Study Says Abstinence Message Works
Special Report - February 10, 2010
An abstinence-only sex education program was better at helping pre-teens delay sexual activity than a “safer” sex-only program, two comprehensive sex education programs, and a general health education program in a new study by University of Pennsylvania researchers. The study, “Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention Over 24 Months: A Randomized Controlled Trial with Young Adolescents,” was published in the February 1 edition of the journal, Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. The study concluded that, “Theory-based abstinence-only interventions may have an important role in preventing adolescent sexual involvement.”
Researchers followed 662 African American students in grades six and seven from four urban public schools that “serve low income African American communities in a city in the Northeastern United States.” The students were randomly assigned to one of five intervention programs: an 8-hour abstinence-only program, which encouraged sexual abstinence to eliminate the risk of pregnancy and STDs; an eight-hour “safer” sex-only program, which encouraged condom use to reduce the risk of pregnancy and STDs; an eight-hour comprehensive sex education program, which combined lessons on abstinence and safer sex practices, and was aimed at encouraging both abstinence and condom use; a similar 12-hour comprehensive sex education program; and an eight-hour health promotion control program, which focused on promoting healthy behaviors, such as healthy diet, exercise, etc. (not sexual behaviors).
After two years, the study found that about one-third (or 32.6 percent) of the abstinence-only group reported ever having sex, compared to nearly one-half (46.6 percent) of the health promotion control group, 51.8 percent of the safe-sex only group, and over 40 percent of both comprehensive sex ed groups (41.2 percent in the 8-hour course, and 42.4 percent in the 12-hour course). The abstinence-only program also “significantly” reduced recent sexual intercourse (or sex in the last three months) among pre-teens, compared to the other programs. Additionally, the study found that the abstinence-only program did not reduce the likelihood of condom use among sexually active teens. Overall, there was a 33 percent reduction in self-reported sexual intercourse from the abstinence-only group, compared to the health promotion control group.
The University of Pennsylvania researchers attempted to distinguish their study’s findings from other studies of abstinence-only sex education, noting that the abstinence-only program in their study, “was based on principles shown to be effective in reducing the risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDS, and did not use a moralistic tone or portray sex in a negative light.” Instead, “facilitators used brief and interactive small group activities to build the pre-teens’ knowledge of HIV and STIs, bolster beliefs supporting practicing abstinence, and improve skills and confidence to help negotiate abstinence and resist pressure to have sex.”
In a statement, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy called the study’s findings, “game-changing,” and noted that it provides “strong evidence that an abstinence-only intervention can help very young teens delay sex and reduce their recent sexual activity as well.”
“Americans have long supported abstinence as a messagefor example, surveys consistently show that adults and teens think that young people should be encouraged to delay sexual activity,” the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy statement continued. “With the publication of this new study, we now have a well done, strong evaluation showing that a particular abstinence-only program can help young teens do just that.”
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