Since 1981, the federal government has provided grants to mostly religious sex eduaction programs that promote abstinence as the main vehicle for preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection (STI) contraction (Gonzalez et al., 2016). In 2010, Health Care Reform allocated $50 million annually to abstinence only programs ($250 million by 2014) as an incentive from the Obama administration to garner conservative support for the bill (SCIECUS, 2015). Given the conservative affinity for such programs, abstinence only sex education may be coming to a school near you very soon (figure 1).
What are students learning in abstinence only sexual education? As it turns out, not what sex is or how to avoid health risks associated with sexual activity: the House of Representatives found that 80% of abstinence only curricula supported by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services contained false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health, which includes but is not limited to: false information about the effectiveness of contraceptives, untrue information about the risks of abortion, religious beliefs displayed as fact, stereotypes about boys and girls displayed as scientific fact, and false medical and scientific information regarding sexual health (Committee on Government Reform, 2004). Additionally, there is no federally mandated sex education curriculum, so students from different states are exposed to varied information about sex and sexual health (Figure 2). A majority of these students may not get information from any credible sources, given that there has been a significant decline formal instruction from any authority figures (such as teachers and parents) on topics of birth control, saying no to sex, STIs, and HIV/AIDS from 2006-2013 (Lindberg, Maddow-Zimet, & Boonstra, 2016).
I am not arguing that teens should be having more sex or that the discussion of sex should be purely scientific. Sex is profoundly interpersonal and there are benefits to conversations about morality, religion and sex: religious teens are 27%-54% more likely to have had fewer sexual partners than peers in a nationally representative sample of 15-21 year-olds (Haglund & Fehring, 2010). Also, Evangelical Christian college students report higher social and psychological well being, specifically when they are part of a community of students who choose abstinence (Freitas, 2015). However, religious teens that do choose to engage in sexual activity are more at risk of unhealthy outcomes. Teens with high religiosity have a higher teen birth rate, even when controlling for household income and abortions (Kappe, 2016).
Students in abstinence only programs have one option: abstinence. The curricula leaves numerous young Americans who choose to have sex without the tools they need to make healthy choices. But that doesn’t stop their questions. Teens in abstinence-only programs are significantly more likely to seek information in erotic sources, such as internet porn (Kleinert, 2016).
Since the Reagan administration, the resounding consensus from researchers is that abstinence-only programs do not decrease number of sexual partners, frequency of sexual activity, teen pregnancy, abortion, or STI rates (Carr & Packham, 2016; Kirby, Korpi, Barth & Cagampang, 1997). These programs have lived consequences far beyond the teen years, since many Americans have little to no additional formal sexual education after high school, but most go on to have sex (Figure 3). Further, women who had pledged abstinence until marriage and broke the pledge are at higher risk of HPV and unplanned pregnancy, even when controlling for exposure risk. They also reported less consistent and informed uses of contraceptives in comparison to women who did not take the pledge (Paik, Sanchagrin, & Heimer, 2016).
Can we call a class that gives students false information “education”? Would we tolerate this in any other setting?
With abstinence-only education we are asking students to drive one day without ever teaching them how a car works, which can have fatal consequences. In order to equip adolescents with the tools they need to make healthy and moral decisions about sex, sexual education should include scientifically accurate information.