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Abstinence education does not reduce sexual activity in teens

Sue Mueller, foodconsumer.org, April 14, 2007

A new study authorized by US Congress has found that the federal abstinence education programs that encourage adolescents to abstain from having sex during their early years proved ineffective.

The abstinence program did not persuade youth from having sex, nor change their other sexual behavior including condom use, according to the 164-paged study report released yesterday by Mathematica-Policy Research, Inc. The report will be reviewed by the United States Department of Health and Human Service Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

The Abstinence Education Program receives $175 million from the federal government and funds also from states each year, according to the report. The program results from the enactment of Title V, Section 510 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 which aims to promote sexual abstinence and health behavior in teenagers.

For the study of the abstinence education program, researchers surveyed 2057 youth for their sexual behaviors in 2005 and 2006. The participants were enrolled in the program four to six years ago. By the time the study was finished, the subjects were on average 16.5 years old. The mean age was 18 years of age for study youth in the two middle school programs known as ReCapturing the Vision and My Choice, My Future while the age of those who were in the two upper elementary school programs, FUPTP and Teens in Control was younger, around 15 years of age.

The study focuses on two measurements. 

One measurement is sexual behavior including rates of sexual abstinence, rates of unprotected sex, number of sexual partners, expectation to abstain and rates of pregnancy, births and incidence of STDs. 
And the other is knowledge and perception of risks of teen sexual activity including risks of pregnancy and STDs and perceptions of the effectiveness of condoms and birth control among others.

The study found that the abstinence education made no difference in the teens in terms of the rate of abstinence, the number of sexual partners, and the mean age at which they started having sex compared to the group of teens who did not receive the education.

On the other hand, the group of teenagers who were uneducated for abstinence, contrary to concerns raised by the critics, the study group of teens was no more likely than the uneducated teens to have engaged in unprotected sex than control group youth.

In the last 12 months prior to the survey, the sexual behaviors in both the program group and control group were the same, about 

55 percent teens remained sexually abstinent, 
23 percent had sex and always used condom, 
17 percent had sex and sometimes used condom and 
4 percent had sex and never used condom. 

The age for the first intercourse and the number of sexual partners were identical. Teens who had sex started having sex at a mean age of 14.9 years. And one-quarter of all youth in both groups had sex with three or more partners and one in six with four or more partners.

The abstinence program did improve identification of STDs, but had no overall impact on knowledge of unprotected sex risk and consequences. Both groups of teens had a good understanding of risks of pregnancy, but less knowledge of sexually transmitted disease and their health consequences.

In terms of perceptions about the effectiveness of condoms for pregnancy prevention, 

50 percent of teens in both the abstinence program group and control group reported that condoms usually prevent pregnancy while 
38 percent said condoms sometimes prevent pregnancy.

A low percentage of teens in both the abstinence group and control group knew the effectiveness of condoms for prevention of STDS. One-quarter of youth in both groups were unsure about whether use of condoms would prevent Chlamydia and gonorrhea or herpes and HPV whereas one in seven did not know if condoms can effectively prevent HIV.

When it comes to perception of effectiveness of birth control pills, just 55 percent of the youth in both the abstinence group and control group believed that birth control pills prevent pregnancy while more than two in three youth said that birth control pills do not prevent STDs.

The abstinence program does not seem effective at preventing teens from having sex or improving their sexual behaviors, but the current situation demands more effort. Nationwide, more than 50 percent of students will have sex when they graduate from high school. More than one in five will have four or more partners. One quarter of sexually active teenagers has an STD and STDs are lifelong viral infection that can't be cured.

The abstinence education programs were implemented in upper elementary and middle schools. The study shows that implementation of the abstinence program in these school does not help teens to reduce their sexual activity. Teens are most sexually active in high school, but the study does not provide any evidence to indicate abstinence education at high school is effective either.

The authors say in their report that an analysis of teen sexual activity shows that friends' support for abstinence is a predictor of future sexual abstinence. The grogram does not promote this measurement, but they researchers say their finding suggests that peer network for abstinence should be an important feature for future abstinence programs.

The National Abstinence Clearinghouse issued a statement saying that there are many more substantive reports that show otherwise (that abstinence education reduces teens' sexual activity). The organization, which serves as a community for abstinent people, cited many programs that show effectiveness at preventing teens from having early sex.

A health observer with foodconsumer.org suggested that itís better to leave abstinence education to the parents. He also said at least two things the society and the parents need to do to prevent teens from having sex too early, that is, reducing the sex scenes in the media and reducing intake of animal derived foods. The former can serve as a trigger for sexual activity and the latter promotes hormones, which push children to enter puberty at an early age.

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