What the Research Shows: Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Don’t Work

There is no conclusive evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, which teach students to abstain from sex until married and generally only teach about contraceptive failure, reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Moreover, research indicates that many of these programs do not help teens delay having sex. The federal government has funneled well over half a billion dollars since 1997 into abstinence-only programs, steadily increasing funding in recent years to more than $165 million annually.

On the other hand, evidence shows that comprehensive sexuality education programs that provide information about abstinence and contraception can help delay the start of sexual activity in teenagers and increase condom use among sexually active teens. There is currently no federal program dedicated to supporting comprehensive sexuality education.

Studies show that most abstinence-only programs do not help teens delay having sex, and some show evidence that these programs deter teens who become sexually active from protecting themselves from unintended pregnancy or STDs.

  • A recent review of program reproductive health rights in 11 states (AZ, CA FL, IA, MD, MN, MO, NE, OR, PA, WA) indicates that after participating in abstinence-only programs, teens are less willing to use contraception, including condoms. And in only one state, did any program demonstrate any success in delaying the initiation of sex.

D. Hauser, Five Years of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education: Assessing the Impact, Advocates for Youth, September 2004.

  • Many abstinence programs include “Virginity Pledges,” whereby teens sign cards promising to remain virgins until they are married. While data suggests that under limited circumstances, teens who sign a pledge may delay sexual intercourse, 88 percent still have sex before marriage. Recent research also shows that pledgers’ rate of STDs does not differ from the rate of nonpledgers because pledgers are less likely to use condoms at first intercourse or to be tested for STDs.

H. Brückner and P. Bearman, “After the promise: the STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges,” Journal of Adolescent Health, 36 (2005) 271-278.

A recent Congressional report found that widely used federally funded abstinence-only curricula distort information, misrepresent the facts, and promote gender stereotypes.

  • More than 80 percent of the abstinence-only curricula reviewed contain false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health.
  • The curricula reviewed misrepresent the effectiveness of contraceptives in preventing STDs and unintended pregnancy. They also contain false information about the risks of abortion, blur religion and science, promote gender stereotypes, and contain basic scientific errors.

“The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs,” Prepared for Rep. Henry A. Waxman, United States House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform – Minority Staff, Special Investigations Division, December 2004.

Parents want schools to teach comprehensive sexuality education and do not think taxpayer dollars should be spent on abstinence-only programming.

  • More than 85 percent of Americans believe that it is appropriate for school-based sex education programs to teach students how to use and where to get contraceptives.

National Public Radio, Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, Sex Education in America, January 2004.

  • Seventy percent of Americans oppose the use of federal funds for abstinence-only sex education programs that prohibit teaching about the use of condoms and contraception for the prevention of unintended pregnancies and STDs.

Advocates for Youth and SIECUS, “Americans Oppose Abstinence-Only Education Censoring Information on Contraception,” 1999.

Comprehensive sexuality education helps teenagers delay sex and protects their health.

  • A review of a large body of evaluation research on programs to prevent teenage pregnancy found conclusive evidence that comprehensive sex education programs do not increase sexual activity or hasten the onset of first intercourse. To the contrary, several of these programs have been shown to delay the onset of sex or increase condom or other contraceptive use among sexually active teens.

Douglas Kirby, Ph.D., Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, May 2001.

  • In an evaluation of 19 sex education programs, 12 programs – 11 of which included information about abstinence and contraception and 1 of which is an intervention for elementary school children and their parents – helped delay the timing of first sex; 11 programs increased condom use among sexually active teens.

Advocates for Youth, Science, and Success: Sex Education and Other Programs That Work to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, HIV & Sexually Transmitted Infections, 2003.

  • The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention note that “research has clearly shown that the most effective programs [to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS] are comprehensive ones that include a focus on delaying sexual behavior and provide information on how sexually active young people can protect themselves.”

Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Fact Sheet: Young People at Risk: HIV/AIDS Among America’s Youth, National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention, March

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *