It used to be called “abstinence education” and its unofficial tag-line was “Just say no”. But in 2007 the National Abstinence Education Association of the United States adopted the public health language of “sexual risk avoidance” education, or SRA, and renamed its project Ascend.

That did not stop the Obama administration cutting all funding for abstinence/SRA in 2010 and promising great results from sexual risk reduction (SRR) programmes focused on contraception (Teen Pregnancy Prevention, or TPP).

But an evaluation of TPP programmes published by the Department of Health and Human Services last September showed that more than 80 percent of teens in the program fared either worse or no better than their peers who were not a part of the program, says Valerie Huber, president and CEO of Ascend.

Meanwhile funding has begun to return to SRA programmes, although they still receive only 10 percent of the billion or so of governments funds. MercatorNet asked Valerie Huber about Ascend and its approach to helping teens through the sexual challenges of adolescence.

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Could we start with something really basic: why don’t we want teenagers to be having sex?

The teen years are a critical developmental stage in their lives. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers teen sex to be a risk behaviour. We agree. The social science research confirms that when teens wait for sex, ideally until marriage, they are more likely to thrive in a variety of ways.

But most of them are, aren’t they?

The majority of teens have not had sex. In fact, far fewer have had sex than 25 years ago. The most recent data shows that for the first time since it has been monitored, every ethnicity of studied teens have not had sex. 

How do you account for this positive trend in the behaviour of American teens?

We don’t know the reasons why, but this we know: the idea of waiting for sex is resonating with teens and we, as a nation, and as a public health community, should be reinforcing this health trend, rather than normalizing teen sex, which is the current message given teens. 

Tell us about Ascend and its approach to what used to be called “abstinence education”.

ASCEND champions youth to make healthy decisions in relationships and life by promoting well being through a primary prevention strategy, and as a membership and advocacy organization that serves, leads, represents and equips the Sexual Risk Avoidance field. In order to accomplish this mission, we represent the field in the media, in our nation’s capitol, and across the 50 states.

We encourage healthy policies for youth by promoting sexual risk avoidance (SRA) education, an approach that gives youth the information and skills to avoid all sexual risk, by waiting for sex – hopefully until they marry.  The SRA approach applies the optimal health public health model to teen sexual risk.

The decline in youth sexual activity could have various causes; what evidence is there that the SRA approach works? Are there robust studies in this area?

SRA programs are effective. Currently 25 peer reviewed studies show that teens who are part of effective SRA programs are more likely to wait for sex, succeed academically, and avoid other risk behaviours. And SRA programs also resonate with those who are sexually experienced.  Those who have had sex are more likely to discontinue their sexual activity, have fewer partners, and are just as likely to use contraception. 

What are we doing to reinforce – and increase – these healthy choices?  Unfortunately, not enough, since 90 cents of every government dollar for sex-ed goes to programs that normalize teen sex, and only ten cents is devoted to SRA programs that normalize teen sexual delay. This must change.

What about the programmes that focus on risk reduction through the use of contraception – what evidence is there that they are effective?

Though Sexual Risk Reduction (SRR) programs claim to be effective, a recent longitudinal study by the US Dept. of Health and Human Services showed that these claims are largely false.  More than 80 percent of students who were part of the SRR Teen Pregnancy Prevention program fared either worse or no better than their peers who were not in the program. And those who fared worse were more likely to get pregnant and more likely to have sex.

This is bad news for the millions of students who received the SRR program with the promise that they will be helped.  It is also bad news for the parents and stakeholders who relied on the promises of SRR proponents , only to learn that they were sold a faulty bill-of-goods. 

You did not fare well under the Obama administration, but are you getting some official and political recognition for SRA programmes these days?

We are hopeful that the Trump Administration will look at the research in support of SRA education and  the research showing the harm of the SRR Teen Pregnancy Prevention and make a significant change that offers youth optimal sexual health outcomes. Youth deserve SRA education and the optimal health public health model requires it be given priority. 

What about parents – what role do they play in your programs?

Parents are the most influential people in the lives of their children, so they need to be encouraged to be their primary sex educators. SRA programs encourage  parents in that role by providing opportunities for parent-child communication in homework assignments. SRA programs provide resources to parents and remind them that if they have made unhealthy choices in their past, children can learn from their parent's mistakes, rather than repeating them during their own adolescence.

Are the programmes usually taught in school? Are teachers happy with them?

Yes; most of our programs are taught in schools. Teachers, parents, and teens support the SRA approach and the way these programs cover sex education topics as evidenced by nationally representative surveys.

Delaying sexual activity through high school is an important achievement, but ideally young people would wait until marriage. Is marriage part of the framework for SRA? Are the communities that use this approach free to include perspectives about the meaning and purpose of sex?

Yes, SRA programs have the long-term goal of encouraging teens to wait for sex until marriage, but we also applaud every incremental step toward that goal. High expectations move individuals forward even if they don’t meet the ultimate goal. We set waiting for sex until marriage as the goal because social science research is replete with the advantages of reserving sex until marriage. 

Valerie Huber is the President and CEO of Ascend.

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Valerie Huber is the President/CEO of the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA), a Washington DC-based professional association in support of abstinence education as the optimal strategy for...