Why we don’t know if abstinence education works

The Illinois House and Senate recently passed bills mandating that Illinois schools that offer sex education provide information on contraception and sexually-transmitted infections (STIs). State Senator Linda Holmes said, “In fantasy land, we teach our kids abstinence — and they listen.” The accepted wisdom is that “Abstinence-only education doesn’t work.”

Which is, of course, a ridiculous statement, since abstinence-only education has not even been tried in this country in at least the last 50 years.

Oh, certainly, there have been attempts to teach school curricula that emphasize abstinence. Those classes might last an hour a day, for a limited period of time during a few school years. But consider the results of a 2010 study of 8- to 18-year-olds conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which found that today’s teens spend more than 7½ hours a day consuming media — watching TV, listening to music, surfing the Web, social networking, and playing video games. I don’t know how much of that media carries either explicit or implicit messages about sex that decidedly do not promote abstinence, but from my sampling of the airwaves, 20% seems like a low estimate. That’s 90 minutes a day, day in and day out, year after year, of receiving messages and images that go contrary to anything taught in a short, limited “abstinence-only” class. Not to mention all the billboards, magazines, grocery store aisle publications, etc. that sell consequence-free sex.

When I say abstinence-only education has not been tried for at least 50 years, it’s because education is a lot more than what is taught in school. Previously, the undergirding societal sexual mores reinforced the abstinence-only message that was taught in schools — even if everybody didn’t adhere to those mores — and what was taught in schools echoed what was taught implicitly and explicitly throughout society. This is clearly no longer the case.  It should come as no surprise when we spend an hour a day for a few months teaching “Abstinence” in the face of a culture and media screaming 24 hours a day “Have sex!” and find out that 70% of teens are having sex.

So I hope that we never get to the point of believing those studies that say, “Abstinence education doesn’t work,” and end up removing abstinence from the curriculum. I am not here advocating for a return to the “Good old days,” or saying that we shouldn’t teach about contraception or STIs in sex education classes, especially given the current sex-obsessed media and culture. I am advocating for teaching abstinence as a principle most in line with human dignity, for teaching people that they are inherently different from creatures like cats and cattle who are at the mercy of their sexual drives, that self-control is not only good but possible. Pragmatically, teaching about protection from STIs and such should be provided for those who make different choices; but if we are going to provide sex education at all, we should not do so in a way that appeals to the lowest common denominator of our hormonal drives.



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