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The Pros and Cons of Abstinence Programs in Sex Education

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Though the idea of abstinence-only sex education seems outdated, it is actually more popular of a teaching ideology than expected. While only two percent of schools taught abstinence-only in 1988, twenty-three percent of schools taught abstinence in sex education courses in 2015 (Livni). Despite this increase in popularity, studies have found that abstinence-only programs do not decrease the average age of sexual initiation and actually offer incorrect and potentially dangerous information. Teaching abstinence in sex education has long been one of education's most popular topics for research and the following essay explores the pros and cons of the question.

Sexually transmitted diseases and school abstinence programs

The main argument made by proponents of abstinence-only sexual education programs is that abstinence is the only form of pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections that is one hundred percent effective. Every other contraceptive available comes with a small risk. For example, in 2014, birth control pills were the most common method of birth control in the United States (Haelle).

  • Average patient taking birth control pills use them in a way that makes them 92% effective
  • Theoretical effectiveness is supposed to be 99% effective

(“Relative Effectiveness of Birth Control Methods”).

This coincides with the most effective forms of birth control apart from abstinence. Though ninety-nine percent sounds like a lot, in reality, that means that one in one hundred women who use birth control pills falls pregnant, which is not actually very small at all. Abstinence also prevents the spread and contraction of sexually transmitted diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Infection states that there are almost twenty million new sexually transmitted infections per year and that more than half of the world’s population will have one in their lifetime (Satterwhite, Torrone, Meites, Dunne, Mahajan, Ocfemia, Su, Xu, and Weinstock). Students who practice abstinence are avoiding the risks of both pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Abstinence programs effectiveness

While proponents for abstinence-only programs believe that such programs are effective at influencing sexual behaviors of teenagers and young adults, research says that this is not true. In 2007, a federally-funded study found that when teenagers were exposed to programs that taught abstinence-only, they were no more or less likely than those who were not in the programs to delay sexual activity (Trenholm, Devaney, Fortson, Quay, Wheeler, and Clark).

A large number of other studies have been conducted that turned out similar results. A study done in 2004 showed that there might even be a negative impact on abstinence-only programs on a young person’s likelihood to use contraception (Hauser). Though one study produced results that showed short-term success, none of the programs showed any evidence of long-term effects on early sexual activity (Hauser).

Research simply does not support the notion that abstinence-only programs are effective with teenagers. Despite their ineffectiveness, these programs received 176 million dollars every year in federal funding under the Bush Administration and were a huge foundation stone of their social agenda.

Penn States' study

Professor Rebecca Maynard of the Penn State Graduate School designed a study to determine the effectiveness of these programs in the sexual activity of minors. She looked into four different programs in four difference schools, two of which were in urban areas while the other two were in rural areas. The randomized trials looked at children who were statistically comparable with the variation that some were in abstinence-only programs while others were not (Wagner). The results showed that while abstinence-only programs affected the children’s attitudes about sex in the short term, it had no effect on their long term sexual behavior.

Dr. Maynard stated, "There were some indications that you would change knowledge and values that would delay onset of sexual activity. You could change what kids would tell you about their values and their expectation- that they would wait until they were older or married until they had sex." (Wagner)

Abstinence programs' influence on teen pregnancy

Abstinence-only supporters have claimed that their programs are responsible for the recent decline in teen pregnancy. However, various studies have proven this to not be the case. Between 1995 and 2002, adolescent pregnancy in the United States has decreased eighty-six percent (Lowen). There are a number of factors that contributed to this huge drop, including the increase of the proper use of birth control among teenagers ages fifteen through nineteen.

While there have not been changes in the number of sexually active teenagers that use contraception, what has changed is the effectiveness of the birth control they are using. There was a fourteen percent increase in the number of teens that used emergency contraception between 2002 and 2013 while the use of long-acting contraceptives like implants and intrauterine devices has increased by almost seven percent (Livingston and Patten).

Other factors have contributed to the preventing teen pregnancy as well. A report in 2014 found that the television shows 16 & Pregnant and Teen Mom, which air on MTV and follow the struggles of teen mothers, contributed to almost a third of the drop in teen pregnancy rates that occurred between June of 2009 and December of 2010 (Livingston and Patten). Though fourteen percent of the change has been attributed to a decrease in the number of sexually active young women (Lowen), the vast majority of the decrease in teen pregnancies can be traced to other sources.

Upholding American values

Another common claim made by those who support abstinence-only sexual education for teenagers is that such programs directly reflect American values. Data that goes as far back as 1976 show that the highest rate of pregnancy among teens between the ages of fifteen and nineteen in 1990 but had fallen by 44 percent by 2009 (Livingston and Pattern). Directly related to that decrease is the drop in the teen abortion rate in the United States, which feel from just almost 4.5 percent to just over one and a half percent between 1988 and 2009 (Livingston and Pattern).

One can conclude from research, though, that this is not true. In the United States, the average age of sexual initiation is seventeen while the average age of marriage is almost twenty-six for women and nearly twenty-seven and a half for men (Finer). The difference in the age of sexual initiation and the age of marriage indicates that most people have a sexual history that precedes their marriage. National surveys note that ninety-five percent of adult respondents in the United States reported having sex before marriage (Finer).

Abstinence's role in premarital sex

Even eighty-one percent of adults that had abstained from sex until the age of twenty or older reported having premarital sex (Finer). In addition, parents of teenagers report wanting their children to learn about safe sex. Only fifteen percent of adults in America believe that teenagers should be taught abstinence-only and should not be provided with easy access to birth control (Lowen). Still, the majority of parents say they want their children to receive broad sex education that teaches the basics of sex and sexual health. Simply put free will played a larger role than American values.

Almost one-hundred percent of those parents want their children to receive information about STIs, ninety-eight percent want them to be taught about HIV/AIDS, ninety-six want their teenagers to learn how a baby in conceived, ninety-four percent want youth to be taught how and where to be tested for STIs, and eighty-three percent would like their children to be taught to put on a condom, with seventy-one percent wanting their children to know that family planning clinics will help them obtain birth control pills without consulting their parents or guardians (Lowen). It seems that most Americans not only end up having premarital sex but want their children to be taught how to engage in safe sexual activity.

Misleading sexual education programs

Abstinence-only programs also have the unfortunate reputation of presenting teenagers with inaccurate information. Many of the commonly used curricula of these programs distort information about the effectiveness of contraceptive methods, grossly misrepresent the risks associated with abortion, regard gender stereotypes as scientific facts, blur the lines between theology and actual science, and generally contain basic and undeniable scientific errors (Lowen).

Common curriculum errors

There are twenty-four commonly used curricula for abstinence-only programs. Of those twenty-four, it was found that eleven of them, which were used in all twenty-five states and by almost seventy organizations, contained outright falsehoods regarding reproductive health (Lowen). Several of the false claims used in these programs include:

  1. HIV can be spread through sweat or tears.
  2. A forty-three-day old fetus is a “thinking person.”
  3. Women who have abortions are more likely to commit suicide.
  4. Ten percent of women who undergo abortions become sterile.
  5. Condoms fail to prevent HIV thirty-one percent of the time in heterosexual intercourse.


In addition, abstinence-only programs often assert that condoms have a high failure rate in preventing pregnancy and do not protect against the human papillomavirus. In reality:

  • Used correctly, chances of getting pregnant are less than 3%
  • Used less consistently or incorrectly, the average risk of pregnancy is 15%
  • No birth control, chances of pregnancy is 86%


In addition, when used correctly, condoms prevent users from contracting the human papillomavirus and HPV-associated diseases like genital warts and cervical cancer (Lowen). However, as HPV is spread by direct skin-to-skin contact, the infection can still be spread through contact with areas not protected by a condom. Some programs teach that condoms and contraception are not effective in preventing pregnancy or any STIs. This is blatantly untrue.

HIV and condom use

In a study of couples in which one person is HIV-positive and the other is not, it was found that there was no transmission of HIV when the couples used a condom every time they have intercourse while inconsistency condom use led to twelve percent of the uninfected partners to contract HIV (Lowen). Other studies find similar results in protecting against chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomoniasis 23. Considering how effective condoms are at preventing STIs, children should not be taught that condoms are ineffective whether they are learning an abstinence-only approach or not.

The propagation of such gross misinformation is particularly dangerous because half of all STIs, almost nineteen million per year, occur in people under the age of twenty-five (Lowen). Other birth control methods can also be extremely effective. Failure rates of contraceptive implants are approximately half a percent, three percent for the Depo-Provera shot, and up to eight percent for the patch, ring and pill when used incorrectly, almost sixteen percent for women using a diaphragm, and almost thirty percent for spermicides used without condoms (Lowen).


Most research conducted on abstinence-only programs has shown them to be ineffective and full of misinformation. Not only do they not lead to a decrease in sexual activity or pregnancy among teenagers, but many of these programs offer dangerous misinformation about safe sex, including that birth control methods are hardly effective at preventing pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. Despite this, an increasing number of schools are adopting abstinence-only programs for their sexual education curricula.

Works Cited

Finer, L. “Trends in premarital sex in the United States, 1954-2003.” Public Health Reports, 23.73, (2007): n.p. Web. 31 May 2016. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17236611.

Haelle, Tara. “Pill Remains Most Common Birth Control Method.” WebMD. WedMD, LLC., 11 Dec. 2014. Web. 31 May 2016. http://www.webmd.com/sex/birth-control/news/20141211/the-pill-remains-most-common-method-of-birth-control-us-report-shows.

Hauser, Debra. “Five Years of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education: Assessing the Impact.” Advocates for Youth. Advocates for Youth, n.d. Web. 31 May 2016. http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/publications-a-z/623-five-years-of-abstinence-only-until-marriage-education-assessing-the-impact.

Livingston and Patten. “Why is the teen birth rate falling?” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 29 Apr. 2016. Web. 31 May 2016. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/04/29/why-is-the-teen-birth-rate-falling/.

Livni, Ephrat. “Study: Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Up.” ABC News. ABC News, 26 Sept 2015. Web. 31 May 2016. http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=117935&page=1.

“Relative Effectiveness of Birth Control Methods.” Options for Sexual Health. Options for Sexual Health, 2016. Web. 31 May 2016. http://www.optionsforsexualhealth.org/birth-control-pregnancy/birth-control-options/effectiveness.

Satterwhite, C.L., Torrone E., Meites E., Dunne E.F., Mahajan R., Ocfeemia M.C., Su J., Xu F., and Weinstock H. “Sexually transmitted infections among U.S. women and men: prevalence and incidence estimates.” Sexually Transmitted Diseases. 40, 8. (2013): 187-93. Web. 31 May 2016. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23403598.

“The Truth About Abstinence-Only Programs.” Advocates For Youth. Advocates For Youth, 2007. Web. 31 May 2016. http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/storage/advfy/documents/fsabstinenceonly.pdf.

Trenholm, C., Devaney, B., Fortson, K., Quay, L., Wheeler, J., and Clark, M. “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2007). Web. 31 May 2016. https://aspe.hhs.gov/basic-report/impacts-four-title-v-section-510-abstinence-education-programs.



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Ultius, Inc. "The Pros and Cons of Abstinence Programs in Sex Education." Ultius | Custom Writing and Editing Services. July 01, 2016. https://www.ultius.com/ultius-blog/entry/the-pros-and-cons-of-abstinence-programs-in-sex-education.html.

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