Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Abstinence education study must be considered with care

The public needs to be very careful about how it digests the newly released University of Pennsylvania study on abstinence-only education. ABC News, among other media agencies, such as the Washington Post, is pointing to it as "clear evidence that abstinence-only education works." But such a constricted study cannot be taken as "clear evidence" of anything, certainly not of abstinence-only education "working." When we talk about sex education "working," what do we mean, exactly? Does sex education "work" when fewer teens are sexually active at all? Or when they have less sex with fewer people? Or when they feel empowered about their choices? Or when they learn how to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases? Or when they learn how to gain practical access to those tools of protection? Such questions are critical to considering this data as an educated information consumer.

In any case, one cannot view these findings in a vacuum: they must be considered in conjunction with other persuasive national data, not instead. The study measures success as a decrease in sexually active 6th and 7th graders. This is a pretty narrow definition of success that leaves many students receiving this education out in the cold. While the study may be hopeful in suggesting that abstinence-only education in middle school decreases the number of sexually active pre-teens, it does not address the persistent concern of safer sex behaviors among those who do choose to have sex. Even after the decrease in sexually active middle schoolers described in this study, 33% still reported having had sex at least once. This means a third of pre-teens exposed to this education is left with no recourse to protect themselves. Furthermore, as these middle schoolers enter high school and more of the remaining 67% begin to have sex and find themselves in need of safer sex education, abstinence-only education becomes even less appropriate and more damaging.

If abstinence-only sex ed has a place anywhere in sex education, it makes its strongest argument with application to younger students, and even then it presents significant concerns. Its seeming success does not take away from the fact that sexually active youth are in need of education on safer sex behaviors so that they have the complete tools to protect themselves. Additionally, it must also be noted that the sample size in this study was very small and that it comprised primarily urban minority students, making it extremely difficult to meaningfully extrapolate to the larger population without follow-up research.

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