An increasing percentage of public school sexual education instructors are teaching students to “just say no to sex” as the only way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, a new study says.
Abstinence-only sex education now comprises 23 percent of sex education in the public schools the United States, up from 2 percent of the total in 1988, according to a survey of 4,000 seventh- to 12th-grade teachers by the Alan Guttmacher Institute survey, a non-profit health research organization in New York City and Washington D.C.
The study also found sex education today is much less likely to cover birth control, abortion, obtaining contraceptive and sexually transmitted diseases services, and sexual orientation, than it did in the late 1980s.
“Abstinence messages are very important, but clearly the coverage of contraceptive topics is also crucial in helping our youth prevent unplanned pregnancy and STDs,” says Sara Seims, president of the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
“Our findings are particularly disheartening considering that abstinence accounted for about one-quarter of the recent drop in the U.S. teenage pregnancy rate, while improved contraceptive use was responsible for the rest.”
Teachers apparently feel abstinence-only courses are not getting the message across, the study reveals. The vast majority of the teachers surveyed think students need to learn more, and at a younger age, about sexually transmitted diseases, correct condom use and how to resist peer pressure, as well as abstinence.
Federal Funding for Abstinence-Only
The debate over abstinence-only versus comprehensive sexual education programs has heated up in the last few years after the federal government began funding abstinence-only programs as part of the 1996 welfare reform bill. Since 1998, the government has appropriated $50 million per year to states to support programs which teach that “physical and emotional harm” are likely to result from premarital sex.
While everyone agrees abstinence is clearly the most effective method for preventing pregnancy and STDs, many experts are worried the increase in abstinence-only instruction will leave many kids who are already sexually active in the dark about how to protect themselves.
There is no scientific evidence that abstinence-only programs work, according to Debra Hauser, vice president of Advocates for Youth, an international non-profit which provides information about adolescent reproductive and sexual health. A 1993 World Health Organization study on abstinence-only programs around the world that found they proved to be less effective than comprehensive sexual education programs.
“The [increase in abstinence only programs] is quite frustrating in an era of HIV and rampant STDs,” Hauser says.
Some Favor Abstinence
But Heather Cirmo, spokeswoman for the Family Research Council, a public policy organization in Washington D.C., believes if children are taught chastity is the norm and the standard they are expected to live up to, they will do so. “Why do we communicate a no excuses message about drugs and alcohol but when it comes to sex we have a different stance?”
Cirmo defends the increase in spending on abstinence-only programs, saying the government allocates three times as much to comprehensive sex education programs. Her organization, she says, feels abstinence during teenage years will lead to a better sexual life when married. Also, condoms do not prevent the spread of human papilloma virus, which can cause cervical cancer.
Bill Albert, a spokesperson for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit organization, says conveying the value of abstinence is an integral part of sex education, but thinks sex education curricula should include information about disease and pregnancy prevention, among other things. “We don’t think it’s a contradictory message,” Albert says.