UPenn’s abstinence report: More questions than answers

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Media outlets around the United States are abuzz over University of Pennsylvania’s recent report on the impact of abstinence-only education programs on youth.  According to the report, researchers found that, among the sixth and seventh graders — basically 11- and 12-year-olds — 33 percent of those who went through the abstinence program started having sex within two years, compared with 52 percent who were just taught safe sex.

From just a surface reading, this appears to be fairly damning evidence against comprehensive sex education.  But the report raises more questions than answers about what the best way to educate our young people is, and what is even meant by “education.” 

My initial response to this study is to ask the question, “Of those students who chose to engage in sex after the program, how many utilized a safe sex method?”  If the students who had sex after going through the abstinence-only program were not using condoms, but those who were in the comprehensive sex ed group were, then which program can we consider more successful?  Which group is at “higher risk?”

Furthermore, in order to make sure they were testing the efficacy of abstinence education, the researchers made sure that only abstinence could be taught to one control group and that only safe sex could be taught to another control group. Apparently when you combined the educative approaches and taught both, the rate of those who avoided sex for the next two years (42 percent) was in the middle of the two groups — in other words, higher than the abstinence-only group but lower than the safe sex group. 

This sounds more like evidence that a comprehensive sex education curriculum – one which includes abstinence as an option, and a good option, for staying pregnancy- and disease-free – is a stronger option than only teaching one concept or the other.

In The Huffington Post today, political activist Neil McCarthy writes, “This study will be catnip to the anti-condom crowd. And that is the really bad news. The objective in educating kids on the use of condoms is not to get them to avoid or delay having sex. It’s to impress upon them the need to practice safe sex when they have sex, whenever that turns out to be.”

What are your strategies for educating young people about safe sex?  Start or join the conversation by commenting below.

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