Our youth today are growing up in a culture that surrounds them with sexual imagery and messages—but one in which marriage is often delayed until the late twenties or later. Historically, public health prevention messages have singled out abstinence until marriage as the most effective way to remain free of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Yet while abstinence is a fundamentally important aspect of preventing STIs, but this message alone does not serve well in the absence of comprehensive sexual education and a supportive environment. ASHA believes young people deserve balanced, accurate, and realistic sex education, as well as access to confidential sexual health services.
Research clearly shows that comprehensive sex education programs do not encourage teens to start having sexual intercourse, do not increase the frequency with which teens have intercourse, and do not increase the number of a teen’s sexual partners. Research also shows that sex education programs that promote abstinence only have in fact proven ineffective. Federal appropriations for abstinence-only education programs have exceeded $1 billion since 1982. However, reviews have found that none of the programs has shown a positive impact on sexual behavior or STDs over time. Furthermore, some research shows that young adults who made virginity pledges (to abstain from sexual intercourse until marriage) as teens ultimately have rates of STIs similar to young adults who did not make such promises as teens and are less likely to use contraception or protection when they do become sexually active.
A position paper of the Society for Adolescent Medicine published in the Journal of Adolescent Health discussed two reviews that evaluated the evidence supporting abstinence-only programs and comprehensive sexuality education programs designed to promote abstinence. As the authors note, “Neither review found scientific evidence that abstinence-only programs demonstrate efficacy in delaying initiation of sexual intercourse. Likewise, research on adolescents taking virginity pledges suggest that failure rates for the pledge are very high, especially when biological outcomes such as STIs are considered. Although it has been suggested that abstinence-only education is 100% effective, these studies suggest that, in actual practice, efficacy may approach zero.”
If you are an educator who supports comprehensive sex education, we hope you find iwannaknow.org a useful resource for both you and your students. The site offers information on sexual health for teens and young adults, including comprehensive information on sexually transmitted infections, as well as information on healthy relationships, dating violence, and more.