Frequently Asked Questions - Correcting Misinformation in the Sex Ed Debate
Critics attack Abstinence Education through the deliberate use of misinformation. These attacks may be posed in the form of questions. This document provides factual responses to the most frequently asked questions regarding abstinence education.
Q: Why should abstinence-centered education funding continue when there is no evidence that it works?
A: Despite what you may read in the newspapers, there is a growing body of research that confirms that abstinence-centered education decreases sexual initiation, increases abstinent behavior among sexually experienced teens, and/or decreases the number of partners among sexually experienced teens.1 And if individuals do initiate sex after being in an abstinence-centered program, they are no less likely to use condoms than anyone else.2 Researchers acknowledge that it takes about a decade before a new program or strategy begins having positive published research. Abstinence-centered education has received widespread federal funding for little more than a decade, but there is already promising research to show what most people intuitively know – abstinence works!
Q: Isn’t “abstinence only” really a “just say no” message?
A: No – on both counts. SRA abstinence education, as funded by Congress, has nothing to do with “only” and the message is decidedly more inclusive than“just say no.”The term,“abstinence only” is strategically attached to this funding by opponents to create the false perception that abstinence-centered education is a narrow and unrealistic approach. SRA abstinence education is overwhelmingly more comprehensive and holistic than other approaches and focuses on the real-life struggles that teens face as they navigate through the difficult adolescent years.
SRA abstinence education realizes that “having sex” can potentially affect not only the physical aspect of a teen's life but also, as research shows, can have emotional, psychological, social, economic, and educational consequences as well. That’s why topics frequently discussed in an abstinence education class include how to identify a healthy relationship, how to avoid or get out of a dangerous, unhealthy, or abusive relationship, developing skills to make good decisions, setting goals for the future and taking realistic steps to reach them, understanding and avoiding STDs, information about contraceptives and their effectiveness against pregnancy and STDs, practical ways to avoid inappropriate sexual advances, and why saving sex until marriage is optimal. So, within an SRA abstinence education program, ALL teens receive all the information they need in order to make healthy choices. SRA curricula is holistic and empowering while presenting all topics within the context of abstinence as the best choice. There’s nothing “only” about the SRA abstinence approach!
Q: But I thought that students in an abstinence class couldn’t receive information about condoms and contraception!
A: Not true! Abstinence classes can explain various contraceptive choices and how they can reduce the risk of acquiring STDs or getting pregnant. This discussion, however, always stresses the best health choice of abstinence as the only way to prevent all risk. Many so-called comprehensive sex ed curricula mislead students by providing only clinical "perfect use" protection rates for condoms, giving students a false sense of security. By contrast, abstinence programs give students the real-life protection rates that a condom offers. A recent national poll of parents demonstrated that 90% want their children to know about the risks associated with casual sex and the limitations of contraception. They want their children to learn accurate information about condoms and contraception in the manner provided in an SRA abstinence education.3 It is also important to note that students who have been a part of an abstinence class are no less likely to use a condom if they become sexually active.4
Q: Then how does Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA) education differ from Sexual Risk Reduction (SRR) "comprehensive sex education"?
A: There are vast differences between SRA abstinence education and SRR comprehensive sex education. The major distinction is how each approach regards teens. Abstinence-centered education believes teens can and increasingly do, avoid sex.5 Discussions empower teens to make the healthiest sexual decision which is to abstain, regardless of their previous sexual experience. By contrast, SRR assumes that teens can't or won't avoid sexual experimentation; so much of their time is spent talking about sex - using condoms and other forms of contraception with a view to simply reduce, rather than eliminate, sexual risk for seens.6
SRA abstinence curricula discuss many topics that teens confront in an increasingly sexualized culture, but always within the context of why abstaining is the best choice. The same is not true with most SRR texts. The most widely used and recommended SRR curricula may include the word or concept of ‘abstinence’ in their texts, the concept is rarely developed in a way that empowers teens to see its value. In fact, an HHS review of SRR curricula shows that, on average, about 5% of their time is devoted to the abstinence message,7 and rather than clear guidance, the definition of abstinence is often subjectively defined by the student. One popular SRR text promoted by comprehensive sex ed providers, asks students to brainstorm “what sexual behaviors a person could engage in and still be ‘abstinent’”8 and such suggested activities as “cuddling with no clothes on,”“masturbating with a partner,”“rubbing bodies together,” and “touching a partner’s genitals” as possible abstinent behaviors.9 Students are sent non-directive and confusing definitions for abstinence that are filled with risk and predictably, the discussion quickly moves to “the endless possibilities of outercourse”10 and “making the transition from sexual abstinence.”11By contrast, SRA abstinence education provides a clear risk avoidance definition of abstinence. Alarmingly, SRR curricula often present abstinence and condom use as equally “safe” options, promoting dangerous and medically inaccurate information to teens. (Read Straight From the Source for a more exhaustive discussion of the content of popular SRR texts.)
The difference is clear. The focus of SRA education is to empower teens to avoid risk by making good health decisions, regardless of their sexual history, in contrast to so-called comprehensive sex education that sets the bar much lower, assuming teens will engage in high risk sexual behavior and focusing merely on reducing the risk of that behavior.
Q: But doesn't Sexual Risk Reduction (SRR) "comprehensive" sex education have strong evidence of effectiveness?
A: A close look at what is presented as "evidence" for the effectiveness for SRR comprehensive programs reveals numerous research problems:
- Conflict of interest. Currently, the majority of SRR programs approved and deemed "national models" by HHS have been evaluated by the program developer or publisher, rather than an independent researcher, indicating a conflict of interest.
- Over Generalization. Researchers know that broad conclusions should not be drawn on results that were captured under unique circumstances, yet the HHS list of "proven effective" programs does just that. For example, about 80% are not school-based, yet all are considered "effective" for use in schools. Many programs on the "approved" list report resultso nly on small population subsets and yet are deemed effective with all students. These are serious flaws in overgeneralization.
- Little protection. The findings in most SRR programs do not accurately measure whether teens are at decreased risk as a result of the program. And only about 10% were successful in delaying sex.
- Lacks Replication. These programs fail the replication requirements for "model programs" since they lack consistent positive findings from at least two different studies.12 Additional research showed that students were at increased risk as a result of their participation in some of these programs. 13
Q: What is the priority in federal funding for sex education?
A: Funding to promote contraceptives and “safe sex” Sexual Risk Reduction (SRR) education among teens currently receives about 16 times the funding as abstinence-centered education.14 In addition, SRR has received dramatically more funding for SRA education - even during the Bush years - when funding for SRA was at its highest level in recent years.15 Despite this funding disparity, SRA abstinence education fits squarely within the public health model for primary prevention and risk avoidance. And with a growing body of research showing its effectiveness, continued funding is not only warranted but also highly advisable to impact and improve teen health in America.
Q: Is it true that most schools teach Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA) abstinence education?
A: The majority of schools still focus on reducing the risk of sex through contraceptive-based Sexual Risk Reduction (SRR) instruction,16 rather than the risk avoidance skill-building message of abstinence. In 1995, only 8% of schools taught abstinence education but 84% taught birth control instruction.17 In 2002, 22% taught abstinence-centered education, and 68% taught contraceptive-based SRR instruction. Information only up to the year 2002 is available, but this data indicates that fewer than 1 in 4 students across America are receiving SRA abstinence education. At least in part because of unequal federal funding between both initiatives, more than two-thirds of all teens receive SRR education, a message that assumes that teens will have sex. The recent increase in federal funding for “comprehensive” sex education, together with the decrease in funding for abstinence-centered education, has likely made the educational disparity even more pronounced and detrimental to the overall sexual health of America’s youth.
Q: Does the abstinence message have any relevance for teens that are sexually active?
A: Absolutely! Sexually experienced teens receive the skills and positive empowerment to make healthier choices in the future as a result of SRA education. A recently published study shows that the abstinence message is especially relevant for sexually experienced teens. Those enrolled in an abstinence-centered program were much more likely to choose to abstain than their sexually experienced peers who did not receive abstinence education.18 Among teens that have had sex, 55% of boys and 72% of girls wish they had waited.19 The SRA abstinence message charts the only practical approach away from high-risk behavior and toward a decision that removes future risk for that teen.
Q: Why does abstinence-centered education oppose medical accuracy?
A: NAEA strongly believes that all youth serving organizations should provide accurate information on every topic. Organizations receiving federal funds for pregnancy prevention, HIV/AIDS prevention, and all other programs, including SRA abstinence education, should be held to the same standards of accountability and SRA abstinence organizations share this commitment to accuracy.
While ideologically motivated individuals and organizations have tried to assert that inaccurate statements characterize SRA abstinence education, this is simply not true. For example, the 2004 report, The Content of Federally Funded AbstinenceOnly Education Programs, commissioned by Rep. Henry Waxman and compiled, primarily, by special interest groups who are historic opponents to abstinence, relied upon misrepresentation, distortion, and error rather than an honest appraisal of abstinence education curricula.20
Most reports on “medical accuracy” fail to note that SRR curricula regularly overstate the effectiveness of condoms, underestimate the risk of certain sexual activities, and infer that sex can be made "safe" and without consequences as long as a condom is used.21 One widely-used text even warns facilitators not to mention any limitations on condom effectiveness to students.22
SRA abstinence education is medically accurate, theoretically sound and consistent with a public health model typically used to address youth risk behaviors.
Q: Why should the government fund SRA abstinence education? Isn’t that a separation of church and state conflict?
A: The curricular content of abstinence-centered education programs funded by the federal government is consistent with the public health prevention model for risk avoidance. In terms of general public health policy, the best health outcomes are made possible by the best positive health behavior messaging. SRA abstinence education follows this health model, while all other approaches offer a message that still leave youth at risk for some of the consequences of sexual activity. Abstinence education provides all the information necessary for teens to make the best choice for their sexual health. The fact that the world’s major religions support abstinence until marriage does not disqualify the value of this behavior as an important public health goal.
Q: With most people having sex before marriage, isn’t the “abstinence until marriage” message unrealistic?
A: The fact that many individuals have sex before marriage and more than 40% of all births are outside of marriage does not diminish the benefits of waiting to have children until marriage, nor does it mean we should abandon the goal of changing the cultural norm for this behavior. In fact, historically, if a cultural behavior or norm is in conflict with the desired outcome, efforts are redoubled, not abandoned. For example, a generation ago, smoking was a desired, normative behavior, but today smoking is almost universally viewed as undesirable and unhealthy - proof that cultural and social norms can and do change. Similarly, although growing numbers of Americans are overweight, efforts to encourage exercise and healthy eating habits have increasingly become public health priority messages. We do not capitulate our highest public health standards based on the unhealthy choices of a majority, but on standards that promote optimal health outcomes in the population.
Overwhelming social science data reveals that children who are born within a committed married relationship fare better economically, socially, physically, and psychologically.23 In terms of child outcomes, the facts are clear – waiting until after marriage to have children is indisputably in the child’s best interest. Further, most teens are not sexually active and more and more teens are choosing to be abstinent, proving that the message of abstinence increasingly resonates with youth.24 Amplified efforts to link the personal benefits of abstinence with the positive effects for children born from a marital union are warranted and necessary if positive changes in cultural norms are to be realized.
Q: I’ve heard that most parents want their children to receive SRR “comprehensive sex education” rather than SRA “abstinence education”. Isn’t SRA abstinence education out of touch with what parents want their children to be taught?
A: Most parents support SRA abstinence education for their children. Significant, recent studies found that parents
overwhelmingly support the SRA abstinence education
approach to sex education for their children.
- The Parents Speak Out Survey, a nationally representative
survey of parents of 9-16 year olds was conducted in
September 2012. The study found that the majority of
American parents, regardless of race or political party,
support SRA abstinence education with similar enthusiasm,
endorsing all the major themes presented in an abstinence
education class. More than 8 of 10 parents, but especially
women and African Americans, support the dominant
themes of SRA abstinence education. In addition, almost
60% of Democrats and more than 70% of Republicans
oppose President Obama’s efforts to eliminate all federal
funding for SRA abstinence education. 25
- A study posted to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human
Services website in Auguest 2010 showed that 70% of
parents and more than 60% of teens believe that sex
should be reserved for marriage.26 Sexual Risk Avoidance education is the only sexual education approach that provides youth the skills to reach the goal.
- Additionally, when parents understand the differences
between SRR and SRA curricula, they prefer abstinence
education to so-called comprehensive sex education
by a 2:1 margin.27
Parents across all ideaological, political, and demographic boundaries want what is best for their children and in terms of sexual health, the favored approach is SRA abstinence education. 28
Q: How can I contact NAEA?
A: The NAEA office is located at 2625 Cumberland Pkwy Suite 200 Atlanta, GA 30339. You may contact us at (202) 248-5420 or by email at info@theNAEA.org
1 National Abstinence Education Association. (2010 February). Abstinence Works. A compilation of independent, peer reviewed abstinence-centered research that details numerous studies showing positive behavioral impact among students who participate in abstinence education classes.
2 Ibid.,Trenholm,Christopher,etal.(April2007).ImpactsofFourTitleV, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
3 Zogby International Poll. (2007). commissioned by NAEF.
4 Jemmott,J.B.,JemmottL.S.,FongG.T.(2010).Efficacyofatheorybased abstinence only intervention over 24 months. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. ; 164(2):152-159.;
Trenholm, C., Devaney, B., Fortson, K., Quay, L., Wheeler, J., & Clark, M.(April 2007). Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs. Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. Retrieved from http://www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/PDFs/impactabstinenceES.pdf.
Kirby, Douglas. (November 2007). Emerging Answers Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy. Retrieved from http://search.thenationalcampaign.org/?index=433175&query=kirby&image.x=3&image. y=12&image=Search.
5 Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). Trends in the prevalence of sexual behavior. National YRBS: 1991-2009. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/yrbs/pdf/us_sexual_trend_yrbs.pdf.
6 US Department of Health and Human Services & the Administration for Children and Families (May 2007). Review of Comprehensive Sex Education Curricula.
Martin, S & Pardue M. (August 10, 2004). Comprehensive Sex Education vs. Authentic Abstinence: A Study of Competing Curricula. Heritage Foundation.
8 Taverner, B, Montfort, S. (2005). Making Sense of Abstinence. Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey. 4.
10 Ibid, p 62.
11 Ibid, p 125.
12Sexual Risk Avoidance Education: Considerations for Protecting Teen
Health (Part 1). National Abstinence Education Association, June 2010.
13 Kirby D, Rhodes T, Campe S. (2005, unpublished). The Implementation and
Impact of a Multi-Component Youth Program to Prevent Teen Pregnancy
Modeled After the Children’s Aid Society-Carrera Program. In Laris BA &
Kirby D. (2007) One-page summaries of the evaluations referenced in
Emerging Answers 2007 (p. 56). Washington DC: The National Campaign
to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
14US Department of Health and Human Services (Dec. 16, 2008) Funding for Abstinence Education, Education for Teen Pregnancy and HIV/STD Prevention, and Other Programs that Address Adolescent Sexual Activity.
This report calculates annual spending for contraceptive-centered education at $609 million. Additional spending in FY2010 has increased this total. Presently, $110 million is designated for Teen Pregnancy Prevention funding and $75 million for PREP state block grant funding. Neither of these funding sources mandates any priority to abstinence education. The single funding stream available for abstinence education is $50 million in Title V state block grant funding. Therefore, the comparison is $794 million for contraceptive-centered education vs. $50 million for abstinence-centered education – an almost 16:1 disparity.
US Department of Health and Human Services & Office of Population Affairs. (1970) Title X Family Planning program.“Population Research and Voluntary Family Planning Programs”: Public Law 91-572. Retrieved from http://www.hhs.gov/opa/familyplanning/index.html.
Title X family planning funding began in 1971 and block grants for abstinence education through Title V did not begin until 1998. Although Title X monies are also used for services other than sex education, this funding is significant because it provided the first noteworthy federally funded contraceptive-centered education for teens.
16 Lindberg, LD., Santelli, JS., Singh S. (December 2006). Perspec Sex Reprod Health, 38(4), 182-9.
18 Borawski,Trapl,Lovegreen,etal.(2005). Effectiveness of abstinence-only intervention in middle school teens. American Journal Health Behavior.
19 With One Voice: America’s Adults and Teens Sound Off about Teen Pregnancy. (2007). The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. Retrieved from http://www.thenationalcampaign.org/resources/pdf/pubs/WOV2007_fulltext.pdf.
20 US House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform. (October 2006). Abstinence and its Critics. Retrieved from http://www.abstinenceworks.org/images/stories/pdfs/abstinence and its critics-mark souder.pdf.
21 Straight from the Source: What so called ‘comprehensive’ sex education teaches to America’s youth. (June 2007). NAEA National Abstinence Education Association. Retrieved from http://www.abstinenceassociation.org/docs/NAEA-Straight_from_the_Source.pdf
For more information on the inaccuracies in CSE texts.
22 Jemmott,L.,Jemmott,J.,McCaffre,K.(2005).MakingaDifference! NY:Select Media Inc., 75.
23 Why Marriage Matters. (September 2005). Second Edition: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences.
Moore, Kristin Anderson., Jekielek, Susan M., Bronte-Tinkew, Jacinta. Guzman, Lina., Ryan, Suzanne., & Redd, Zakia. (September 2004). What Is a Healthy Marriage?.
Waite, L., & Gallagher, M. (2000). The Case for Marriage. NY:Broadway Books.
24 Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2009). Trends in the prevalence of sexual behavior. National YRBS: 1991-2009. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/yrbs/trends.htm.
25 US Department of Health and Human Services. (February 26, 2009). The National Survey of Adolescents and Their Parents: Attitudes and Opinions about Sex and Abstinence. Project #60005. Olsho, L., Cohen, J., Walker, D.K., Johnson, A., & Locke, G.: Washington, D.C. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/fysb/content/docs/20090226_abstinence.pdf.
26 Zogby International. (May 2007). Survey of Nationwide Parents of Children Age 10-16 3/27/07 thru 4/5/07. Retrieved from http://www.abstinenceassociation.org/docs/zogby_questionnaire_050207.pdf.
27Zogby International. (2007, May). Survey of Nationwide Parents of Children Age 10-16 3/27/07 thru 4/5/07. Retieved from http://www.abstinenceassociation.org/docs/zogby_questionnaire_050207.pdf
28Pulse Opinion Research (2012, October). Parents Speak Out. Survey of
parents of children ages 10-16. Retrieved from http://www.whattheytoldus.org