Jewish Journal


January 10, 2013

Why Teaching Abstinence is Not the Way



The Guttmacher Institute’s analysis of state policy changes affecting reproductive rights shows that 26 states currently “stress abstinence in sex education.”  In Tennessee, a new 2012 provision calls for the exclusive teaching of abstinence. This means that lessons on ways to practice safer sex are largely excluded from the curriculum. In Wisconsin, a recent change “removed requirements that information provided in sex education classes be medically accurate and that it include education on contraception.” In other words, Wisconsin teachers are now permitted to teach sex education without concern about whether or not what they’re teaching is evidence-based. And they can now talk about sex without having to bring up condoms.

Does anyone disagree with me when I say this backlash against comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) is a serious problem?

The only positive change in 2012 as noted by the Institute was that Oregon added a provision mandating that sex education include information on teen dating violence, an important and often overlooked issue in the classroom.

In reading through the FAQ page of the National Abstinence Education Association’s (NAEA) website, I noticed that one statistic was repeated throughout. The NAEA aims to establish credibility for its abstinence-only position based on a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that was published in February, 2009. The study, NAEA states, shows that “70% parents and more than 60% teens believe that sex should be reserved for marriage,” claiming that “abstinence-centered education is the only sex education approach that provides youth skills to reach this goal.” Who cares? This is not reality.

When I looked up the study myself, what I found much more notable than the statistics the NAEA published was how it was noted that the study’s research and analysis does not “constitute an evaluation of the influence of abstinence or sex education on adolescents.” NAEA is making this argument for an abstinence-only approach in the classroom and their evidence is that parents think it’s a good idea, rather than providing evidence that teaching abstinence actually reduces the amount of unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections among adolescents.

In high school my friends and I were peer educators with Peer Education Program/LA. We would visit schools, shelters, and teen groups to teach teens HIV prevention. We always made it clear that the safest strategy is abstinence, but we were realistic in our approach. Teens are sexually active and many are going to be sexually active regardless of whether or not we shove abstinence down their throats. The most important tool I learned from PEP/LA when I received their training (which instantly convinced me to start volunteering for them) was that they were realistic about teenagers and their expectations of them. We were taught how to use condoms, other forms of contraception, and what HIV/AIDS is. This is comprehensive sex education.

Planned Parenthood has posted some studies on their website providing evidence that abstinence-only sexuality programs don’t work and that comprehensive sexuality education does. One of the studies they quote states that “88 percent of students who pledged virginity in middle school and high school still engage in premarital sex. The students who break this pledge are less likely to use contraception at first intercourse, and they have similar rates of sexually transmitted infections as non-pledgers. (Bearman and Brueckner, 2001; Walters, 2005).” And on CSE, Planned Parenthood notes that “students in comprehensive sexuality education classes do not engage in sexual activity more often or earlier, but do use contraception and practice safer sex more consistently when they become sexually active (Guttmacher Institute, 2002; Jemmott et al., 1998; Kirby, 1999; Kirby, 2000; NARAL, 1998; Shafii et al., 2007).”

As far as I can tell, a strict abstinence-only approach is detrimental to the health and well-being of many adolescents in our country.

I know many of my readers are health practitioners, teachers, and parents. Have you had any experiences that have convinced you that either approach is better than the other? I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue.

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