The net is aflutter today with claims that abstinence-only sex education delays sexual debut among teens. Conservative publications say “We told you so!” and more liberal publications say, “Not so fast!.” What do the headlines about Jemmott et al’s Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence Only Intervention over 24 Months even mean?
Let’s break it down.
Teens: African American 6th and 7th graders, 11-15 years at the start of the 2 year study (Mean age=12)
Delay Sex: No penis in the vagina within the 2 year follow-up period.
Abstinence Only: Abstain from sex (oral, vaginal, anal) until YOU feel ready. Understand links between sex and HIV, STIs and pregnancy. Give accurate info on condom efficacy.
Anything seem odd about that last one? Maybe because abstinence is not the only thing mentioned. So, abstinence-ONLY is a slight overstatement. (Dr. Charlie Glickman of Good Vibrations gives a succinct breakdown of why abstinence-only is a misnomer in this study.)
I teach my high school students that there are only two ways to absolutely prevent pregnancy and STIs. Abstinence and Masturbation. I tell them repeatedly not to have sex unless they want to take that step. We talk about the emotional complications and physical dangers of sex. We also talk about the immense potential physical pleasure and connection.
The media doesn’t care about the complicated conversations going on inside of classrooms. They want to prop the combative debates with their headlines even if they misrepresent the data. Dr. Petra breaks down the evidence behind the media circus. Joerg Dreweke at The Guttmacher Institute also reviewed the research.
What is the data, then?
The table above gives a breakdown of baseline (start of study) behaviors and demographics. 23.4% of participants already had penile-vaginal sex when the study began, 12% had sex within 3 months prior to the study. Of that 12%, 67.1% of those kids used condoms effectively. This is before any intervention. Interesting, no? We often forget that kids learn about sex outside of school.
The next table shows follow-up results. Researchers went back and checked with participants about their sexual activity since the interventions. Here is a quick and dirty explanation of the groups:
8 hour comprehensive: Encouraged abstinence and safer sex.
12 hour comprehensive: Encouraged abstinence and safer sex, but longer.
Abstinence-Only: Encouraged abstinence. Provided info on HIV/STIs. Info on condoms available.
Safer-sex only: Encouraged condoms. Provided info on HIV/STIs.
Health promotion control: Encouraged healthier living. Don’t smoke, etc. Why is this group the control? To make sure simply being in a group wasn’t the reason for behavior change (Hawthorne effect.)
Over time, the rates for sexual intercourse go up. Not surprising as the participants aged into sexual maturity. Here is the tidbit that everyone is going apeshit over: rates for ever having sexual intercourse were consistently lowest in the “abstinence” group. The difference is dramatic (6 months: abstinence lowest at 8.7% and safer sex highest at 23.9%) until 12 months when the numbers begin to level out among groups, though the safer sex group still blazes the high numbers path.
Overall, the abstinence group sees the lowest reported numbers of sexual risk taking. Condom use rates were similar among all the groups, though I want to point out what the researchers mean with the two categories.
Had unprotected sex: 1 or more intercourse acts sans condom. It only takes one reported time to be in that category.
Consistent condom use: Every. Single. Time.
For reference, here is the flow chart used my researchers to explain the check-ins.
What We’ve Learned
Encouraging young (African American technically, but really all) adolescents to wait to have sex until they’re ready may be a good thing. Abstinence Only Until Marriage is still bullshit. I still advocate for open discussions on masturbation. The media hypes research beyond recognition. Class dismissed.