The XX Factor

In Favor of Abstinence, With Major Caveats

Starting from the assumption that it is impossible to have a rational discussion about abstinence education, let us do our best. The study reported yesterday that shows a certain abstinence curriculum to be effective was, in fact, an excellent study. Unlike previous studies, it looked at the most updated curriculum. It randomly divided students into several groups. The kids in the abstinence-focused curriculum were measurably less likely to have sex after two years. No fudging with that result.

Now for the caveats, and the contrary conclusion. First, this was an updated curriculum . It did not talk about delaying sex until marriage and it did not disparage condom use. It asked students to delay sex until they were ready, and then had them role-play strategies to resist pressure. This is different from the moralistic tone that tends to accompany some abstinence-only programs.

Second, these kids were very young-12 and 13. At this age, they tend to be less likely to have sex, anyway, and more open to such messages. “I’m not surprised that-especially among this younger group of teens-an apparently empowering message of saying no is working out OK,” says Mark Regnerus, author of Forbidden Fruit . “Not sure I’d advise a simple say-no answer when kids are 17 or 18. The developmental trajectory for sex is steep.”

Now, reorient yourself, Regnerus adds. In national studies, only 10 percent of 13-year-olds say they’ve had sex. This is study of African-Americans, who tend to have sex earlier. But still-even in the abstinence-focused group, a third of the kids reported having sex (as opposed to about half in the other group).

That’s a whole lot of young kids having sex. So does it hurt to give them strategies to resist pressure? Even if they hold out only two more years? Of course not, especially if those strategies are proven to work. But as I argued yesterday , there is no need to hone in on a single, and very obviously politically motivated, strategy. Maybe for younger kids, try an abstinence focus. Then shift to more traditional sex education as they get older. I’m not sure of the specifics here, but the general idea is to be flexible and open to what the evidence says works.

“Different things need to be emphasized at different times,” argues Regnerus. “Some kids need to know that they can say no, and will respond accordingly. Others are in relational and cultural contexts where they need to be equipped with information. And in a media-intense, sexualized environment like ours, to punt on sex ed is just dangerous.”