Accountability

Rigorous Study Finds Abstinence Program Effective

By Mary Ann Zehr — February 09, 2010 4 min read
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A randomized-control study by well-respected researchers in the field of sex education has found that an abstinence program taught to African-American middle schoolers was more effective than other kinds of interventions in delaying sexual activity.

The findings differ from a number of previous studies that didn’t find evidence that abstinence-focused programs work. But the program studied differed from many abstinence efforts in its design, in that it did not stress remaining chaste until marriage.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, found in their study of 662 students in 6th and 7th grade that a third of participants in an abstinence program said they had sex in the two years following the program, compared with nearly half the participants in the control group. The abstinence program consisted of eight one-hour modules taught during two sessions.

“It’s the first randomized-control study to ever demonstrate that an abstinence-only intervention is effective,” said Loretta S. Jemmott, a professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the researchers for the study, which was published in this month’s issue of Archives of Pediatrics andAdolescent Medicine.

The researchers designed the abstinence intervention after they spent a lot of time discussing with youths their attitudes about sex and determining what messages might work with them to try to get them to delay sexual activity, Ms. Jemmott said.

Not ‘Moralistic’

“It was a positive intervention that did not bash sex, that wasn’t moralistic, and did not meet that definition of abstinence until marriage,” she said.

Ms. Jemmott added that she’s a church-goer and the mother of a 13-year-old and wants her daughter to wait until marriage to have sex. But young people aren’t necessarily receptive to that message, she said.

“We want the children to hear that the more they wait, the better it is, and maybe they will wait until marriage,” Ms. Jemmott said.

The federal government’s guidelines for abstinence programs have required that those programs teach an abstinence-until-marriage message, she said. The abstinence program that was found to be effective instead focused on activities with messages warning that having sex at a young age can interfere with one’s goals and dreams, she said.

The study also looked at two comprehensive sex education programs—one an eight-hour program, and another a 12-hour program—that included information about condom use. Students exposed to those approaches were less likely than participants in the control group to have multiple sex partners, the study found, but the comprehensive approaches didn’t have an effect in delaying the start of sexual activity. None of the approaches in the study showed an impact on condom use.

The researchers say in their study that African-American young people are particularly at risk for experiencing early involvement in sexual activity and its possible consequences, such as unintended pregnancies.

The results of the new study come as President Barack Obama has asked Congress not to give abstinence-based programs any funding in his proposed 2011 budget. Federal financing for such programs was zeroed out in fiscal 2010.

Advocates for abstinence programs are hoping that the new results will persuade members of Congress to restore funds.

“We’re really excited, because this signified really rigorous research that demonstrates the effectiveness of abstinence programs,” said Valerie J. Huber, the executive director of the Washington-based National Abstinence Education Association. “We think the timing of this study is perfect, and we encourage Congress to make a course correction.”

But Monica Rodriguez, the vice president for education and training for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, in New York City, said the findings don’t support such a change in course because the intervention in the study doesn’t look anything like the ones that the federal government has funded.

“Many are fraught with misinformation,” she said. “They portray sex negatively. They have absolutely nothing in common with the one in this study that was found to be effective.”

In November, a panel of independent medical experts appointed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that comprehensive sex education programs that teach use of contraceptives help reduce risky sexual behavior and decrease the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The panel didn’t find evidence that abstinence-based programs do the same.

That same month, Mathematica Policy Research was awarded a contract by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to study the effectiveness of sex education programs, including abstinence-based programs, in preventing teenage pregnancy. The contract is for an eight-year, random-assignment evaluation intended to document evidence on effective ways to reduce teenage nonmarital sexual activity, pregnancy, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Abstinence Program Effective

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