instead, they created significant additional funding for comprehensive sex education.

Although 80 percent of parents want schools to teach youths to abstain from sexual activity until they are in a committed adult romantic relationship nearing marriage--the core message of abstinence education--these parental values are rarely communicated in the classroom.

In the classroom, the prevailing mentality often condones teen sexual activity as long as youths use contraceptives. Abstinence is usually mentioned only in passing, if at all. Sadly, many teens who need to learn about the benefits of abstaining from sexual activity during the teenage years never hear about them, and many students who choose to abstain fail to receive adequate support for their decisions.

Conclusion. Teen sexual activity is costly, not just for teens, but also for society. Teens who engage in sexual activity risk a host of negative outcomes including STD infection, emotional and psychological harm, and out-of-wedlock childbearing.

Genuine abstinence education is therefore crucial to the physical and psycho-emotional well-being of the nation's youth. In addition to teaching the benefits of abstaining from sexual activity until marriage, abstinence programs focus on developing character traits that prepare youths for future-oriented goals.

When considering effective prevention program aimed at changing teen sexual behavior, lawmakers should consider all of the available empirical evidence and restore funding for abstinence education.

Christine C. Kim is a Policy Analyst and Robert Rector is a Senior Research Fellow in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at The Heritage Foundation.

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