Abstinence Ed: Why the Fuss?

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To abstain or not to abstain – that is a question many young people are asking themselves.

Most adults and youth, and virtually all parents, believe youth should wait until they are “older” to initiate sexual activity. So where’s the controversy? Promoting sexual abstinence should be welcomed by all.

Yet many people publicly deride abstinence education, with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) being one of the most vocal critics.


As a longtime proponent of abstinence education, let me pinpoint some reasons for the division.

One of the main issues is a disagreement over what we mean by “youth” when we discuss who should remain abstinent. There is near-universal agreement that this includes anyone below age 14 or 15. However, critics of abstinence-only education correctly point out that at age 15 or 16, many youth are going to have sex. At this point, abstinence-only education doesn’t offer enough information. Those youth must be told about contraception.

That makes sense to most people, but not to many abstinence-only proponents.

For one thing, just because a young person experiments with a particular behavior does not mean he or she will continue participating in that behavior. With alcohol, drugs, tobacco and violence, we have two messages for kids: Don’t do it, or stop doing it. That’s because violence and illicit drugs are never legal, and both have long-term negative health consequences.
Unfortunately, so do many sexual activities. Consequently, there is an increasing recognition that kids should abstain from sexual activity.

I agree. But I also believe that parents, youth workers and educators can deliver this message and give youth information about contraceptives.

There is a difference between providing information and advocating use. This is one of the greatest distinctions between comprehensive and abstinence-only sex education.

For the past 10 years, however, comprehensive sex-ed programs have increasingly injected stronger admonishments to remain abstinent. At the same time, many abstinence programs include discussions about contraceptives. The two approaches appear to be coming closer together in their messages. In fact, the programs in each camp vary so widely that it’s sometimes hard to tell which side those programs are on.

Which approach is best? Notice that I didn’t ask which approach is most “realistic.” I get beaten up by my abstinence friends when I say abstinence-until-marriage isn’t a realistic message in America today. That’s because most young people in this country will have sex before they marry.

It is, however, the best message we can give young people. It’s like the U.S. surgeon general saying “don’t smoke” in the mid-1960s, when nearly half of all adults smoked. It wasn’t realistic, but it was the best message, and still is.

Besides, we have evidence that lots of programs that deliver this message work. Waxman is wrong when he says abstinence-until-marriage programs haven’t worked.

The Best Friends program in Washington showed remarkable results in a study published earlier this year. Compared with demographically similar girls in the city, those in the program were eight times less likely to use drugs, two times less likely to smoke or drink alcohol, and 6.5 times less likely to have had sexual intercourse. That’s pretty astounding. And it’s great news for young people.

But to really know what works best, we need to simultaneously compare abstinence-only and comprehensive sex ed programs in the same location among very similar groups of young people. Then we need to weigh the benefits of delayed sexual activity against differences in contraceptive use at first intercourse. For example, if the youth in abstinence-only programs delay intercourse by two years, but are 10 percent less likely to use contraceptives when they do have their first intercourse, we might be able to calculate that the long-term health benefits outweigh the health risks.

Having such evidence might turn down the heat in the debate. In the meantime, we should all encourage young people to wait until they’re older to have sex. I would say wait until marriage, but I’m happy if others say, “Until you’re out of high school or college.”

After all, if we’re concerned about protecting young people from sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, waiting makes a huge difference. Waxman can yell all he wants, but when kids wait longer to have sex, they win.
Shepherd Smith is president of the Institute for Youth Development, based in Sterling, Va. (703) 433-1640.