New Study: “Abstinence Only” Education Fails Again? Or Not.

Ed Brayton is making the case that a new study of high school students provides even more evidence that abstinence-only education has failed in its primary purpose: the reduction or delay in teen sex and disease transmission. The study, which looks to be quite good in terms of dataset and design, basically shows that the steady decline in teen sexual activity and the steady increase in condom use have both leveled off, and both changes came during the time in which abstinence-only education came into its heyday (the early and mid 2000s).

I’m no fan of abstinence-only policies, which are essentially a “pro-ignorance” approach to education. But I’m not so sure we really can take any clear policy conclusions away from this data.

The main reason is that, in the social sciences, we’d expect just about ANY trend to level off naturally whether there were other policy effects or not. Whatever the cause for the decline in teen sex since 1991, there’s only so much you can reduce teenage sexual activity in the first place before diminishing returns set in. The more you reduce teenage sexual experimentation, the harder and harder further decreases become.

This especially makes sense in terms of teens and sex. If we imagine that there is a sort of standard cohort of teens with a natural range of character traits and attitudes towards sex in each generation, then any external effect (like the AIDS scare) which reduces sexual activity is going to be more effective on some students, less effective on others. As this effect increases its influence on each cohort of kids, you’ll effect all the low hanging fruit first (the kids most scared of disease and ambivalent about sex to begin with), and the trend will be fairly large. But as you proceed, you’ve already dropped the sexual activity of many of the prudes down to 0 (and can’t go any further with them), and now what you have left to work on are the kids that are amongst the hardest to convince not to have sex in the first place. Even if the original effect increases dramatically (i.e. AIDS gets more and more scary), it still might not be enough to effect enough of the horniest kids fast enough to keep up the overall trend, year after year.

For all we know, this could be what’s going on here: major social changes in the early 1990s (AIDS, widespread contraception knowledge and availability) spent a decade spreading through the population, and now they’ve pretty much done as much as they can do. Buried underneath these larger trends, abstinence education could have had a positive effect, negative effect, or no effect at all.

All we really can say for certain, from this data, is that abstinence-only education hasn’t sparked any sort of dramatic or obvious revolution in teen prudishness. Other studies, which more directly compare the effects of abstinence-only education to other programs or no program at all, are far more relevant to the debate than this one.

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2 Responses to New Study: “Abstinence Only” Education Fails Again? Or Not.

  1. mplimasol says:

    how do they determine this data? i went to a small high school – graduated with about 150 kids – and was one of maybe 10-15 virgins left. seriously. apparently, there was nothing else to do on a saturday night but sit in the back of a dodge…. now, go to the parents and ask them, “hey mom, hey dad, are your kids having sex?” very few, if any, would admit to having such knowledge. but the majority would probably say something to the effect of “heavens no, my son/daughter is more responsible than that.” the fact of the matter is that many kids were having sex, yet very few talked about it. it wasn’t necessarily a “word got around” type deal, although for some it was. i only happened upon who i knew was or wasn’t doing certain things because i was the type of kid who sat in the back of the classroom reading by herself and listening to everyone else’s conversations with one ear open.

    i thought that was bad. and then i went to a college with 25,000 people, and met a larger ratio of self-proclaimed virgins there. now that two years have gone by, the number of people that i know that are still virgins has dwindled to single digits. sex, society thinks, is a problem among teenagers, but i’d say it’s an even bigger problem among college-age students. sure, most have jobs, most are adults in the eyes of the rest of the world, but a disturbingly large number of them are drinking illegally at night and dropping by the health center to blow $50 on plan b the next morning.

    in my high school, we were presented with two sides of the issue – one, where guest speakers in the community came into classrooms and preached abstinence only sex provention, and another where the health teacher took it upon herself to have a sex and STD unit. the fact of the matter was that we laughed at the abstinence-only bible-thumping fanatics and took what the health teacher had to say seriously. i think that the perspective that should be taken is “teens are probably going to have sex, so we should at least make sure they’re doing it safely.” for the teens who decide to go out and have sex, they at least have seen a condom before and know how to use it. for the kids who decide not to have sex, they will at least have some background information to go on when they talk about birth control with their spouses. and for those on the fence, learning about syphilis and seeing pictures of herpes might deter them from sex until, at least, they’re more sure of who their partner is. abstinence only, i feel, puts teens at a severe disadvantage.

    (sorry about the double posting…. :\)

  2. Bad says:

    No problem, easy to fix!

    I assume they determine this stuff in the traditional statistical manner, which is to say, they take what they strive very hard to make a random sample from the total population in question and then poll the selected kids, assuring them that their answers are anonymous. If that all works out, the results should be generalizable to the population as a whole. While you might expect some degree of lying even then, the basic assumption is that this quotient of extra error won’t be too significant, and especially that it won’t vary much over time, so that you can at least reliably track trends if not exact numbers.

    I wholly agree on “ignorance-only” education. Kids are due accurate information about reality, including the reality of their bodies and various medical technologies and contraceptives, period. We want citizens to make informed choices rather than ones made out of ignorance. What they do choose is ALSO a legitimate matter of concern (though its more debatable whether this is a concern the government should have beyond overall health and hygiene), but it’s a separate issue. It’s not a “mixed message” like teaching kids how to rob a bank, because kids are going to have sex at some point in their life, and sex is not inherently a bad thing. What we want is to make sure it’s a wise thing, when it happens.

    And frankly, the idea that kids do things by and large based on what they learn in class is pretty silly: kids far and away do things based on what their peers do and pressure them to do. If kids merely imitated the things they were taught about in school, we’d have a heck of a lot more scientists running around. We could only hope.

    The question is not whether they know about sex and contraceptives or not, but whether they know about it from people a bit more informed than their gossipy peers. It’s bad information vs. good information.

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