Issue Report: Abstinence-only vs. comprehensive sex education

Is abstinence-only education or comprehensive sex education a better idea?

The debate between “comprehensive sex education” (also just called “sex education”) and “abstinence-only education” is long-standing in the United States, and exists in many other societies around the world that are split between more sexually progressive groups and generally those that oppose pre-marital sex. Comprehensive sex programs teach teenagers, mostly in high school, a range of information related to their own sexual anatomy, the act of sex, the use of contraceptives, and the risks of pregnancy and STDs associated with having sex. Abstinence-only programs, conversely, are much more conservative and limited in scope, teaching abstinence from sex, usually until marriage, as a means of avoiding the risk of pregnancy and STDs and of enjoying other considered benefits such as a more unique sexual bond with one’s ultimate partner. Many questions frame this debate: Is abstinence a good message? Is teen sex and pre-marital sex wrong? Or, is teen sexuality and possibly sex natural and acceptable? If the goal is to reduce sex rates among teens, does abstinence-only succeed? And, what about comprehensive sex education? If the goal is to reduce the spread of STDs among teens, is one approach better than the other? And, what about for the goal of reducing teen pregnancy? Are condoms effective at lowering these risks, and are comprehensive sex education programs doing a good job of promoting them? Is comprehensive sex education the job of schools, or should this role be reserved for parents? What about for kids that do not have parents, or whose parents are not responsible care-givers? As is evidenced by these questions, one of the unique elements of this debate is how it brings together so many fields of study, including sexual culture, marital culture, faith, human instincts, pregnancy, disease, parental-school-state roles, and many other issues.

Abstinence message: Is the abstinence-only message appropriate?

Abstinence-only helps youth avoid emotional damage of sex

Robert Rector. "The Effectiveness of Abstinence Education Programs in Reducing Sexual Activity Among Youth". Heritage. 8 Apr. 2002

“Young people who become sexually active are vulnerable to emotional and psychological injury as well as to physical diseases. Many young girls report experiencing regret or guilt after their initial sexual experience. In the words of one psychiatrist who recalls the effects of her own sexual experimentation in her teens, ‘The longest-standing, deepest wound I gave myself was heartfelt; that sick, used feeling of having given a precious part of myself–my soul–to so many and for nothing, still aches. I never imagined I’d pay so dearly and for so long.'”

Comprehensive sex ed fosters an irresponsible sexual culture

Comprehensive sex ed and forms of contraception such as Plan B make it appear acceptable to have rampant sex without taking full responsibility for unintended pregnancies, among other possible consequences.

Abstinence-only promotes healthy, fulfilling relationships

Valerie Huber. "Opposing view: Abstinence works". USA Today. 30 July 2007

“Abstinence programs offer a holistic approach, teaching teens how to build healthy relationships, increase self-worth and set appropriate boundaries in order to achieve future goals.”

Abstinence-only discourages youth sex and risk-taking

Robert Rector. "The Effectiveness of Abstinence Education Programs in Reducing Sexual Activity Among Youth". Heritage. 8 Apr. 2002

“Young people who become sexually active enter an arena of high-risk behavior that leads to physical and emotional damage. Each year, influenced by a combination of a youthful assumption of invincibility and a lack of guidance (or misguidance and misleading information), millions of teens ignore those risks and suffer the consequences.”

Comprehensive sex ed rightly teaches about sexual pleasure

Susan Wilson, a US school teacher, said to a reporter from the Atlantic in 1994, “it is developmentally appropriate for teenagers to learn to give and receive pleasure.”[1]

Abstinence-only wrongly teaches suppression of sexual impulses.

Individuals should not deny their natural sexual impulses. If an individual has a strong desire to have sex, they should probably pursue that desire, albeit responsibly. Teaching teens that sex is wrong, forces them to believe that their natural sexual impulses are wrong – causing great confusion and self-doubt – and causing the needless and frustrating suppression of sexual impulses. Instead, teens should be taught that these impulses are natural and beautiful, and should be helped in the process of understanding and channeling these impulses. This will help teens live a more fulfilling life, opposed to a life of self-denial.

Abstinence-only sometimes encourages oral/anal sex alternatives.

“[Teenagers making virginity pledges] were just as likely, the study found, to contract STIs as the teenagers who had sexual education in their history. Not only this, but the pledges were more likely to engage in risky behavior, such as anal and oral sex, because they associated virginity with vaginal sex.”

Sex-ed empowers informed decisions about risks of sex

"Editorial: Abstinence-Only Sex Ed". The Philadelphia Inquirer. 1 Sept. 2008

“While teen pregnancies have fallen recently, sexually transmitted diseases, especially among young girls, have been on the rise […] A study earlier this year by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in four young women ages 14 to 19 was infected with at least one of four common sexually transmitted diseases […] To make good decisions, teenagers need to know all of their options – including abstinence. The state should not participate in encouraging programs that offer anything less.”

Sex-ed teaches nothing new in a culture of sex.

Increasing rates of teenage STIs, pregnancy and the shocking rise in abortion is more to do with the oft cited decaying fabric of society’s values in relationships, family and life. Pop culture is increasingly sexualised. Just watch MTV for five minutes – there’s nothing coy about anything children are exposed to from the media. While nobody is suggesting that this is an easy issue, perhaps we should address these attitudes rather than bashing the Western educational system for answering questions that many teenagers will raise anyway.

Sex rates: Which approach is generally more effective at reducing teen sex?

Comprehensive sex-ed often ignores abstinence as an option

Robert Rector. "The Effectiveness of Abstinence Education Programs in Reducing Sexual Activity Among Youth". Heritage. 8 Apr. 2002

“Conventional ‘safe sex’ programs (sometimes erroneously called ‘abstinence plus’ programs) place little or no emphasis on encouraging young people to abstain from early sexual activity. Instead, such programs strongly promote condom use and implicitly condone sexual activity among teens. Nearly all such programs contain material and messages that would be alarming and offensive to the overwhelming majority of parents.”

Comprehensive sex-ed undermines message of abstinence

Robert Rector. "The Effectiveness of Abstinence Education Programs in Reducing Sexual Activity Among Youth". Heritage. 8 Apr. 2002

“Clearly, the caveat that says ‘and if you do engage in sex, this is how you should do it’ substantially weakens an admonition against early non-marital sexual activity.”

Comprehensive sex-ed often actually encourages sex

Robert Rector. "The Effectiveness of Abstinence Education Programs in Reducing Sexual Activity Among Youth". Heritage. 8 Apr. 2002

“many of these programs also implicitly encourage sexual activity among the youths they teach. Guidelines developed by SEICUS, for example, include teaching children aged five through eight about masturbation and teaching youths aged 9 through 12 about alternative sexual activities such as mutual masturbation, ‘outercourse,’ and oral sex.16 In addition, the SEICUS guidelines suggest informing youths aged 16 through 18 that sexual activity can include bathing or showering together as well as oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse, and that they can use erotic photographs, movies, or literature to enhance their sexual fantasies when alone or with a partner. Not only do such activities carry their own risks for youth, but they are also likely to increase the incidence of sexual intercourse.”

Abstinence-only is not effective at reducing teen sex rates

Veronica Salazar. "Abstinence-only fails to stop early pregnancies, diseases". USA Today. 30 July 2007

“Teaching abstinence has always had a certain appeal. How many parents disagree with the notion that their teens should postpone sex? But abstinence-only programs aren’t having much success. […]That conclusion comes from an eight-year, government-funded study recently released by highly respected, non-partisan Mathematica Policy Research Inc. The study zeroed in on four programs, selected for their variety of approaches, and followed students for four to six years. The authors of the 164-page report didn’t equivocate: There is no evidence that abstinence-only programs reduce the rate of teen sexual activity.”

Abstinence may be effective, but teens will never follow it

"Editorial: Sex ed/Abstinence-only is unrealistic". Star Tribune. 6 Dec. 2004

“Bush undersecretary said further studies are unnecessary when abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent pregnancy and disease. But that response sidesteps an important point: There is little proof that simply telling young people not to have sex actually changes their behavior.”

Comprehensive sex-ed acknowledges some teens will have sex

"Editorial: Congress should stop funding abstinence-only ed". The Daily Gazette. 7 July 2008

“[teens] need to know how their bodies work, and how to protect themselves from pregnancy and STDs if they do have sex — and the reality is that many will, regardless of what they are told. It is silly, and dangerous, to pretend otherwise.”

Abstinence may have value, but only within comprehensive sex-ed

Barack Obama was reported saying on 20 Apr. 2008 – “…[W]hat I have consistently talked about is to take a comprehensive approach where we focus on abstinence, where we are teaching the sacredness of sexuality to our children […] But we also recognize the importance of good medical care for women, that we’re also recognizing the importance of age-appropriate education to reduce risks. I do believe that contraception has to be part of that education process.”[2]

Telling teens to abstain from sex makes them want it more

"EDITORIAL: Abstinence-only sex ed won't work." The Michigan Journal. 9 Sept. 2008

“Thanks to the Bush regime, abstinence-only programs are the only sex education programs to receive federal funding. Telling a person not to do something only makes them want to do it more, especially when they are exposed to it on a daily basis wherever they turn.”

Unglamorous sex-ed does not encourage sex.

It’s ridiculous to think that those teenagers who are not thinking about sex and are unlikely to have an early first sexual experience are going to be rendered horny maniacs just because they are taught the unglamourous facts about sex. Have you been to a sex ed lesson – it’s hardly the highlights of the Kama Sutra. Teenagers are often at a time that they are thinking about sex and relationships anyway, so for the benefit of those that may not have the sense to protect themselves but will have sex anyway, educating about prevention of STIs and pregnancy is the smart way of mananging the issue.

STDs: Which approach is better at fighting STDs/HIV?

Abstinence-only correctly responds to an epidemic of STDs

Letter from Congressman Lee Terry requesting support for Title V funding (and the congressmen who signed it). 21 June 2007

“Abstinence education is a public health strategy focused on risk avoidance that aims to help young people avoid exposure to harm. These programs have been shown to effectively reduce the risks of out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases by teaching teenagers that saving sex for marriage and remaining faithful afterward is the best choice for health and happiness.”

Condoms are not very effective at protecting against STDs

Robert Rector. "The Effectiveness of Abstinence Education Programs in Reducing Sexual Activity Among Youth". Heritage. 8 Apr. 2002

“[…] Significantly, research shows that condom use offers relatively little protection (from “zero” to “some”) for herpes and no protection from the deadly HPV. A review of the scientific literature reveals that, on average, condoms failed to prevent the transmission of the HIV virus–which causes the immune deficiency syndrome known as AIDS–between 15 percent and 31 percent of the time. It should not be surprising, therefore, that while condom use has increased over the past 25 years, the spread of STDs has likewise continued to rise.”

Comprehensive sex-ed does not reduce STDs in teens

Mona Charen. "Abstinence education benefits". Washington Times. 5 Sept. 2008

“The cheerleaders for contraceptives often overlook that reality in their eagerness to place condoms in the hands of teenagers. They also overlook this sorry fact of life: Teenagers are terrible contraceptors. Though 98 percent of sexually active teens report using at least one method of birth control, 8.4 percent got pregnant in 2000. Fully 25 percent of sexually active teens contract an STD each year. Some of these diseases, like genital herpes and AIDS, are incurable. Others can lead to infertility.”

Abstinence-only provides some info on STDs and contraception

Valerie Huber. "Opposing view: Abstinence works". USA Today. 30 July 2007

“Abstinence education shares the realities of sexually transmitted diseases and the best way to prevent them. Accurate information about contraception is provided, but always within the context of abstinence as the healthiest choice.”

Abstinence-only discourages condom-use, increases risks

Nicholas Kristoff. "The Secret War on Condoms". New York Times. 10 Jan. 2003

“I’m all for abstinence education, and there is some evidence that promoting abstinence helps delay and reduce sexual contacts both in the U.S. and abroad. But young people have been busily fornicating ever since sex was invented, in 1963 (as the poet Philip Larkin calculated), and disparaging condoms is far more likely to discourage their use than to discourage sex. The upshot will be more gonorrhea and AIDS among young Americans — and, abroad, many more people dying young. […]’The Bush administration position basically condemns people to death by H.I.V./AIDS,’ said Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition. And we’re talking about tens of millions of people.

Improper use of condoms is to blame for "ineffectiveness" of condoms.

While many abstinence-only advocates argue that comprehensive sex ed leads to increased sexuality and that condoms are not effective, the improper use of condoms is the true culprit of many teen pregnancies and the spread of STDs. According to one source, 54 percent of all women having abortions used contraception in the month they got pregnant; of the women using condoms, 14 percent were using them correctly. Imperfect usage is the primary cause of contraceptive failure.[3] Proper comprehensive sex education can ensure the proper use of condoms and reduce the transmission of STDs and teen pregnancy.

Abstinence-only does not help decrease HIV infection rates

Kristen Underhill. "Sexual abstinence only programmes to prevent HIV infection in high income countries: systematic review". BMJ Medical Journal. 26 July 2007

“Conclusion: Programmes that exclusively encourage abstinence from sex do not seem to affect the risk of HIV infection in high income countries, as measured by self reported biological and behavioural outcomes.”

Pregnancy: Which program is better at reducing teen pregnancy?

Abstinence-only effectively reduces rates of teen sex and pregnancy

Life Way Christian Resources on Opposing Views – “Since 1991, when federal abstinence funding began, births to 15- to 17-year-olds have dropped 43 percent despite a 25 percent increase in that age group. In 1991, 54 percent of teens said they had had sex, compared to 47 percent in 2003. Further evidence that abstinence education works can be found in a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, which concluded that both abstinence and contraception contributed to the decline in teen pregnancy rates between 1991 and 2001. The study attributes the majority of the decline in teen pregnancy rates (53 percent) among 15- to 17-year-olds to abstinence and 47 percent to contraceptive use.”

Abstinence-only helps discourage out-of-wedlock pregnancies

Robert Rector. "The Effectiveness of Abstinence Education Programs in Reducing Sexual Activity Among Youth". Heritage. 8 Apr. 2002

“Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing […] Today, one child in three is born out of wedlock. Only 14 percent of these births occur to women under the age of 18. Most occur to women in their early twenties.14 Thus, giving birth control to teens in high school through safe-sex programs will have little effect on out-of-wedlock childbearing. […] Nearly half of the mothers who give birth outside marriage are cohabiting with the child’s father at the time of birth.15 These fathers, like the mothers, are typically in their early twenties. Out-of-wedlock childbearing is, thus, not the result of teenagers’ lack of knowledge about birth control or a lack of availability of birth control. Rather, it is part of a crisis in the relationships of young adult men and women. Out-of-wedlock childbearing, in most cases, occurs because young adult men and women are unable to develop committed, loving marital relationships. Abstinence programs, therefore, which focus on developing loving and enduring relationships and preparation for successful marriages, are an essential first step in reducing future levels of out-of-wedlock births.”

Condoms, not abstinence-only, decrease teenage pregnancy

"The Abstinence-Only Delusion". New York Times. 28 Apr. 2007

“Supporters of abstinence-only education sometimes point to a sharp decline in teenage pregnancy rates in recent years as proof that the programs must be working. But a paper by researchers at Columbia University and the Guttmacher Institute, published in the January issue of The American Journal of Public Health, attributed 86 percent of the decline to greater and more effective use of contraceptives — and only 14 percent to teenagers’ deciding to wait longer to start having sex. At the very least, that suggests that the current policy of emphasizing abstinence and minimizing contraceptive use should be turned around.”

Teaching condom-use certainly does not increase pregnancies

Stephanie Luke. "Sex education a must". The Daily Collegian. 4 Dec. 2008

“It is stupid to assume that sexual education, educating people how to avoid unplanned pregnancy, would cause unplanned pregnancy.”

Abstinence-only presumes pregnancy out-of-wedlock is always wrong

Stephanie Luke. "Sex education a must". The Daily Collegian. 4 Dec. 2008

“Other requirements [Title V, Section (§) 510 of the Social Security Act] […] seem to be aimed at bashing sex outside of marriage. An abstinence-only program must “teach that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects; [and] teach that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society.” […] This is an offensive assumption that all children born out of wedlock are unplanned or even unwanted. Marriage and partnership are concepts that evolve with our society over time. Today the nuclear family is no longer a realistic picture of many American families.”

Parental responsibility: Are parents primarily responsible for sex education?

Parents, not schools, should teach kids about sex

Schools should not be teaching kids about sex at all, except to say that abstinence is the best option for avoiding pregnancy and STDs. Parents are principally responsible for teaching their children beyond this, covering whatever they choose, from condom-use to how to please their mates. But, it is not the job of schools to do this.

Parents prefer more modest abstinence-only sex-ed

LifeWay Christian Resources. "Parents Want a Strong Abstinence Message". Opposing Views

“The vast majority of parents believe that teenagers should be given a strong message from society to abstain from sex until at least after high school. A Zogby International poll of U.S. parents also found that abstinence education is the preferred approach for the sex education of youth in America. Key findings include:

9 out of 10 parents agree that being sexually abstinent is best for their child’s health and future, with 8 in 10 strongly agreeing;

78% of parents think sex education classes in public schools should place more emphasis on promoting abstinence than on condom and other contraceptive use;

59% of parents said more funding should go to abstinence education.”

Schools are obligated to help teach kids about their sexuality

Cynthia McKinney, former US House Representative (D-GA) wrote on 16 Sept. 2008 – “Teaching human sexuality is a parental and school responsibility. Young people should be provided with education regarding their own and others’ sexuality at the earliest appropriate time. This includes age-appropriate education about AIDS/HIV, appropriate methods of prevention, and the distribution of condoms in schools.”

Many teens don't have (responsible) parents; schools must teach sex-ed.

The obvious problem with relying on parents to teach children essential sexual information is that many children do not have parents, or responsible ones. Should these children just go without such information? The reason the answer must be no is that it would put such children at much greater risk of pregnancy or contracting STDs. In a compassionate, equal-opportunity society, sex education in schools is required.

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