Why Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Isn’t Good Enough

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Teenagers have sex. Let’s just put that out there. It’s not new, and it’s not likely to change anytime… well, ever. Do some people wait until marriage to have sex? Sure. Yet how does that make a good excuse for depriving teens of crucial information?

The Current State of Sex Ed in the United States

The Kaiser Family Foundation provides some disturbing statistics about sex education in the United States:

  • In 2017, 1/3 of federal sex education funding in the U.S. went to abstinence education programs.
  • Only 35.3% of high schools required that students be taught how to use condoms, while 76.3% of high schools mandated teaching that abstinence was the most effective way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (data from a 2014 study).
  • Only 13 states require that sex education be medically accurate (as of 2018).

The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine reports that in 2011–2013, only 55% of adolescent males and 60% of adolescent females in the U.S. had received formal instruction regarding birth control methods. That’s a lot of teens not getting adequate and accurate information — information they would benefit from even if they do wait until marriage to have sex.

According to Planned Parenthood, the U.S. government has more than $2 billion since 1982 on abstinence-only sex education programs, some of which are labelled “sexual risk avoidance” programs.

Federal funding for these programs requires adherence to an 8-point definition enshrined in law that includes teaching that sexual activity outside of marriage is likely to produce psychological and physical harm. Sure, that may be true for more than one U.S. president, but that doesn’t make it appropriate for government to be mandating for sex ed programs.

The Effectiveness of Abstinence-Only Education

A meta-review by Denford et al. (2017) found that “Abstinence-only interventions were found to be ineffective in promoting positive changes in sexual behaviour.”

However, comprehensive interventions, which included HIV prevention, improved knowledge levels and brought about changes in attitudes, behaviours, and health outcomes.

A position paper from The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine (2017) notes that as the average age at first marriage has risen, fewer people are waiting until marriage to have sex for the first time. The median age difference in the U.S. between first intercourse and marriage is 8.7 years for females and 11.7 years for males.

While comprehensive sexual education programs can delay the initiation of sexual activity and reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections, abstinence-only programs have shown no such benefits. The position paper also noted that many abstinence-only programs promote gender stereotypes and power imbalances.

A 2007 review by Ott and Santelli found that not only are abstinence-only programs ineffective, but they contain medical inaccuracies and may also cause harm. Youth who had received abstinence-only education were less likely than those who received comprehensive education to believe that condoms decrease the risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

The Ott and Santelli review points out one study that found 88% of youth who had taken so-called virginity pledges had intercourse before marriage when a follow-up was conducted six years later. They were less likely to use condoms than non-pledgers, and sexually transmitted disease rates between pledgers and non-pledgers were comparable.

What does this mean?

It seems very clear that abstinence-only education does not work. Yet the U.S. government continues to provide significant funding to ensure that it continues.

The key puzzle piece that’s missing from this picture is the influence of religion and religious groups. Evangelical groups in particular have a strong influence on government and a vested interest in maintaining abstinence-only education. They played a strong role in getting the current president elected, and it seems reasonable to suspect that this administration would factor that in to policy decisions.

The National Coalition Against Censorship characterizes abstinence-only education as a form of censorship that “affronts the principle of Church-State separation.” I think censorship is a very appropriate term, especially with the conditions set out to receive funding for abstinence education programs.

Religion has its place, but promoting ignorance about sexual health in teenagers should not be one of those places.

For a personal look at this issue, Alexandra Tsuneta wrote this excellent piece in Fearless She Wrote:


Denford, S., Abraham, C., Campbell, R., & Busse, H. (2017). A comprehensive review of reviews of school-based interventions to improve student health. Health Psychology Review, 11(1), 33–52.

Kaiser Family Foundation. (2018). Abstinence education programs: Definition, funding, and impact on teen sexual behaviour.

National Coalition Against Censorship. (n.d.). Abstinence-only: Joint statement and opposition.

Ott, M.A., & Santelli, J.S. (2007). Abstinence and abstinence-only education. Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology, 19(5), 446–452.

Planned Parenthood. (n.d.). Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. (2017). Abstinence-only-until-marriage policies and programs: An updated position paper of the Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine. Journal of Adolescent Health, 61(3), 400–403.

Mental health blogger | Former MH nurse | Living with depression | Author of 3 books, latest is Managing the Depression Puzzle | mentalhealthathome.org

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