In President Obama’s proposed budget for 2017, he has eliminated all funding for abstinence-only sex education in the nation’s public schools. Whether this will ultimately come to pass is far from certain, though, because any budget must be negotiated with and approved by Congress before it can go into effect. However, from a scientific perspective, Obama’s proposal is definitely a step in the right direction.
The United States government has reportedly spent more than $1.5 billion on abstinence-only sex education over the past quarter-century, and we have very little to show for it. Study after study published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals has revealed that this type of sex education is woefully ineffective and, instead, may actually be counterproductive.
Consider this: a recent study of more than 1,700 U.S. teenagers found that abstinence-only sex education did nothing to discourage sexual activity and failed to reduce rates of teen pregnancy and STIs . In fact, this study found that providing students with comprehensive sex education (in which students are taught what they need to know should they become sexually active) resulted in a 50% lower likelihood of unintended teen pregnancy compared to teaching abstinence!
Consistent with this finding, research has found that those U.S. states with the most abstinence-only programs have the highest rates of teen pregnancy . Also, a recent review of dozens of studies that together sampled over 37,000 North American youth revealed that comprehensive sex education is linked to a long-term reduction in STI-risk behavior .
These are just a few of the many studies out there, but looking across them, the evidence is clear: providing too little information about sex is the real danger here, not comprehensive sex education.
Of course, one of the big reasons abstinence-only courses don’t work is because they provide minimal information that is of use to students; however, the ineffectiveness of these programs also stems from the fact that many of them are known to actively teach outright falsehoods about reproductive health , something that is truly outrageous.
Again, keep in mind that the President has only proposed a budget--this isn’t a done deal and we must wait and see what eventually gets approved by Congress. In the meantime, though, let’s hope that the government starts to make decisions about sex education with an eye toward what the science says.
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 Kohler, P.K., Manhart, L.E., & Lafferty, W.E. (2008). Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education and the initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 344-351. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.08.026
 Stanger-Hall, K.F., Hall, D.W. (2011). Abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates: Why we need comprehensive sex education in the U.S. PLoS ONE 6(10): e24658. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024658
 Underhill, K., Operario, D., & Montgomery, P. (2007). Systematic review of abstinence-plus HIV prevention programs in high-income countries. PLoS Medicine 4: e275.
 Committee on Government Reform (2004). The content of federally funded abstinence-only education programs. Retrieved from: http://spot.colorado.edu/~tooley/HenryWaxman.pdf
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