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.