The Politics of Abstinence

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The New York Times has a somewhat grudging editorial this morning about research that came out a week ago showing that some abstinence-only programs are more effective at delaying sexual activity. The University of Pennsylvania study has gotten high marks from groups like the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, which doesn’t have a dog in the abstinence-only vs. comprehensive fight except to support whatever works. It’s also uncovered some false assumptions made by both critics and supporters of abstinence-only, and maybe even opened up a possible area of agreement in the ongoing sex-ed wars.

There are two significant aspects of the programs that helped teens delay sex the longest in the UPenn study: 1) they encourage kids to delay sex until they’re ready to handle it–not necessarily until marriage; and 2) they don’t denigrate contraception or disseminate false information about the effectiveness of birth control. Those are no small differences from some of the abstinence-only programs out there.

But what’s struck me in the reaction to the UPenn study–particularly among critics of abstinence-only–is how surprised many people seem to be that even-handed abstinence programs exist. The Washington Post’s story on the research noted that:

Several critics of an abstinence-only approach said that the curriculum tested did not represent most abstinence programs. It did not take a moralistic tone, as many abstinence programs do. Most notably, the sessions encouraged children to delay sex until they are ready, not necessarily until married; did not portray sex outside marriage as never appropriate; and did not disparage condoms.

Others, like Dan Savage, now seem to be trying to re-define “abstinence-only” to only refer to programs that tell kids to wait until marriage before having sex. To be fair, that was one of the points in the Bush administration’s definition of programs that could qualify for federal funding. But it’s not at all clear that “most” abstinence programs use such a strict interpretation of abstinence. I spent a lot of time last year looking through binders of abstinence-only and comprehensive sex-ed curricula–I found plenty of abstinence-only programs that used a much more moderate standard than no-sex-until-marriage, and plenty of comprehensive programs that were far from comprehensive.

The real scandal is how many bad sex-ed programs exist, regardless of approach. Perhaps the best change the Obama administration implemented in this area was the requirement that funded programs “have been proven through rigorous evaluation to delay sexual activity, increase contraceptive use (without increasing sexual activity), or reduce teenage pregnancy.”

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