If Abstinence has Failed, so has All Sex-Ed

| by Illinois Family Institute
By Laurie Higgins, Director of IFI's DSA | Illinois Family Institute

There is much to ruminate about following the publication of a study that compared the sexual behavior of teens who took virginity pledges with that of teens who did not. The study by Janet Rosenbaum appeared in the Jan. 2009 issue of Pediatrics and received widespread coverage by the mainstream media. The study showed that teens who make "virginity pledges" are no more likely to remain virgins until marriage than teens with similar religious views who do not make pledges. Moreover, those who make pledges are less likely to use condoms when they finally choose to have premarital sex.

The gleeful, smug announcement of these findings by all too many comprehensive sex ed proponents is troubling. Their responses suggest that they are more concerned about winning the battle to get ever more provocative and graphic sexual information into the heads and hearts of teens than they are with the disturbing information that fully 50% of our youth are sexually active by the time they are 21 years old.

Comprehensive sex ed proponents say that since abstinence pledges don't work and abstinence pledges are a central part of many abstinence sex ed programs, then abstinence programs don't work. But is that too broad a claim? Might it just be that one element of the abstinence program--the virginity pledges--doesn't work? Is the apparent failure of that one element sufficient to abandon all abstinence programs?

Executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, Valerie Huber explains that "The author inaccurately equates the holistic breadth of an abstinence education program to the one-time event of a virginity pledge. A pledge and an abstinence program are not synonymous."

What I have not yet been able to ascertain is whether the 932 students Janet E. Rosenbaum studied had been in comprehensive or abstinence-based sex ed classes. If they were all in comprehensive sex ed classes, then the failure of the virginity pledges could hardly be attributed to abstinence education.

A Washington Post article quoted a Johns Hopkins obstetrician and gynecologist who said "It is time to stop spending money on these useless (abstinence) programs and funnel it into safer-sex counseling." But before we abandon abstinence education, ought we not ascertain whether it was the abstinence education that failed or the virginity pledges that failed?

What somehow got lost in the media-hype surrounding the release of this study's findings is that it also showed that "teens who take virginity pledges do delay sexual activity until an average age of 21 (compared to about age 17 for the average American teen)." If abstinence education as a whole is pilloried because of the apparent failure of virginity pledges, shouldn't abstinence education as whole be cheered--and supported--for its apparent success in delaying first sexual experience by four years?

Another interesting fact from the Rosenbaum study, rarely reported by the mainstream media, is that "non-pledgers," meaning those who did not take virginity pledges were "2.31%" more likely to have "been paid for sex" than those who took virginity pledges. Make of that what you will.

Critics of abstinence programs use the Rosenbaum study, which focused solely on the efficacy of virginity pledges in preventing premarital sex and condom use, as justification for defunding abstinence education. But for many abstinence education advocates, virginity pledges are not their central concern.

Liberal "educators," with their voracious appetites for the hearts and minds of other people's children, continue to gobble up increasing areas of life. Their apparently insatiable hunger to remake the world in their own image blinds them to the arrogance of their quest. And their manipulation of rhetoric blinds taxpayers to the inappropriateness of both their means and ends.

"Comprehensive sex education" is education-speak for sex education curricula that, among other things, teach students subversive, controversial, and destructive views of premarital sex conduct, abortion, and homosexuality. Here are some of the problematic features of typical comprehensive sex ed curricula:
  • They include "values-based education that offer students the opportunity to explore and define their individual values as well as the values of their families and communities," all of which suggest there are no moral absolutes.

  • They provide information on abortion, masturbation, and sexual orientation.

  • They offer students "the opportunity to explore their own and their family's religious values."
There are no valid pedagogical reasons for health educators to discuss masturbation or abortion or family religious values or homosexuality. Nor do they need to demonstrate how to use a condom. If virginity pledges are what's sticking in the craw of comprehensive sex ed advocates, it's quite simple to eliminate them from abstinence curricula. Churches and families are better places for encouraging virginity pledges anyway.

Critics of abstinence programs also point to a study released in April 2007 that compared the behavior of students in abstinence programs with that of students who were in comprehensive sex ed programs as evidence of the failure of abstinence programs. That study revealed the following:
  • Kids in both groups (abstinence and control groups) were knowledgeable about the risks of having sex without using a condom or other form of protection.

  • Condom use was not high in either group.

  • By the end of the study, when the average child was just shy of 17, half of both groups had remained abstinent.

  • The sexually active teenagers had sex the first time at about age 15.

  • More than a third of both groups had two or more partners.
This study also, however, found this:
  • A greater number of students in abstinence programs correctly identified STDs than did students in control groups.

  • A greater number of students in abstinence programs reported correctly that birth control pills do not prevent STDs than did students in control groups.
After reading this report, Martha Kempner of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States declared that "Abstinence-only was an experiment and it failed." Curiously, Ms. Kempner looked at abstinence programs, which have largely the same results as comprehensive sex ed programs--except that they better prepare students with a knowledge of STD-prevention--and she declares that only abstinence programs are failures.

I would argue that if abstinence programs are deemed a failure and worthy of defunding, then comprehensive sex ed programs that have virtually the same results should also be deemed a failure and defunded.