Abstinence Survey Stirs Debate

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A nearly two-year-old, federally-funded survey of teen and parent attitudes about sex has prompted new outrage among abstinence education supporters, just as federal funding for their programs is ending.  

The report, dated February 2009, was released Monday by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families (ACF) without fanfare but after repeated demands by supporters of abstinence-only education.

The report – which never addresses the question of whether abstinence education is effective, the Obama administration’s standard for funding – is a study of the attitudes of 1,000 randomly chosen adolescents 12 to 18 and their parents. Its release has been heralded by abstinence-only advocates because they contend the administration tried to quash it.

After the report’s release on Monday, advocates trumpeted the report’s findings, saying they support continued federal funding of abstinence-only education, while comprehensive sex-ed organizations accused the advocates of exaggerating the findings.

The National Survey of Adolescents and Their Parents: Attitudes and Opinions about Sex and Abstinence was conducted by the research firm Abt Associates under contract with the Department of Health and Human Services (where ACF sits) during the Bush administration. 

Initial interviews to determine the validity of questions took place in January and April, 2007, though the exact time frame of the phone surveys is not included in the report.

Among the report’s findings:

* About 70 percent of parents said they are either strongly opposed or somewhat opposed to premarital sex, both in general and for their own children specifically.

* Roughly 80 percent of parents strongly disagreed with the notion that it is okay for their adolescents to have sex if they use birth control.

* When asked to list their preferred sources for their children’s abstinence messages, 85 percent named a place of worship, 85 percent named the doctor’s office or health center and 83 percent included school.

* The adolescents were less opposed to pre-marital sex than their parents and “were more likely than their surveyed parents to agree that engaging in sexual intercourse would be permissible for them in specific contexts.”

Overall, the researchers said, “In general, our findings indicate that adolescent attitudes about sex and abstinence are more subject to influence from parents and peers than to messages about sex and abstinence delivered in the context of classes or programs.”


Taking credit

Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, said, “What we are concerned about is that obviously these findings have not informed public policy.” She said she was pleased that the administration had posted the full report on the ACF website.

Previously, officials of Abt had presented some of the findings at a November meeting of the American Public Health Association.

 James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth – which advocates for comprehensive sex ed – countered that “It is indeed a trip down fantasy lane for the abstinence-only industry to try to seize on this somewhat peripheral data to justify funding for failed programs.”

The date on the report indicates that it was submitted about one month after President Obama took office. The Obama administration has reversed Bush policies on funding abstinence-only sex education for youth. The funding ends Sept.30, in the midst of what the Bush administration had awarded as five-year grants.

The two sources of abstinence-only funding were a mandatory annual $50 million account that actually began in the mid-1990s and a discretionary fund determined by congress that gave nearly $100 million to community-based abstinence education programs in fiscal 2009.

It is not uncommon for federal agencies to withhold reports or to release them without announcement if the findings don’t jibe with the agencies’ current policies, especially if the report was commissioned by a previous administration of a different political party.

“That was pre-Obama; that was during the Bush administration,” Wagoner said of the contract for the study. “If they thought it benefited their value in promoting education, they would have released it.”

The NAEA learned of the report when a college professor who saw its summary findings presented at a conference informed the NAEA that the administration had denied her request for a copy of the full report. The NAEA then called on its supporters to file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the ACF asking for the report. ACF, while not addressing the FOIA requests from NAEA in an HHS spokesman-issued statement, confirmed it rejected a FOIA request for the report in March 2010 “because the recently confirmed commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, [within ACF], had not yet had an opportunity to review it.” 

Some news reports credited NAEA for forcing issuance of the report.

Huber says the developments show that the Obama administration is ignoring the public’s wishes, as reflected in the survey, by dropping funds dedicated to abstinence-only education, and says the survey findings mean the funding should be restored for fiscal 2011.

The administration has said that evidence-based abstinence programs could compete to receive funding through its teen pregnancy initiative.   


Earlier Youth Today reports on abstinence education:

Is Abstinence-Only Locked Out of Federal Funding?

Study Shows Abstinence Education Can Delay Sex by Young Teens

  • Erica

    While attitudes and beliefs are very important, what’s more important is looking at whether these attitudes and beliefs are actually being reflected in behavior.

    95% of Americans have sex prior to getting married, and this is not just amongst teens and twenty-somethings.  People are just less likely to have shotgun weddings when they get “caught” (i.e. pregnant) than they used to be.  I’m guessing that the majority of parents who said they are either opposed or somewhat opposed to premarital sex had sex prior to marriage themselves. 

    “Do as I say and not as I do” doesn’t help anyone.