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Sex Education: Comprehensive vs. Abstinence-Only

November 19, 2012

There continues to be a debate in this country about whether/how to teach sex education to children and teens. This is a delicate topic, as not teaching it at all can lead to a complete lack of knowledge and preparation when the time comes, while covering it too early could be at the least morally troublesome. The consensus seems to be that sex education is needed, but that is where the agreement ends.

The debate then shifts into discussion about what type of sex education is best. Many question the morality and efficacy of comprehensive sex education, saying that it degrades the moral fiber of our children by promoting sexual activity and abortion, and leads to children engaging in sexual activities at an early age and with more partners. Abstinence-only proponents further propose that emphasizing abstinence leads to a better overall well-being.

The facts, however, appear to be stacked firmly on the side of comprehensive sex education. The vast majority of studies, including a survey of studies, have concluded that comprehensive sex education at worst has no negative impact on the onset of sexual activity, and has the benefit of decreasing the prevalence of pregnancy and STIs. Some findings on comprehensive sex education:

  • 56% of studies found no impact on the initiation of sexual activity, while 42% found a delay in onset
  • 62% found no impact on number of sexual partners, while 35% found a reduction
  • When children did engage in sexual activity, 48% of studies found an increase in condom use, while none found a decrease

This study is not, however, particularly useful in determining the impact of sex education on rates of pregnancy and STIs. It summarizes other studies, and there are not enough studies which covered  this subject to make an accurate conclusion. On the other hand, a study published in PLOS One found a significant link between the type of sex education provided and the prevalence of pregnancy. This study categorized sex education programs into 4 categories:

  • Level 0: no requirement to mention abstinence
  • Level 1: abstinence mentioned as part of a comprehensive sex education program
  • Level 2: abstinence emphasized
  • Level 3: abstinence only

What they found was interesting: students receiving abstinence-only education (level 3) are 30% more likely to give birth than those receiving Level 1 education. This relationship holds true even when adjusted for a variety of mitigating factors (socio-economic status, ethnic background, etc.) as shown below:

What I think is most interesting about this analysis is the fact that Level 1 education, i.e. that mentioning abstinence in the context of comprehensive sex education, consistently resulted in the lowest pregnancy rate. This result would suggest that abstinence-based education is effective, but only when couched in the broader context of general sex education. In addition, the study found no link between the type of education given and the abortion rate.

But what about evidence for the other side of the debate, the group promoting abstinence-only education? The most often-cited work in this movement is a paper produced by The Heritage Foundation in 2002 defending the effectiveness of abstinence-only education. This paper covers ten programs which it claims have delayed the onset of sexual activity through an abstinence-only approach. These studies do not, however, analyze the impact of these programs on pregnancy rates. Moreover, many of the programs involve taking a pledge or vow of abstinence, which indicates some amount of self-selection and therefore a reduced sample size and scope. In addition, a review of these ten studies found that only one of them meets the criteria of an effective study, and that showed a marginal delay in onset of sexual activity in one subset of the group analyzed.

Based on the above, it is obvious that comprehensive sex education not only reduces the number of teenage pregnancies and increases the amount of safe sex teens practice, it can can actually delay the onset of sexual activity to a greater degree than abstinence-only education. While I won’t get into the morality of teaching children about how to have sex in school, I would propose that reducing unwanted teen pregnancies is moral, and that many teens are going to engage in sexual activity whether we teach them about it or not. The only logical approach, then, is to provide them with the comprehensive sex education, including discussions of abstinence, shown to dramatically reduce teen pregnancy.

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From → Opinion

2 Comments
  1. This is how religious conservatives box themselves in (and the society they influence) with bad ideas. They hate abortion but also hate policies that reduce them! I do not understand how that forms a coherent ideology.

    • What gets me more is the fact that they have the gall to call themselves pro-life, but have no interest in supporting policies that would actually give children a shot at a better life. “We’ll make sure you’re born, but after that F you!”

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