The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Proof’s in the Waiting

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Abstinence education doesn’t work. Just ask the Obama administration officials who cited its supposed ineffectiveness as the justification for ending federal funding for such education. Unfortunately for these officials, a study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine provides strong evidence that abstinence education doesindeed work.

Conducted by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Waterloo University, this study examines data collected from 662 sixth- and seventh-grade African-American students enrolled in public middle schools serving low-income urban communities. These students were randomly assigned to four types of educational programs: 1) abstinence-only sex education; 2) “safer sex”-only sex education (focusing on condom use); 3) comprehensive intervention (combining abstinence and “safer sex”); 4) health promotion (a control program focusing on behaviors to reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes).

The results are clear: The abstinence-only intervention significantly reduced the likelihood that the students would initiate sexual activity during the study period (p=.03). The authors report that “the model-estimated probability of ever having sexual intercourse by the 24-month follow-up was 33.5% in the abstinence-only intervention and 48.5% in the health-promotion control group. The safer sex and comprehensive interventions did not differ from the control.” What is more, abstinence-only education also significantly reduces the likelihood of recent sexual intercourse; the researchers calculate that “the model-estimated probability of reporting intercourse in the past 3 months averaged over the 3-, 6-, 12-, 18-, and 24-month follow-ups was 20.6% in the abstinence-only intervention compared with 29.0% in the control group (P=.02).”

Given such results, it is hardly surprising that the authors characterize the outcomes of abstinence-only education as “promising,” arguing that such results with “high risk” students “suggest that theory-based abstinence-only interventions can have positive effects on adolescents’ sexual involvement. This is important because abstinence is the only approach that is acceptable in some communities and settings in both the United States and other countries.”

These are not findings that fit neatly into the Obama administration’s justification of its termination of funding for abstinence education.

(John B. Jemmott III, Loretta S. Jemmott, and Geoffrey T. Fong, “Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention Over 24 Months: A Randomized Controlled Trial With Young Adolescents,” Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine164.2 [February 2010]: 152–59.)