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Sex Ed: Abstinence-only Versus Comprehensive — Which Is Most Effective?

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For a country that prides itself on moral integrity and values, it seems ironic that the U.S. has a higher rate of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases than any other developed country in the world.

People blame the media, advertisers, and a myriad of other sources as the reason behind our sex-obsessed culture. But perhaps it is what we aren’t learning that is causing the problem.

In dozens of recent studies conducted throughout the last decade, nearly every single one concluded that abstinence-only sex education has not only failed, but has in fact mislead teens and contributed to an increase in teen pregnancy and STDs. The American Psychological Association conducted a study in 2005 that found comprehensive sex education to be more effective in preventing unwanted pregnancies and STDs.

Committee chairwoman for the APA’s study and psychologist Maureen Lyon, Ph.D., said, “Both comprehensive sex education and abstinence only programs delay the onset of sexual activity. However, only comprehensive sex education is effective in protecting adolescents from pregnancy and sexually transmitted illnesses at first intercourse and during later sexual activity.

In contrast, scientifically sound studies of abstinence only programs show an unintended consequence of unprotected sex at first intercourse and during later sexual activity.”

According to a 2002 study by Chris Collins, M.P.P. Priya Alagiri, J.D. and Todd Summers for the AIDS Policy Research Center & Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences recommended eliminating congressional, federal, state and local requirements that public funds be used for abstinence-only sex education.

What neither side disputes is the fact that abstinence is the only 100-percent effective way to avoid unplanned pregnancies and STDs. However, with the majority of high school students losing their virginity by their senior year, there is an urgent need for practicality in sex education.

Add a Comment11 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

I am in complete agreement with Diane as I am another Moderator with EmpowHer. The pregnancy scare questions and lack of knowledge about sex is pretty hairy at times as there are many times I sit here thinking about the possibilities of half of these kids getting pregnant since they have no clue the mechanics of sexual intercourse – pregnancy.

Parents need to educate their children as I can even remember in high school (sex ed), there was nothing I learned from the class that was a 'real world' situation. Of course, many things have changed since my high school years and I know kids now are more interested in oral sex since they think that will be safer then the full Monty, sort of speak.

I am very happy to be a part of this company and to try and help each and every teenager that comes to our site to ask these questions as I believe we have become an integral part in their lives. Education first...agreed!

September 26, 2010 - 9:32am
EmpowHER Guest

i can say that the only best way to learn sex is for it to be relegated in home...Teachers cannot guide their students well especially reaching into the crucial topics especially if each students has their own understanding about sex or shall we say, their minds had been so stigmatized...Parents/Guardians can manage to teach their children about sensitive parts about it especially that, it is not sex education we must teach but it is sexuality education that encompasses everything....Yes, parents can also teach their children about values, morality and the real essence of sex....:)

September 26, 2010 - 7:58am

As a moderator for EmpowHer, I'll weigh in with this: Never would I have imagined the number of questions from teens and twentysomethings who do not know the mechanics of conception, exactly what happens when you have a period, how to avoid getting a sexually transmitted disease, and, frankly, whether or not they are pregnant. We see these questions every day.

Yes, we all agree that abstinence is the only 100% foolproof way to not become pregnant. But clearly something more needs to be done. The questioners are not only worried, they are also terribly uninformed.

We get questions from girls who had unprotected sex and have had two or three periods since then but are still worried they are pregnant. We get questions such as the one from the young woman who worried that if a man touches his penis and then touches her genitals, she is pregnant. We have questions like the one who was 37 days late for her period and wondering if she should see a doctor, and girls with all the symptoms of pregnancy who have not told anyone. We get questions from male partners as well. We get questions from women who have "had sex with their clothes on" who want to know if they are pregnant, and those who have all the symptoms of an STD and are frightened beyond words. The most popular form of birth control among the young women who write us is withdrawal -- and that has a failure rate of 26%.

Somehow, some way, what we are doing now is not working. Information is not the enemy here.

June 3, 2009 - 8:52am
EmpowHER Guest

In reponse to the comment by anonymous on 4-28, who is somewhat defending the abstinence policy in the US-

The history of this policy and it's backers make it clear that in no way, shape of form was it intended to keep young girls from becoming pregnant, or to encourage them to go on to higher learning and a better life. Starting in 1981 with the AFLA, it was designed to keep young girls from having sex, destroy abortion rights, make sure every sperm produced entered a fertile womb, and spread Christianity, none of which have anything to do with reducing the TBR.

Struck down by the courts for lack of seperation between church and state, it has been carefully crafted and re-tweaked over the years to continue on this path, ignoring all the social circumstance which force young girls to choose pregnancy- the economy, educational failure, sex abuse, poverty, male abandonment, adult males impregnanting teens and so on. It is indefensible, really, since everything adults tell the young to abstain from will be allowed to them as an adult. It's a sad, cruel joke, a waste of time, used by lazy, indifferent adults who ignore the truth and the reality of the problem.

As far as the "lasting consequences" of sex, a young person has far more to fear from auto accidents (59%) drowning (12%)fire (9%)cancer (13%) and firearms (5%), just to name a few. The TBR for the US, the highest in the industrialized world, is 4%. We really should be talking about abstaining from driving, swimming, matches, eating fast food, and keeping guns.

April 30, 2009 - 8:16am
EmpowHER Guest

Teen pregnancy and the Teen Birth Rate (TBR) is a function of the Adult Birth Rate, poverty, sex abuse, physical abuse, violent and chaotic households, educational failure and several other dynamics. The high TBR in the US ( 40/1000) has nothing to do with teen morals, ethics, values, sex or even education, and everything to do with Adult morals and values. Teens are "forced" into social corners by adults, and one of the responses in pregnancy. It "stops " their bus, and they can now get on another one.

It is an Adult problem, and has been since the records have been kept.

And abstinence? Abstinence is a cruel, sadistic joke adults play on young people. Everyone knows it, especially the young.

Good article Lauren
Rick Machado
Public Speaker on Teen Pregnancy

April 28, 2009 - 7:59am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

I agree with your point that the teen pregnancy rate is reflective of the larger social context.

But calling abstinence a cruel & sadistic joke goes to far, in my opinion. It may (or may not) be misguided, but it is a response to try and prevent the real and lasting consequences that sex has.

April 28, 2009 - 2:43pm

You are absolutely correct that stigmatization of sex is not part of an abstinence-only curriculum. However, the approach — in my experience and in the experience of people who have conducted research — is that students feel alienated by the way sex is approached in such a curriculum and that it discourages them from asking other questions. In fact, teachers are prohibited from even answering a question about protection because it could impact federal funding that the school receives. So, the stigmatization is a side effect of the way that the education is approached. (Sex is for marriage and if you are doing it sooner then we will not educate you about what to do; that attitude in itself alienates the majority of students who are sexually active before the end of high school and leaves them unable to ask their teachers/professionals questions)

That said, your point that it should be up to the parents is 100 percent on the mark. Too often parents/guardians rely on the schools for sex education when in reality each family has its own guidelines and moral values, and it is important that parents make these known to their children. If parents were doing this more often, there is no doubt that it would only create a safer sexual environment with our nation's teenagers.

April 27, 2009 - 2:39pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Lauren Proper)

Your so right!! im 16 myself and i feel that if my mother wouldve sat me down and actually talked to me about sex instead of just saying dont have sex then i might of not became sexually active. i mean i am proud of myself because of how responsible i have been with my sexual experience but at the same time, i look at other females my age that dont realize how important it is to be safe. parents need to start realizeing its their responsibility to inform us on how to engage in safe sex. i also wanted to thank you because your article helped me with my research essay for school.. i did the same topic your article is on and i feel it informed me on a lot of information i didnt know. thanks and thanks to everyone that understands that its not always so easy to talk to our parents about sex i mean we know its hard for them but its hard for us too.a lot of times we dont want to let our parents down so we tend to not talk about the topic as much as possible.


May 31, 2009 - 7:40pm
EmpowHER Guest

"When minors are told that sex in any way, shape, or form is dirty and shameful, it discourages them from being safe when they do become sexually active because it has been stigmatized."

Who is teaching that to young people? It's not in the abstinence education curriculum. They teach that sex is a great thing to be shared between two people in marriage, and that outside of marriage there are some very dangerous consequences. Our schools need to be holding young people to the highest standard, if parents want their children to learn about condoms they should be doing that at home.

April 27, 2009 - 1:54pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Anonymous)

I disagree. Looking at it from my perspective (that of an 18 year old) I am ashamed that, at sixteen, I couldn't name the different parts of what makes up the vagina! They turn it into something to blush at; dirty, shameful, embarrassing. Sex is something very important, and after twelve years in the public school system's health education system, I have to say, it has failed. The reason people use the words cunt and pussy as derogatory words are because we are taught that the female body is something shameful, to be covered up and hidden away at all costs. The word vagina is unacceptable to use now, and because people blush over using that word, instead using slang words, other meanings of the word vagina have become derogatory. Sex is good and everything, but girls need to learn to love themselves. Dr. Sue Johanson says that woman should be sexually active from the time they hit puberty until the time they die, either through sex or masturbation. We eat, shower, etc to take care of our bodies. Doing so honors God. But sexual needs are often forgotten. Embrace being female. Don't depend on men for an orgasm. Call it a Vagina, and learn all about it. It's on YOUR BODY,for goodness sakes! It shouldn't be a mystery!! Embrace who you are, and teach these children about it from a young age. When young adults decide to have sex, they want to do it safely, and I've had friends who didn't know that the pill is less effective on antibiotics, or how to correctly use a condom. These things are important. I think love is much more important in sex than marriage is. And telling us not to won't stop us, it just makes us dreadfully ignorant. And where there is ignorance, there is blundering.

June 1, 2009 - 7:44pm
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