New study confirms: abstinence-only sex ed just doesn’t work

Building upon previous research that reached similar conclusions, a new study published online this week in the Journal of Adolescent Health has found that preaching an abstinence-only form of sex education is an inadequate way of preparing adolescents for the realities of intercourse.

In fact, according to Vice, the new study found that taking a “wait-until-marriage” approach to sex ed not only fails to delay the age that teens with first have intimate relations, but also fails to reduce the unintended pregnancy rate or limit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Study co-author Dr. John Santelli, a professor of Population and Family Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and his colleagues first presented evidence against abstinence-only sex ed in 2006. The newly-published paper updates those previous findings.

“The weight of scientific evidence shows these programs do not help young people delay initiation of sexual intercourse,” Dr. Santelli explained in a statement. “While abstinence is theoretically effective, in actual practice, intentions to abstain from sexual activity often fail. These programs simply do not prepare young people to avoid unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases.”

‘Wait-until-marriage’ approach ‘harmful,’ study authors say

The study authors reviewed scientific studies and other articles on the topic to determine whether or not abstinence-only, “wait-until-marriage” programs were effective. What they found was that as the number of schools teaching sex ed decreased, the average gap between when a teen has his or her first sexual encounter and the age at which they marry has increased.

Between 2002 and 2014, the researchers said, the percentage of schools requiring that students be taught about the birds and the bees fell from 67% to 48%, and those requiring the instruction of HIV prevention dropped from 64% to 41%. In 1995, 81% of adolescent males 87% percent of adolescent females reported receiving formal instruction about birth control methods.

By 2011-2013, that number decreased  to just 55% of boys and 60% of girls, the study found. At the same time, the gap between first sexual encounter and first marriage has risen to 8.7 years for female teens and 11.7 years for male teens. The new study builds upon previous research that has shown that female teens who vow to remain celibate until marriage have higher rates of HPV and unintended pregnancy, according to Vice.

“Young people have a right to sex education that gives them the information and skills they need to stay safe and healthy,” said Dr. Leslie Kantor, an assistant professor of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School of Public Health and the vice president of education at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs leave all young people unprepared and are particularly harmful to young people who are sexually active, who are LGBTQ, or have experienced sexual abuse.”

“Adolescent sexual and reproductive health promotion should be based on scientific evidence and understanding, public health principles, and human rights,” Dr. Santelli added. “Abstinence-only-until marriage as a basis for health policy and programs should be abandoned.”


Image credit: Unsplash/Frank McKenna