Abstinence education has long been attacked from the left with a creative array of misinformation. Perhaps the most common attack against abstinence education is that it “doesn’t work.” Another top contender is the claim that abstinence education is a thinly veiled program aimed at indoctrinating unsuspecting American children in a biblical worldview; since government resources are used in government facilities, this constitutes a clear establishment of religion and a violation of the First Amendment, or so the argument goes.
For veterans of this corner of the culture war, it has been interesting to read a veritable outburst of criticism of abstinence education from conservative religious people who are claiming that abstinence education is not religious enough.
The recent criticism came in response to comments made by Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped from her home at age fourteen and held for nine months, during which time she experienced the horror of sexual slavery. Speaking at a forum on human trafficking at Johns Hopkins University, she recalled being told by a schoolteacher that a person who has had sex is like a piece of chewed gum. Smart said that the idea contributed to her despair while held captive:
I thought, “Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.” And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. … Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.
While we don’t know Smart’s opinion on the subject, her comments were immediately taken up as weapons in the fight over sex education. According to critics, Smart’s comments are definitive proof that abstinence education is bad, bad, bad. No surprise there. More interesting, however, was the response from conservative people of faith.
Perhaps the most circulated article in the genre is “Sloppy Seconds Sex Ed” by Calah Alexander blogging at Patheos. She argued that the defensive response of many religious conservatives showed a lack of compassion, but also a flawed view of human sexuality. “It shows that too many Christians, too many proponents of abstinence-only education, have put their concern for the welfare of a quasi-political movement above their concern for the welfare of a human being, of human dignity itself,” Alexander wrote.
(We had to smile at the reference to a “quasi-political movement” for abstinence education; Alexander may not know that abstinence education has never had anything like the political success of condom-centered education; unsurprisingly, funding for abstinence education has dropped to its lowest level ever under the current administration.)
Alexander goes on to allow that maybe there is another perspective on the subject that she is not hearing, though she quickly dismisses the possibility: “Perhaps there are some people out there who think this mindset is an aberration, who are not responding to this because they genuinely believe this is a rare exception to typical abstinence-only curricula.”
That’s our cue. It is always dangerous to poll a handful of friends and draw conclusions. While no one can vouch for every abstinence program that has been used by well-intentioned presenters over the last two decades, we can confidently say that the sort of demeaning messages received by Smart and others are outside the mainstream of state-of-the-art abstinence-education programs.
It might help to consider the history of abstinence education. About thirty years ago, the abstinence education movement began because educators were concerned that teens were not receiving the skills they needed to avoid all the risks associated with sex.
They were similarly concerned that the sexual “double standard” still provided too much of the narrative for the expected behavior of too many teens. This “double standard” deemed sexual experimentation among boys a “rite of passage” and a sign of virility, whereas sexual experimentation among girls was proof of their loose morals. Along with this corrupted characterization of sexuality was an assumption that teen sexual activity was inevitable and that the solution was to provide condoms under the pretense that sex would then be “safe.”
From the beginning, abstinence educators believed that sexual delay was the optimal choice for all teens. They believed that teen pregnancy prevention programs were insufficient and did more to normalize sex among teens than to empower them to wait, even as social science research was replete with evidence that encouraging teens to wait for sex until marriage was the best choice.
Therefore efforts were made to communicate the wonder and beauty of sex along with the potential risks of pregnancy and disease that often accompany teen sexual activity. In the age of AIDS and an overall teen STD epidemic, it was and remains an important task to share the reality of disease transmission with vulnerable teens in a concrete manner.
In the past thirty years, abstinence programs have come a very long way from their beginnings. So far, in fact, that many practitioners have adopted an entirely new name for the programs they run: Sexual Risk Avoidance Programs. There are now many Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA) programs in use that are medically accurate and based on sound public health and behavioral models, all supported by solid methodology and pedagogy.
The great improvements that have come with this experience have reaped notable rewards. There are now twenty-three studies either published in peer-reviewed academic journals or reported to the government that show statistically significant effects on various measures of success for sex education programs, such as delayed sexual debut, decreased number of sexual partners, and even increased use of condoms and contraceptives, typical measures that indicate the approach “works.”
Strong SRA programs go well beyond the straw-man “just say no” approach. They also aim to inspire young men and women to set positive goals for their futures. Choosing to wait for sex is an important decision in that process, though not the only one. SRA programs help teens understand that their value is not dependent on whether they have sex with their date; they aim to help teens develop aspirations that transcend the pressure to be sexually active at a young age.
Perhaps most relevant to the current controversy is the fact that the SRA approach is the only one that believes in “another chance” for any individual who has made unhealthy decisions in the past. Far from being “used up,” teens are given renewed hope for starting over. “Renewed abstinence” is an articulated goal of SRA programs, and there is some evidence that it is easier to get young people to choose renewed abstinence than to get them to use condoms.
A study conducted in Uganda, for example, found that young people were substantially more likely to stop having sex for long periods after their first sexual debut than to use condoms. SRA programs take the commonsense public-health approach: Regardless of what you have done in the past, the optimal choice for your health is to choose to be abstinent in the future.
Of course, SRA programs also help teens know how to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy relationships, how best to avoid STDs, and how to avoid sexual advances. These same programs are quick to refer teens who have been victimized by sexual abuse for legal and counseling help. And it is important to note that many abstinence programs are at work in communities where young people are at much higher risk of the negative outcomes associated with teen sexual activity.
Our friend Dr. Nanci Coppola runs Project Reach, which currently is working in the poorest neighborhoods of Yonkers, New York. She often recounts the story of a young man, who during a goal-setting exercise, told the class that his goal was to live until his twentieth birthday, the first man in his family to do so in a few generations. He went on to say that Dr. Coppola’s Healthy Respect program gave him hope that he could reach that goal. A peer reviewed study published recently found that an expenditure of $1,000 on Healthy Respect prevents 13.67 teen pregnancies.
While it is difficult to be sure about all the causes of the steady decline in teen pregnancy, it is clear that SRA programs are contributing to the progress. According to CDC data from the National Survey of Family Growth, the proportion of teenagers ages fifteen to seventeen who have never had sex has risen from 62 percent in 1995 to 73 percent in 2006-2010 among females, and from 56.9 percent to 72 percent for males. These are very substantial gains during the period in which SRA programs have been widely implemented.
There is, of course, always room for improvement. To that end, the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA), where we serve as president and board member respectively, as the professional association for SRA abstinence education, believes it is important that every provider have a foundational understanding of the theoretical and educational basis and science behind the SRA approach.
We believe they should understand the social science research that corresponds to the overwhelming benefits of sexual delay. We think SRA educators should recognize effective teaching methods and have access to the most up-to-date scientific data that pertains to teen sexual health. For that reason, NAEA encourages each provider to earn Sexual Risk Avoidance Specialist professional credentials, through a rigorous certification program.
It is also important, in light of the criticism from religious conservatives, to note what SRA abstinence education is not. It is not a program of religious instruction. We strongly encourage parents to teach their children according to their religious and moral convictions on matters of sex, marriage, and childbearing. And we strongly encourage religious organizations to promote their views on these matters. Alexander and other bloggers who have been commenting on this controversy are partial to a Catholic approach based on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. More power to them. But SRA abstinence education is not, cannot be, and should not be a program in the Theology of the Body.
SRA abstinence education is a public health intervention, based on science and evidence, using sound pedagogy and methodology, to deliver a sound health message to young men and women, primarily in school settings. At that, it is very good and getting better.
We invite critics to take a closer look at the great progress made in the field and at the growing body of evidence showing the effectiveness of the approach. An honest look at the mountains of misinformation reveals unfounded and exaggerated charges with very little basis in reality.
Each teen deserves the caring encouragement to wait for sex. They deserve to have their dignity affirmed, along with their lack of culpability if they were sexually victimized. And those who chose to have sex too soon deserve to be reminded that their past does not need to predict their future. Each day begins with a new opportunity to make healthier decisions. There are never any “sloppy seconds,” or leftover lives in our view, only precious young people who need our encouragement for health and well-being as they walk toward adulthood.