Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Does abstinence education work after all? Study: Yes. Critics: No.

Right on the heels of the news that teen pregnancy and abortion rates have gone up for the first time in a decade (an uptick that researchers blamed on the Bush-era emphasis on abstinence-only sex education and purity pledges, as I mentioned over at Boston.com's Child Caring blog last month), a study released Feb. 1 seems to show that certain types of abstinence education may help teens delay sexual activity after all.

The latest study, which appeared in Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, a monthly journal published by the American Medical Association, focused on 662 African-American 6th and 7th graders in Philadelphia. The students were randomly assigned to one of five sex-education programs: an eight-hour program in which they were encouraged to delay having sex "until they were ready," an eight-hour program about safe sex, an eight-hour program that did both, 12-hour program that did both; or an eight-hour program focused, not on sex, but on teaching other ways to lead a healthy lifestyle, such as eating well and exercising.

Within two years, 33.5 percent of the students who took the class that encouraged them to delay having sex had lost their virginity, compared to 48.5 percent of those who attended the class on other ways to be healthy and to 52 percent of those who were only taught about safer sex.

"This takes away the main pillar of opposition to abstinence education," Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who wrote the criteria for federal funding of abstinence programs, told The Washington Post. "I've always known that abstinence programs have gotten a bad rap."

That may be, but there are a few things about the study that raised red flags for me.

For one thing, the students in this study supporting abstinence-only education are young. Really young: tweens -- 11- and 12-year-olds, maybe 13, max -- whose sexual activity was surveyed again just two years later, when they were 13 or 14 years old. But the stats on teen pregnancy are for kids aged 15 to 19 -- a completely different age group. Also, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which documented the rise in teen pregnancies, African-American teen pregnancies increased less than other groups, so an abstinence-only study that focused only on urban African-American middle-school students may not be easily applied to teenagers in general.

Also, critics condend that the abstinence-only program in the study wasn't representative of abstinence-only programs across the country in that it didn't take a moralistic tone (by portrayng sex outside of marriage as inappropriate or disparaging condom use) and encouraged kids to delay sex until they were "ready," not necessarily until marriage.

"There is no data in this study to support the 'abstain until marriage' programs, which research proved ineffective during the Bush administration," James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, pointed out in The Washington Post article.

Another possible issue: Teens today treat sex so casually that, for some, having oral sex is an acceptable way to maintain one's virginity. Since the study relied on kids' own reporting on their virginity (how many teenagers do you know who voluntarily tell adults that they're sexually active?) and asked about intercourse only, it may not be an accurate way to measure how sexually active the repondents rfeally are.

I think that what this study really shows is that abstinence education is an important part of a more comprehensive sex-education program. Equally important: Parents need to get over their squeamishness when it comes to talking to tweens and teens about sex. I'll talk to some experts and get back to you with tips on how to do that later this week, but in the meantime, let's be honest: Did you wait until marriage to have sex? Do you expect your teenagers to?

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