Wait, abstinence-only works?

So says a new study, but beware the details

Published February 2, 2010 9:30PM (EST)

Are researchers just screwing with us? First, they tell us abstinence-only education doesn't work. Then, again, they tell us it doesn't work -- and then again and again and again. Now, today, headlines are suddenly singing a different tune: Abstinence education does work!

I'm sorry, come again? Was that a typo? A prank by a conservative copy editor?

Nope. According to a new study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, abstinence-only education can actually work to reduce teen sexual activity. More specifically, researchers surveyed sixth and seventh grade African American students in urban public schools in the northeastern United States. The kids took one of four courses: abstinence-only, safe-sex, comprehensive sex-ed (which encouraged abstinence and safe sex) or, for the control group, the G-rated "healthy living." Over two years, roughly one-third of the students who were taught abstinence-only reported having sex; compare that to 42 percent in the comprehensive program, 47 percent for the control group and 52 percent in the safe-sex class. None of the courses had a significant effect on condom use.

It's that last part that boggles. It makes enough sense that teaching sixth and seventh graders strictly about the dangers of sex might convince them to hold off and wait. Shoot, I still have that sex-ed slide show of gnarly STDs emblazoned in my adult mind. But that none of these approaches meaningfully increased or decreased condom use? It seems to go against common sense. The study does make a crucial concession, though: The "relatively small number of sexually active adolescents limited the statistical power to test the effects of the safer sex and comprehensive interventions on condom use. Therefore, effects of these interventions on condom use were likely underestimated in this trial." It's also possible that the participant age-range might be a significant factor. The researchers say a similar abstinence-only program might not be very effective with older kids, who might benefit more from "other approaches that emphasize limiting the number of sexual partners and using condoms."

Having slogged through the entire study, I found one especially fascinating detail that escaped many news reports: This particular abstinence-only program made a point of eliminating all moralizing and religious rhetoric. Instead of being instructed to abstain until marriage, the students were encouraged to wait until they felt ready. According to the report, the class didn't feed kids "inaccurate information" or "portray sex in a negative light," as so many Bush-era classes did. So, while this landmark study may be a boon to abstinence-only courses, let's keep in mind that we're talking about a very special breed.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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