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Is Abstinence Only Education Working?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 13, 2024
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Abstinence only education refers to sexual education programs that teach kids, often starting at 5th or 6th grade and progressing through high school, that abstaining from sex, usually until marriage, is a better plan than being sexually active. These programs tend to leave out any education about birth control methods and focus only on the reasons teens should not be sexually active. While it’s hard to disagree with the idea that teens would be better off if they waited until they were mature enough to involve themselves in sexual relationships of any kind, it’s difficult to dispute the kinds of problems abstinence only education has created. Various programs supporting abstinence are the only ones funded by the US government in the school setting, and results from such programs suggest that success is minimal and that there are detrimental factors associated with this method of teaching.

It cannot be disputed that when a teen complies with the recommendations of abstinence only education, they certainly won’t risk pregnancy or get sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Even in programs that teach about birth control, education regarding abstinence is available, and teens are encouraged to abstain. Unfortunately, it can’t be said that since abstinence only education programs began in schools in the 1990s, that they’ve significantly reduced teen sexual activity. Furthermore, critics of the program in schools also point to misrepresentations about failure rates of birth control to protect against unwanted pregnancy or STDs.

A 2007 US Congressional study on abstinence only education did not find that participating in these programs had significantly diminished the number of teens having sex. In a controlled study, kids who participated in the program and kids who did not both had the same rate of sexual activity (within a few percentage points). Roughly half of participants and non-participants were sexually active by 16. In each group, those kids who did engage in sexual intercourse were about equally likely to use birth control. Both groups show a disturbing trend, however. Neither group used birth control to a desirable level, and this has numerous medical associations concerned.

Many groups criticize the programs, with the main concern that failure to teach about birth control methods is contributing to problems in the US, particularly a rise in contraction of STDs and particularly the AIDs virus, and one of the highest teen pregnancy rates (about 900,000 pregnancies a year) in a developed country. It should be noted that the pregnancy rate has declined since abstinence only education programs began. The main critics of this education plan are the following: The American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Public Health Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Many groups recommend that abstinence only education has its good points and agree it should be part of any sex ed program. Promoting abstinence and teaching about ways to say no, abstain, and wait are excellent as well. Some groups recommend a two-pronged approach; teach abstinence first, but teach about birth control methods too. It’s clear from studies that abstinence only education does not prevent all teens from having sex, and that many teens are having sex without the benefit of protection to prevent pregnancies or STDs. The critics mentioned above recommend the two-pronged approach so that teens who do choose to have sex have more information abut how to make sex safer.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon111705 — On Sep 17, 2010

I would teach about prevention before abstinence.

It has been proven that what people tend to remember more is the latest information that just got in their brain. Therefore, abstinence would be first to be remembered.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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