Clarification: Abstinence-only programs might work—for some

by Samantha Michaels
Feb 03, 2010

WASHINGTON – Abstinence-only classes recently found to deter sex might work for some youngsters, but they are less effective for those with previous sexual experience, according to a report published this week.

Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the report gained recognition among media outlets, researchers and advocacy groups as the first clear indication that abstinence programs could be a legitimate approach to sex education.

“This is game-changing research,” said Bill Albert, chief program officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “It’s noteworthy, because to date we have had no evidence to suggest these abstinence-only programs are successful.”

The findings, released Monday, add to a heated debate about sex education. After several earlier reports questioned the effectiveness of abstinence-only classes, President Barack Obama eliminated more than $170 million in annual funds for them. His administration proposed Monday expanding its sex education initiative to $183 million, funding only those programs scientifically proven to be effective.

“No one study determines funding decisions, but the findings from the research paper suggest that this kind of project could be competitive for grants if there's promise that it achieves the goal of teen pregnancy prevention,” said Nicholas Papas, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Led by University of Pennsylvania Professor John B. Jemmott III, the study indicates that abstinence programs without a moralistic tone can lead to delayed sex for many sixth-and seventh-graders. A third of students in abstinence-only classes said they had sex within two years, compared to about half of those in other classes.

Yet these findings may be misleading—considering only a particular group of participants: students who were virgins when the study began. About 25 percent of the sixth- and seventh- graders had already tried sex. 

“The study doesn’t tell us completely about students who were sexually active beforehand,” said Deb Hauser, executive vice president of Advocates for Youth. “The question we ask is: What happens to them?”

Past and Present: A closer look at the findings

Jemmott’s study was the first to carefully compare an abstinence program with several alternatives by following participants for an extended period. It involved 662 African American students aged 10 to 15 who came primarily from low-income communities in the northeastern United States.

“We wanted to teach them about abstinence, and we did it in fun, interactive, upbeat ways,” said Jemmott’s wife, Loretta, who designed the abstinence curriculum.

Unlike many classes federally funded by the Bush administration, the program in the study avoided a moralistic tone—encouraging students to delay sex, but not necessarily until marriage.  It did not disparage condom use. 

“Many of the more traditional abstinence classes tell people that condoms don’t work,” said Tim Wahlers, vice president for development of Planned Parenthood in Washington.“This abstinence-only program emphasized abstinence but it did not work against accurate science.”

Students were enrolled in one of several programs: one focused on abstinence; one focused on safe sex practices; two focused on abstinence and safe sex (either eight hours or 12 hours long); and one focused on healthy living. The final group did not discuss safe sex or abstinence.

After two years, about 33 percent in the abstinence program started having sex, compared to 52 percent in the safe sex program, 42 percent in the combination programs and almost 47 percent in the healthy living program.

Loretta attributed the positive results to the single message of abstinence-only classes.

“The clearer and more focused we are on our interventions, the better we are on getting behavior to change,” she said.

About 10 years ago, Jemmott and his researchers conducted a study which led to somewhat different conclusions.  Following 659 African American adolescents in several sex education programs, it showed that teaching safe sex practices doesn’t lead to more sex.

“Among adolescents with previous sexual experience, those in the safer-sex group reported less frequent sexual intercourse than students in the control group,” the study concluded. “This provides evidence contrary to common belief that sex education increases sexual activity.” 

Results from the newer study may reflect a change in attitudes, said Loretta Jemmott.
“Back in the day, people didn’t want to hear about abstinence,” she said. “I think it’s more accepted now because children are seeing the consequences of sex, and they’re making more goals. Music and television are discussing abstinence. People are talking about it more.”

In recent years, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate has been on the rise. After falling 41 percent between 1990 and 2005, the teen pregnancy rate increased by four percent in 2006, and the teen birth rate increased by three percent, according to a study by the Guttmacher Institute.

Abstinence-only: Better for some, not for all

Though abstinence classes were effective for virgins, the study indicates that different approaches may be better for certain students.

Only students with no previous sexual experience were considered in the two-year reports on sex initiation, but the other data considered all participants. After completing classes promoting both abstinence and safe sex, students were significantly less likely to sleep with multiple partners than those in abstinence-only classes.  None of the programs affected condom usage.

Loretta Jemmott said that abstinence-only education is not a universal prescription for all.

“Abstinence-only interventions are really important for younger school-aged children, especially in middle school, but some people need to have messages about condoms, particularly if they’re already sexually active,” she said. “You must know where teenagers are in their development to know what message to give them.”

John B. Jemmott was not available for comment.

Abstinence and safe sex? The debate on mixed-messages

Though Loretta Jemmott advocates a single message, many researchers say educators should complement abstinence lessons with safe sex lessons.

“Providing young people with information about sex and about contraception does not encourage earlier sexual activity or more partners,” said Albert. “Talking to kids about abstinence and contraception is not a contradictory message, it is complementary message.”

Hauser believes safe sex education is necessary.

 “Young people have the right to this information,” she said. “It’s the only way that they can be expected to protect their health and lives.”

Abstinence-only programs may be effective for some youth populations, but sex education advocates will continue to broaden their toolbox.

“We celebrate the fact that our menu, the nation’s menu, of proven programs is a bit larger today than it was a few days ago,” Albert said. “It is clear, however, that a decline in teen pregnancy is driven by two things—less sex, or more contraception. So it’s not an either-or approach that any one should advocate. It’s a more-of-both approach.”