Report confirms effectiveness of abstinence-only sex-ed programs for middle school students

By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

At a time when the U.S. government has ceased funding of abstinence-only programs in schools and substituted funding for safe-sex programs, on the grounds there is no proof abstinence programs work, the release of the results of a controlled study conducted by a research team at the University of Pennsylvania indicates abstinence programs are effective.

The results of this particular study were published in the February issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

The study followed students in grades six and seven for two years after one of several curricula was presented to them.

According to self-reporting, 33.5 percent of those who received the abstinence-only program engaged in sex some time over the following two years. For those who received the safer-sex curriculum, which stressed the use of condoms, 51.8 percent engaged in sex at some time over the two years.

Interestingly, of those who did engage in sex over the study period, condom use was approximately the same whether they received the abstinence-only curriculum, the safer-sex curriculum, a combination of the two, or a health curriculum that did not include sex education.

The safer-sex program, in this particular study did not appear to affect behavior one way or the other.

“The results may be surprising to some in that the theory-based abstinence-only curriculum appeared to be as effective as a combined curriculum and more effective than the safe-sex only curriculum in delaying sexual activity,” an accompanying editorial in the medical journal said.

“It is common sense which dictates that young people, when they are educated about the consequences of their actions, can understand and exercise their freedom in accord with the good – in this case abstaining from destructive sexual behaviors,” said Dominic Lombardi, director of the archdiocesan Family Life Office.

The report, he said, confirms the wisdom of the Church’s teaching and “also underlines the essential role of parents and educators to be involved in young people’s lives, assisting them in an intentional way to live responsible and authentically fulfilling lives.”

The controlled study, led by Penn’s Dr. John B. Jemmott III, Dr. Loretta S. Jemmott and Dr. Geoffrey T. Fong studied 662 African-American students who were attending four inner-city public schools. African-American adolescents were chosen because an underlying reason for the study was the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. In 2005, the Archives report notes, 69 percent of adolescents who had HIV/AIDS were African-American.

The participants were randomly assigned to the different options, and a total of 77 facilitators were used. Included in the program were one-on-one counseling sessions.

All of the curricula, which were prepared in-house, presented adolescent sex as a health issue not a moral issue. The abstinence-only curriculum did not advise the adolescents to wait until marriage until engaging in sex, but rather to wait until they were mature enough to handle it.

The authors of the study were concerned only with the health implications of adolescent sex, and did not set out to promote (and do not promote) one method or another. The purpose of the program was to determine if an effective abstinence-only program could be developed and taught.

“In fact, we have developed several other successful interventions that are not abstinence-based,” Jemmott said in an interview. “We thought abstinence could be an effective strategy, but were struck by the dearth of abstinence interventions with solid evidence of efficacy.

“Therefore we created an abstinence-only intervention that was developed on the basis of behavioral change theories and methods that have been used successfully in the development of interventions for other behaviors, including condom use. We recognize that in some communities abstinence only is the only acceptable message for adolescents,” he said.

As to whether his group was surprised by the outcome of the study, Jemmott said, “Given that it was our intention to develop an effective intervention, we were not surprised, but we were delighted.”

The Penn study was good news for those who convey Church teaching that sex outside of marriage is wrong. Even though the study was morally neutral it was subject to accepted stringent controls to promote accuracy, and it did show abstinence-only programs can hold their own.

At least for this particular group under study, the abstinence-only program had better results than the safer sex program from both a moral perspective and a health perspective.

“Practicing abstinence and chastity is the only way to live out God’s plan for our sexuality,” said Keith Beaver, a chastity educator with Generation Life who presents abstinence-only programs at schools.

“The Penn study confirms the message Generation Life is spreading – abstinence is the only way to obtain that freedom.”