The Fracas Over the “Abstinence Education Works” Study
There’s been lots of gloating, arguing, and tossing around of cliches like “game-changing” in the wake of a new study on abstinence education and its potential to reduce sexual activity in teens. But the study isn’t exactly what the political forces trumpeting its arrival would like you to believe.
The study appears in the journal Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. In its introduction, study leader John B. Jemmott III concludes that “Theory-based abstinence-only interventions may have an important role in preventing adolescent sexual involvement.”
So what’s actually in the study? Between 2001 and 2004, Jemmott’s team studied 662 African-American middle schoolers in the northeastern United States, who were each paid $20 a session to attend sex-education classes. The kids were randomly assigned to one of several different programs: One program emphasized only abstinence, one both safe sex and abstinence, one just safe sex, and the last was a control group that simply taught healthy living—eating well, exercise, and the like.
According to the study, which relied on self-reported surveys, about half of the kids in the safe-sex only class began having sex over the next two years, compared to a third for the students in the abstinence-focused program and 42 percent of those in the combination program. But while abstinence-only backers jumped for joy at the results, the journal ran an accompanying editorial cautioning that public policy should not be based on the results of a single study and that policy makers should not “selectively use scientific literature to formulate a policy that meets preconceived ideologies” [The New York Times]. That speaks directly to the posture of Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association, who said the study “just verifies what we’ve known intuitively all along.”
Jemmott’s study will now rightfully enter the debate as the first to show that abstinence programs could work in some situations. But there are other reasons to question how much his results mean for the country at large (other than the previous studies casting doubt on the effectiveness of abstinence-only education). He says the team chose to study only African-American students, and at such a young age (about 12 on average), because “African-Americans tend to have a higher rate of early sexual initiation than others,” and starting young could allow for intervention. Researchers will have to duplicate the study with other demographic groups and time spans to sort out this question further.
In addition, the abstinence-only program that Jemmott’s team devised wasn’t exactly the “wait until your married” approach that many social conservatives would like to see taught to kids. It did not take a moralistic tone, as many abstinence programs do. Most notably, the sessions encouraged children to delay sex until they are ready, not necessarily until married; did not portray sex outside marriage as never appropriate; and did not disparage condoms [The Washington Post].
Among those critical of the Jemmott study was Heather Boonstra of the Guttmacher Institute, which released data showing that after a decade-long decline, America’s teen-pregnancy rate rose 3 percent in 2006. Ms. Boonstra is among those who believe some of that uptick may be due to the reliance on abstinence-only programs [Christian Science Monitor]. Once again, though, correlation doesn’t imply causation. So although the trend reversal coincides in time with President Bush’s emphasis on funding abstinence programs, we can’t say for sure that’s the main cause.