Department of abstinence department

abstinence1The Washington Post‘s Rob Stein has an important story looking at how federal funding of abstinence-focused education might be included in the behemoth health care reform legislation pending in the Senate.

There are a few good things in the article. Coverage of the overall issue has been wretched for years. One minor pet peeve of mine is that mainstream reporters use the term “abstinence only” to describe programs that encourage teenagers to, among other things, wait to have sex until they’re married.

“Abstinence only” is a great term of polemics, and I certainly understand why people who oppose such programs use the term, but there is no way it’s fair to use in a mainstream media account. It conjures up scary visions of the religious right, fails to accurately describe the curriculum and isn’t how proponents of the program describe the curriculum. I’ve actually read through the curriculum of some abstinence education programs and was surprised to find that they deal much less with sex than with self-esteem training, decision making and goal setting.

To the Post‘s credit, it describes abstinence programs using fair language and the term “abstinence-only” is limited to quotes from proponents of sex education that does not focus on abstinence.

But not all of the piece shines:

Critics of sex education programs focused on abstinence, however, are fighting to permanently end funding, saying there is clear evidence that the approach is unsuccessful.

“This is a last-ditch attempt by conservatives to resuscitate a program that has been proven to be ineffective,” said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, a Washington-based advocacy group. “This is the failed abstinence-only model that research has shown is ineffective.”

During President George W. Bush’s administration, abstinence programs received more than $100 million per year directly in federal funding and about $50 million in federal money funneled through the states. But the effort came under mounting criticism when studies concluded that the approach was ineffective and signs indicated the long decline in teen pregnancies was slowing.

(So “Advocates for Youth” is an advocacy group? You don’t say. I think even I could have figured that out from the name.) But we’re told that “studies concluded that the approach was ineffective”? And “signs indicated the long decline in teen pregnancies was slowing”? Are the minority of schools using abstinence education are to be blamed for this? What are these studies that have concluded this? Why aren’t they named or cited? Are we just supposed to trust the media?

I’m a huge skeptic on media coverage of abstinence education. I’ve written about the topic for years and it combines two of the media’s Achilles’ heels — an inability to understand statistics and a general favoring of the sexual revolution-end of the morality spectrum. A few years ago the CDC announced — wildly and completely erroneously, it turns out — that one in four teenage girls had a sexually transmitted disease. Without any corresponding data to suggest a relationship with sex education, many major media outlets — such as the New York Times and the Associated Press — repeated the claim and suggested that this increase was due to “abstinence only” education.

Or there was the study that showed that teenagers who delay or abstain sexual activity have much lower risks than those who don’t. But it showed that those who take public virginity pledges have higher incidences of some risky behavior than those who abstain from sex but do not take virginity pledges. And the media covered this either as proof that virginity pledges don’t work (without revealing that the comparison was not with sexually active teenagers but, rather, sexually abstinent teenagers who didn’t take public pledges). Or, worse, they covered the study as proof that “abstinence only” education doesn’t work. The only problem being that the study didn’t even look at what sex education curriculum was used. These virginity pledges might have taken place independently, in a church or para-church environment or in a school.

There was a solid study done by RAND Corporation on virginity pledges that showed they delay the onset of teenage sexual activity. And the media response was along the lines of crickets chirping.

My own reporting on sex education indicated that different programs work for different populations. If you’re a girl who doesn’t see college or a fancy career on her horizons and desperately wants to have a child, learning how to use condoms won’t alter your plans. Learning how to set reasonable goals and make responsible decisions might. If you’re a girl who has her college and career choices lined up and thinks that sleeping with the jai alai team is the path to happiness, learning how to use birth control might help you achieve your goals. It’s very difficult to quantify what works when considering the widely divergent populations that are being analyzed.

And contrary to popular reporting, abstinence education isn’t terribly widespread, even if it increased in popularity and funding during the previous administration. The standard sex education is still the typical curriculum, although it’s hard to say that any curriculum is typical since there are so many on the market. This article doesn’t mention how much these other programs receive in taxpayer funding.

The article does quote defenders of abstinence education disputing the views of Planned Parenthood and other groups that claim the programs are ineffective. But the Post has already sided with the latter group. Of course, even if sex education effectiveness wasn’t difficult to quantify and wasn’t highly charged and political, it would be inappropriate for the Post to side with one group over the other.

The fact is that we all probably wish that these heady questions of morality could be decided with simple quantitative analysis. It could happen, I guess, but it hasn’t happened yet. These stories will always pit supporters of the sexual revolution against apologists for the, say, Evangelical-Catholic-Muslim-Hindu approach to sex outside of marriage. Whether federal tax dollars are used to say that sex outside of marriage is great (and here’s how to do it) or that it’s unwise (and here’s how to avoid doing it) the moral and religious beliefs of many are at stake. Because of these underlying values, it’s a minefield to cover but there’s certainly room for improvement.

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  • Bob Smietana

    Hey Mollie:

    We covered the RAND story on virginity pledges back in August 2008– it’s not on the Tennessean site anymore–but is on this blog’s page.

    The RAND study echoes what you’ve posted–there’s no one size fits all appoach that’s effective in sex ed.

  • mathetos

    seriously great and important article. I’m so glad I stumbled onto your site, I try to get to it everyday now. This is exactly the kind of fairmindedness our country and press needs right now!

  • Chris Bolinger

    …studies concluded…and signs indicated…

    It’s the dreaded double-play of unspecificity!

  • Jerry

    The study that I think most cite is Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Program

    The impact findings show no overall impact on teen sexual activity, no differences in rates of unprotected sex, and some impacts on knowledge of STDs and perceived effectiveness of condoms and birth control pills

    But it’s important to note, as is not done in the media, the perceived limitations of the finding as the authors do thusly:

    In addition, most Title V, Section 510 programs are completed before youth enter high school, when rates of sexual activity increase and many teens are either contemplating or having sex. Findings from this study provide no evidence that abstinence programs implemented in upper elementary and middle schools are effective at reducing the rate of teen sexual activity several years later. However, the findings provide no information on the effects programs might have if they were implemented for high school youth or began at earlier ages but served youth through high school.

  • Dave

    At its inception, “abstinence-only” was a phrase referring to abstinence-based programs that do not also teach the facts about contraception. A program either teaches the latter or it doesn’t. There should be no arguments about this, being a matter of fact, and it should be very easy for the media to report. If a story uses “abstienence-only” even in a quote it should review those facts.

    A program that teaches about contraception is preparing the students for adult life. One that doesn’t is only teaching them how to be chaste teenagers. That, too, is a matter of fact, and also should be reported whenever the issue comes up.

  • Dave G.

    A program that teaches about contraception is preparing the students for adult life. One that doesn’t is only teaching them how to be chaste teenagers. That, too, is a matter of fact, and also should be reported whenever the issue comes up.

    Um, that would not be a fact. More of a personal appraisal, or an opinion. But shouldn’t be reported as ‘a fact’.

  • Dave

    A program that leaves young people in the position of learning about contraception from their first few sexual partners has not prepared them. That’s factual enough for journalism.

  • Dave G.

    No, that’s your opinion of it. One could easily say that obviously abstinence based education teaches young people to reach for higher levels of being than merely sex starved animals who are unable to possess a shred of self control. A strong case could be made for that. But it would still be opinion. A fact is a fact, and an opinion is an opinion, no matter how sure a person may be that his or her opinions are the same as facts. If journalism thinks otherwise, then there is no reason to trust journalism’s definition of a fact.

  • Stoo

    Contraception exists and is widely used. So if kids aren’t told about it, that’s something missing from their education. Dave’s right, that’s pretty factual.

    (Of course educating about contraception doesn’t have to mean encouraging it’s use.)

    (ps we are animals, that’s also a fact)

  • Dave G.

    I guess if abstinence based education went out of its way to convince kids that there was no such thing as contraception, then yeah, you both would have a point (because we all know that kids only learn about sex in the classroom). But it doesn’t. It simply holds to another philosophy of human nature and human sexuality. A philosophy that believes humans are capable of self control. And teaches accordingly. That’s different than Dave’s original assertion. Again, the opposite appraisal, that “safe-sex” based education is merely saying ‘since self-control is probably out of the question for most of you, when you go out and get lucky, do what we tell you and hope for the best’, could easily be seen as a fact as well.

  • Stoo

    But does abstinence-based education actually mention contraception at all? Does it argue against or just ignore the option? (i honestly don’t know, my Methodist school didn’t even bother with sex education, useless!)

    And kids learning about sex elsewhere is kind of the point – wouldn’t it be better if they learned important stuff in school instead of watching TV?

    Also you seem to be assuming that refraining from sex is somehow inherently virtuous. (also it’s not a binary choice between waiting for marriage and finding a different partner every weekend.)

  • Dave G.


    I think the point of many articles here is that sex education is not the either/or that many make it out to be. I was answering Dave’s statement earlier. He made a statement and called it fact, when it was really just an opinion (well, it was really a dig, but we’ll call it an opinion). That’s all. I merely pointed out that anything could be said at that point and called a fact if a person sees it that way. But facts are facts, and opinions are opinions.

    My experience in the public schools (and this was late 70s/early 80s) – sex education was exclusively ‘how to protect yourselves when you do it.’ It had .01% effect on us, since even then, we knew most of what they taught already. Basically, we just listened to what form of protection had the least chance of failure and hoped for the best. My guess is, there’s a lot of kids who do the same today (since I have lived in five school districts in four states over the last 15 years and have yet to be in a district that teaches ‘abstinence only’, I assume it’s the same).

    As for it being virtuous. Well, yeah. I think it is. Because the carnage that floats in the wake of the Sexual Revolution is stunning to think about.

    Also, it’s interesting to note that pop culture generally doesn’t support either abstinence or protective sex education, but a fantasy mishmash that is less real than the latest installments of Harry Potter.