Big news today on the sexuality education front: solid evidence from a federally funded United States study that a programme limited to an abstinence message can significantly reduce the onset of sexual activity among young adolescents.

Publication of the study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine comes only days after the New York Times agreed with the Alan Guttmacher Institute that there is “a link between the [recently reported] rise in the teenage pregnancy and abortion rates and the Bush administration’s reliance on abstinence-only sex education programs that bar teaching about contraception.” The Times editorial added, “This is not an unreasonable inference.” And: “The [Guttmacher] study is timely. As part of the broader health care reform effort, abstinence-only advocates are trying hard to restore financing for the narrow, ineffective and fundamentally dishonest approach”

This lofty bias amongst against abstinence education, which has seen the Obama administration stop dedicated funding for such programmes, looks much less reasonable today, thanks to a rigorous study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine.

Their evidence on abstinence education comes from a randomised controlled study (the toughest kind) involving 662 African American middle school students aged between 10 and 15 (Black youngsters being a high risk population) who were followed up for two years in the early 2000’s.

At the end of that time, according to self reports, about a third of the students who had completed the abstinence-only programme had started having sex. Sounds bad enough, doesn’t it? But nearly half of the students who attended other classes — ranging from no information about sex to safe sex instruction, and including a combination of abstinence and contraception — reported sexual activity. The best result from these other approaches was a 42 per cent level of sexual activity amongst those in the comprehensive sex-ed group.

The abstinence-only programme involved eight hours of instruction over several Saturdays at four public schools. According to the Washington Post:

The abstinence-only portion involved a series of sessions in which instructors talked to students in small groups about their views about abstinence and their knowledge of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. They also conducted role-playing exercises and brainstorming sessions designed to correct misconceptions about sex and sexually transmitted diseases, encourage abstinence and offer ways to resist pressure to have sex.

The strength of the study has forced some opponents of abstinence education to concede a victory — if not the war. SIECUS, which promotes “sexual rights” for young people, told the Post it was “exciting” that “we have a new tool to add to our repertoire”. Well, better late than never, huh?

But Advocates For Youth (formerly The Center for Population Options — which tells you something, doesn’t it?) president James Wagoner grumbled, “There is no data in this study to support the ‘abstain until marriage’ programs, which research proved ineffective during the Bush administration.”

It is true that the new study did not promote any moral perspective but focused on abstinence as a way to avoid pregnancy and STDs. But it is not true that all other abstinence programmes have focused on marriage or were “moralistic” in tone. I will bet there is no evidence that this is the case.

Let the expert who led the study — John B Jemmott III, professor of Communication in Psychiatry — have the last word:

“The take-home message is that we need a variety of interventions to address an epidemic like HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy,” said Jemmott, adding that he thinks the program would be equally effective among other age and racial or ethnic groups.

“There are populations that really want an abstinence intervention. They are against telling children about condoms,” he said. “This study suggests abstinence programs can be part of the mix of programs that we offer.”

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet