The Problem with Abstinence-Only Sex Ed

Since 1997 the federal government has spent about $50 million a year on an ineffective form of sexual education: abstinence. The percentage of American public schools that teach abstinence-only sex ed is now at 23 percent, according to ABC news.

Instead of teaching students about contraception methods and providing them with helpful facts and information on sex, kids are taught that abstinence is the only method to preventing pregnancy and STD’s.

In fact, one recent study showed that students who were taught abstinence-only sex ed were just as likely to have sex as those who received a comprehensive sexual education. Conversely, states that require abstinence-only sex ed have some of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.  

Advocates of abstinence-only sex ed, many of whom live in bible states and hold  right-wing political views, make their argument on religious grounds. In Mississippi, the state with the highest teen pregnancy rate, sex ed is not required. When it is taught, however, the state mandates abstinence-only instruction.

On the other hand, New Hampshire requires comprehensive sexual education and has the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the nation.

Why are abstinence-only sex ed programs failing students?

Abstinence-only sex ed also fails to consider that young people are still developing frontal lobes, which controls many aspects of executive functioning, or decision-making. As a result, students choose reward over risk; or in this case, sex over abstinence, without thinking over all of the potential consequences. Furthermore, those who take the abstinence-only sex ed are less likely to know about and use contraception. As result, these students are far more likely to have unplanned pregnancies or contract an STD.

Additionally, abstinence programs stress over a dozen points, many of which have been proven false, to make abstinence appear as the only safe option. According to Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit organization that “champions efforts that help young people make informed and responsible decisions about their reproductive and sexual health,” some of the falsehoods include:

  1. HIV can be spread via sweat and tears.
  2. Half of gay male teenagers in the United States have tested positive for HIV.
  3. Pregnancy can result from touching another person’s genitals.
  4. Condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as often as 31 percent of the time in heterosexual intercourse.
  5. Women who have an abortion “are more prone to suicide.”
  6. As many as 10 percent of women who have an abortion become sterile.

The Washington Post also cites many of these statistics in a Dec. 4, 2004 article, Some Abstinence Programs MIslead Teens, Report Says.

One curriculum, called ‘Me, My World, My Future,’ teaches that women who have an abortion “are more prone to suicide” and that as many as 10 percent of them become sterile,” writes Post reporter Ceci Connolly. “This contradicts the 2001 edition of a standard obstetrics textbook that says fertility is not affected by elective abortion…”

All sex ed programs should have the same goal in mind—preventing teen pregnancy and helping students to become knowledgeable about the risks that come with sex. Comprehensive sex-ed is a step in this direction. Those who receive it are 60 percent less likely to get pregnant, or get someone else pregnant, than those who receive an abstinence only education.

Additionally, Advocates for Youth conducted a meta-study of over two dozen comprehensive sex programs in various states, and found promising results:

  1. Fourteen programs demonstrated a statistically significant delay in the timing of first sex.
  2. 13 programs showed statistically significant declines in teen pregnancy, HIV, or other STIs.
  3. 14 programs helped sexually active youth to increase their use of condoms.
  4. 9 programs demonstrated success at increasing use of contraception other than condoms.
  5. 13 programs showed reductions in the number of sex partners and/or increased monogamy among program participants.
  6. 10 programs helped sexually active youth to reduce the incidence of unprotected sex.

Every student deserves a basic knowledge about sex and contraception, regardless of their region or religious beliefs. Abstinence-only sex ed fails to inform and achieve—and Congress needn’t waste our tax dollars on it. 

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