Abstinence programmes don’t work – period
Posted by pozlife on April 21, 2007
A survey of four intensive US programmes teaching abstinence from sex till marriage as the only form of sex education has concluded that they are utterly ineffective at changing young people’s sexual behaviour.
The survey by Mathematica Policy Research Inc of Princeton, New Jersey is one of the most damning pieces of evidence yet compiled against a form of sex and sexual risk-reduction education that currently swallows up $87.5 million a year of taxpayers’ money in the USA.
Abstinence-until-marriage programmes are funded under a measure called Title 5, Section 510 which was brought into US law by Bill Clinton – yes, not George W Bush – in 1998. In order to qualify for federal funding, abstinence programmes must qualify for eight conditions.
These include requirements that a programme must:
• “Have as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realised by abstaining from sexual activity
• Teach abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children
• Teach that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects”
…and so on.
The four programmes studied by Mathematica were a varied bunch. One called My Choice, My Future worked with white working- and middle-class families in rural Virginia, enrolling kids at the age of 13-14. It was a compulsory weekly school class, extended by refreshers for two more years.
One called Teens in Control worked with single-parent black kids in rural Mississippi, starting at the age of 10-11. It was a compulsory two-year weekly school class.
ReCapturing the Vision worked with ‘high risk’ girls, starting at ages 11-14, from poor, single parent black and Hispanic families in Miami, Florida. It was an optional year-long weekly school class, but you had to attend once you’d chosen it.
And Families United to Prevent Teen Pregnancy was a voluntary after-school programme in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; it ran every day for two and a half hours and kids could start as young as eight years old up to the age of 14 and could attend for up to four years.
The two things these programmes had in common were that they were intensive and, as had been recommended by Sex Ed experts, they started with kids before the age they became sexually active.
Mathematica did a randomised controlled study of these four programmes, enrolling a total of 2,057 children in the study and randomizing 1,209 to the programmes and 848 to receive nothing other than biological info about sex.
Then they waited for four to six years after the youths started participating in the programmes. And at this point, when the youngest participant would be 12 and the oldest 20, they asked them about the impact the programmes had made, compared with the control group, on sexual abstinence, unprotected sex, number of sexual partners, and knowledge about STDs, pregnancy and condoms.
So what difference did the programmes make to the eventual sex lives of the participants?
None. Zero. Not a sausage. There was hardly a percentage point difference between the intervention and control groups on any measure of effectiveness.
To give a few examples. Forty-nine per cent of youth who’d participated in the programmes had remained sexually abstinent – as had 49% who hadn’t. Twenty-one per cent who’d participated in the programmes had had unprotected sex in the last 12 months – as had 21% who hadn’t. Thirty-six per cent of youth who’d participated in the programmes had had more than one sexual partner – as had 36%, no I tell a lie, 35% of those who hadn’t.
Programme participants were 2% better at identifying particular STDs than controls. That was, apparently, statistically significant.
Apart from this, the only significant difference between programme participants and control students was that more programme participants were likely to believe something untrue.
For instance, 21% of programme participants agreed with the statement that “condoms never prevent HIV” compared with 17% of controls. Twenty per cent believed they didn’t stop gonorrhoea or chlamydia either, compared with 14% of controls. Mind you, they were also more likely to believe that birth control pills didn’t prevent HIV either, which is at least the case.
Advocates for Youth has been one of the organisations most opposed to federal funding for abstinence-till-marriage programmes. Its president, James Wagoner, said: “After 10 years and $1.5 billion in public funds these failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs will go down as an ideological boondoggle of historic proportions.” (For UK readers, Webster’s Dictionary defines boondoggle as ‘a wasteful or impractical project or activity often involving graft’).
He continued: “The tragedy is not simply the waste of taxpayer dollars, it is the damage done to the young people who have been on the receiving end of distorted, inaccurate information about condoms and birth control. We have been promoting ignorance in the era of AIDS, and that’s not just bad public health policy, its bad ethics.”