Just saying no may not be an effective strategy in keeping kids from having sex, a newly released study reports.
The research could have major implications for the $176 million in government funds that abstinence-only sex-education programs receive annually -- funding that is set to expire on June 30 unless Congress takes some action to extend it.
The evaluation, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, examined the impact of the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs funded under the 1996 federal welfare reform law.
Through the study, more than 2,000 children were randomly assigned to groups that received abstinence-only counseling and those who received no counseling. Over the next four to six years, numerous surveys were done to determine the impact of these programs on the behavior of the kids.
Researchers found no evidence that these abstinence-only programs increased rates of sexual abstinence.
The study also showed that the students participating in these abstinence-only programs had a similar number of sexual partners as their peers not in the programs, and that the age of first sex was similar for both groups too.
"The basic takeaway message is that there are no differences between the two groups on any behavioral outcomes," says lead study author Christopher Trenholm, a senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research.
Rather than calming the disagreements over how the federal government should approach teen sex as a public health issue, the report has, if anything, added fuel to the debate
Some sexuality experts say the study only confirms what most sexuality researchers have already known -- that abstinence-only programs simply do not work.
"The data coming forth now is simple proof -- solid, unassailable evidence to back up what many of us have known from the get-go," says Joy Davidson, a certified sex therapist in New York City who is on the board of directors of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapist.
"There have been studies that have been done over the last few years at least that have made it quite clear that abstinence-only education is not only a waste of money, but it is a danger to young adults as well."
"This is a social agenda masquerading as teen pregnancy prevention," says Martha Kempner, vice president for information and communications at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. "This administration has allowed ideology to trump science at every possible opportunity.
"I hope that Congress will look at this and see that there is a lot of money that is not working, and say 'hey, we need that money elsewhere.'"
On the other side of the argument, proponents of abstinence-only programs say the results of the study only show that more effort must be poured into the programs to reap true dividends.
"The Mathematica report does not support a conclusion that abstinence-only education programs should no longer be funded," said Dr. Gary Rose, president and CEO of the Medical Institute, in a statement released Friday. "To the contrary, the report specifically indicates that programs should continue with changes where necessary to make them more effective, particularly promoting support for abstinence among peer networks as an important feature."