Abstinence Education Does Not Impact Sexual Behavior
Apr 14, 2007 - 8:27:46 AM

A recent study of four abstinence education programs finds that the programs had no effect on the sexual abstinence of youth. But it also finds that youth in these programs were no more likely to have unprotected sex, a concern that has been raised by some critics of these programs. The study found that youth in the four evaluated programs were no more likely than youth not in the programs to have abstained from sex in the four to six years after they began participating in the study. Youth in both groups who reported having had sex also had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same average age.

“This is the first study of multi-year abstinence programs, and it is one of the few that has tracked its sample members for as long as six years,” notes Christopher Trenholm, the project director and a senior researcher at Mathematica. “The study finds that the sexual abstinence of students in four programs selected for the study was much the same as that of students who did not participate in these programs.”

“Some policymakers and health educators have criticized the Title V, Section 510 abstinence education programs, questioning whether the focus on abstinence puts teens at risk of having unprotected sex,” says Barbara Devaney, one of the study's principal investigators and vice president and director of Human Services Research at Mathematica. “The evaluation findings suggest that this is not the case. Participants in the abstinence education programs and nonparticipating youth had similar rates of unprotected sex at first intercourse and over the past 12 months.”

The study findings highlight the challenges faced by programs aiming to reduce adolescent sexual activity. Two lessons are important for future programming in this area:

Targeting youth at young ages may not be sufficient. Most Title V, Section 510 abstinence education programs are implemented in upper elementary and middle schools and most are completed before youth enter high school. The findings from this study provide no evidence that abstinence programs implemented at these grades reduce sexual activity of youth during their high school years. However, the findings provide no information on the effects programs might have if they were implemented in high school or began at earlier ages but continued through high school.

Peer support for abstinence erodes during adolescence. Peer support for abstinence is a significant predictor of later sexual activity. Although the four abstinence programs had at most a small impact on this measure in the short term and no impact in the long term, this finding suggests that promoting support for abstinence among peer networks should be an important feature of future abstinence programs.

The study used the most rigorous, scientifically based approach to measure the impacts of the programs. Much like a clinical trial in medicine, this approach compares outcomes for two statistically equivalent groups—a program group and a control group—created by random assignment (similar to a lottery). Youth in the program group were eligible to receive the abstinence education program services, while those in the control group were not, and received only the usual health, family life, and sex education services available in their schools and communities. When coupled with sufficiently large sample sizes, longitudinal surveys conducted by independent data collectors, and appropriate statistical methods, this design is able to produce highly credible estimates of the impacts of the programs being studied.

Youth were enrolled in the study sample over three consecutive school years, from fall 1999 through fall 2001, and randomly assigned within schools to either the program or the control group. The results in this report are based on a survey given to 2,057 youth in 2005 and 2006, roughly four to six years after they began participating in the study; 1,209 had participated in one of the Title V, Section 510 abstinence education programs and 848 had been assigned to the control group. By the time the last follow-up survey was completed, youth had entered their mid to late teens, permitting the researchers to reliably measure program impacts on teen sexual activity and other risk behaviors.

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