Research: The Abstinence Study is on Repeat

This seems familiar...

I’ve already written an analysis on the “abstinence” study conducted by Jemmott et al. but when I did so, I had no idea that this was older news than most people realized.

Jemmott et al. already did this study. In 1998.

Violet Blue sent me a link to a findings summary from 1999 on Japan Aids Prevention Awareness Network . (Who is on top of her shit? Violet Blue, that’s who.) One of the articles, written by Mike Mitka, presented recent research on teens private sexual behaviors.

One of those studies was from none other than Jemmott and his Princeton team titled Abstinence and Safer Sex HIV Risk-Reduction Interventions
for African American Adolescents

All three investigators in the 1998 study (John B. Jemmott III, PhD; Loretta S. Jemmott, PhD, RN; Geoffrey T. Fong, PhD) conducted the recent Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention Over 24 Months.

Same academics. Same objectives. Same design. Same setting. Same population. The difference? In the 1998 study, students in the safer sex group had significantly higher rates of condom use and, among students already sexually active, the safer-sex group had less sexual intercourse at the 3, 6 and 12-month follow ups. The only place where abstinence made a small difference was fewer students having sex for the first time. But this only mattered at the 3 month follow up. At the 6 and 12-month the rates were higher in the abstinence group.

What is really weird: the intervention descriptions from the 1998 study.


The abstinence intervention acknowledged
that condoms can reduce risks but
emphasized abstinence to eliminate the
risk of pregnancy and STDs, including


The safer-sex intervention indicated
that abstinence is the best choice but emphasized
the importance of using condoms
to reduce the risk of pregnancy and
STDs, including HIV, if participants
were to have sex.

They kind of sound…the same. They both mention condoms and abstinence, but each one is a bit more biased towards one of those choices. (The 2010 version, however, did not list abstinence as a topic in the safer sex intervention.)

In both the 1998 and the 2010 study, investigators listed the design goals for the intervention. They were basically the same wording in both studies except for goal #2 of the safer sex intervention.

The 2010 version stated goal  #2 as: “enhance behavioral beliefs that support condom use”

The 1998 version put it a wee bit different: “enhance hedonistic beliefs to allay participants’ fears regarding adverse effects of condoms on sexual enjoyment.” [bolding added]

Um, what? You want to enhance my hedonistic beliefs so I won’t worry about condoms feeling weird? I’m not even sure what they meant by that but it sounds biased. Hedonistic is a loaded term.

In the end, the 2010 study is a (almost exact) replication of the 1998 study but with results that slightly favored interventions emphasizing abstinence in addition to accurate STI and condom info.

What perks my brain is that the biggest difference between the 1998 and 2010 study is the safer-sex group having the highest sexual debut rates in the latest iteration. Why? In 1998 the safer-sex intervention mentioned abstinence. In 2010 it did not.

Possible conclusion? If you don’t mention not having sex as an option, kids won’t consider it an option.

Beyond this I am trying to look for the big change between 1998 and 2010, culturally. The only thing I can point to is information access via the internet. The age cohort in 1998 grew up in a very different time than the 2010 age cohort. Is it possible that all this abstinence vs. comprehensive noise is less meaningful than we paint it to be?

Teens learn about sex outside of the classroom. Peers, the internet, television, church, parents, entertainment: all paths of information dissemination. Perhaps we should realize that whatever we present in a classroom setting is, in the end, supplemental to the information available elsewhere.

Speaking of information, below are the summary tables from the 1998 study. Summary tables from the 2010 study can be found here.

This falls under fair use. Public education. Not for profit.
This falls under fair use. Public education. Not for profit.
This falls under fair use. Public education. Not for profit.

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