The Abstinent Majority—Do Teens Respect Abstinence?

Part 2 of a three-part series
You have to appreciate the nobility of trying to teach sexual abstinence to teens. But, the skeptics scoff, why bother? Isn’t that like trying to teach monarch butterfly larvae not to eat milkweed? (Science hint: They really, really like it.)

Well, the nine-tenths majority of teens who agree with the statement, “Teens should wait until after graduating high school to have sex,” is telling. So also is the 2011 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey reporting that 53 percent of today’s high school students have remained abstinent (up 15 percent from two decades ago), and two out of three are currently abstinent. Clearly, teens respect abstinence. But how much of the difference can abstinence sex education take credit for?

A lot, according to repeatedly positive results from twelve studies conducted between 1995 and 2010. These studies of twelve different authentic-abstinence curricula demonstrated that teens who went through these programs were typically one third to one half less likely than control groups to have initiated sexual activity after a follow-up period. Interestingly, the programs often proved most effective among teens with sexual experience and more permissive attitudes. In other words, the kids with the least prior exposure to the abstinence message were especially responsive to it.

The most recent of these studies was published in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine in 2010 and was the most rigorously scientific study to date. It took a group of 662 sixth- and seventh-grade African-American students and placed them randomly in five groups presented with five different curricula. One group went through an eight-hour abstinence-only curriculum, while another group received eight hours of “safe sex” teaching that promoted contraception. In follow-up studies two years later, the abstinence-only group was one-third less likely than a control group to have started having sex. What is more, neither the abstinence curriculum nor the “safe sex” curriculum made any difference in condom use. In other words, the “safe sex” teaching was useless, and the abstinence-only teaching did not leave teens ignorant of condom use (a criticism often leveled against abstinence programs).

While teen sexual activity continues to be a concern nationwide, the trend is headed in the right direction. And abstinence-only education can take at least some of the credit. Yes, teens do want to save sex for later in life, and yes, they do listen.

Check out the report on twelve successful abstinence education curricula here!

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