Abstinence only education fails at its own goals!

Let’s be as clear as we can about this: Abstinence only education did not work, even though it was strongly promoted by the Bushies.

From the Guardian:

Bush years saw teen pregnancies rise
Pregnancies and syphilis rose sharply among generation of girls urged to avoid sex before marriage

I guess telling teen age children what they must refrain from sex does not work. Who would have thought? Not giving them information about how to protect themselves when having sex leaves them more vulnerable to pregnancy and disease.  Wow! 

According to the article, defenders of abstinence only education claim that the results show that abstinence hasn’t been pushed hard and consistently enough.  That seems to ignore the fact that with such education things have gotten worse.

12 thoughts on “Abstinence only education fails at its own goals!

  1. Abstinence isn’t the “bad” word that today’s culture makes it out to be. It’s actually the exact opposite – it’s a positive choice that teens can make to ensure a brighter and healthier future. Teens who choose abstinence don’t have to worry about STD’s or STI’s, and they don’t have to carry the emotional baggage that having sex brings. An abstinent teen can keep a clear mind to help make positive, healthy choices for their future. And most importantly, being abstinent means that you never have to live with regrets.

    “Game Plan” is a great abstinence-based curriculum that many schools across the United States are using. To learn more about “Game Plan”, visit http://www.justsayyes.org

  2. Alice, there is a huge difference between one’s goals and one’s means. I’m not rejecting the goal of teen abstinence, but the methods used by the abstinence only group do not work.

    I looked at your link, but I don’t see anything like hard evidence that it works, and there’s tons of evidence that it doesn’t. The idea that workbooks are what is needed seems to me to be wishful thinking.

  3. Alice, the Center for Disease Control has just published figures that contradict many of the claims of the site you just linked to. That’s the point of the post.

  4. There’s nothing wrong with abstinence in itself — it’s the political manipulation of girls by right-wing conservatives, the absence of reliable information, and social conditioning of girls as sexually passive and absent of desire (i.e. sex is something that only boys want, and you just have to find ways to say no) that is dangerous.

    Here’s an excellent and comprehensive book on the subject: The Politics of Virginity: Abstinence in Sex Education (http://www.amazon.com/Politics-Virginity-Abstinence-Education-Reproductive/dp/0275990095)

  5. jo, i read the first few pages of this book on amazon. it looks really good! i couldn’t get your link to work for it tho, so i’ll try to link to it again, because i bet others would be interested to have a look:


    or on co.uk:


    (this book goes on my ‘understanding the damage done by my kansas upbringing’ reading list.)

  6. As the Guardian writer points out, the CDC report doesn’t speculate about causes. And I think it’s hasty to claim that abstinence-only sex-ed was clearly a major causal factor here. As an alternative cause, remember that Bush imposed restrictions on what federally-funded family planning clinics could do; those restrictions could easily have dramatically reduced teens’ access to condoms and birth control. The economic stagnation in poor and working-class communities over the last decade (they never really recovered from the recession of 2001) certainly couldn’t have helped.

    I don’t like abstinence-only sex-ed in public schools, on the Rawlsian grounds that the only reasons to not talk about condoms and birth control are religious views that not all reasonable people share. But, as a point of intellectual responsibility, I must admit that I’ve never seen a good study showing that abstinence-only sex-ed is significantly less effective (in terms of reducing teenage STD and pregnancy rates) than conventional sex-ed, much less harmful — and I’ve looked carefully at every study that’s made the rounds on the feminist blogosphere. Many of the studies are based on a handful of samples — say, one or two dozen implementations of seven or eight different programs — and make misleading comparisons — often with students who take no sex-ed class whatsoever.

    I’d add that it’s not just opponents of abstinence-only sex-ed who make these kinds of statistical fallacies. Looking over a handful of the top links on this abstinenceworks.org site shows exactly the same problems.

  7. Noumena, I was aware of the problem of causation and thought that saying the programs Bush’s put in place failed to have the outcomes wanted does not make any ambitious causal claim. There could be internal or external reasons for the failure, but failure it is. Compare: I might locked up my car to prevent it being stolen; the fact that it still gets stolen by someone breaking a windown means the locking didn’t do the prevention.

    Since there are a lot of people making claims that since abstinence only programs, the statistics are much better, this modest point is really worth making.

    About whether abstinence only programs are responsible for the increase in pregnancy and disease, I think there are very strong reasons for thinking that’s a very reasonable hypothesis. Here’s what the CDC is saying:

    According to the CDC, birth rates among teenagers aged 15 or older had been in decline since 1991 but rose sharply in more than half of American states after 2005. The number of teenage girls with syphilis had risen by nearly half after a big decrease, while a 20-year fall in the gonorrhea infection rate was being reversed. AIDS cases in adolescent boys had nearly doubled.

    The CDC says southern states (the Bible Belt) tend to have the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and STDs. In addition, about 16,000 pregnancies were reported among girls aged 10-14 in 2004 and a similar number of young people in the age group reported having a sexually transmitted disease.

    Some of the statistics the CDC report reveals:

    75% of teens will have sex prior to their 20th birthday.
    The teenage birth rate in the US is the highest in the developed world.
    1/3 of youths have not received any instruction on methods of birth control before the age of 18.
    The number of teen pregnancies is double in areas where abstinence is the only method of birth control taught as opposed to areas where there is comprehensive sex education and condoms are handed out. The organisation Planned Parenthood said the report was alarming and that teenagers needed “medically accurate, age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education”.

    We know how to do public health prevention stuff. Abstinence only programs do not do that. Maybe everything is made worse by other factors, but unwanted pregnancies and sexual diseases are public health issues. We might not have enough evidence to prove a tight causal connection, but we do have enough to make it a very reasonably hypothesis.

    I’m a great fan of empirical evidence, but I think we as professional group are too ready to conjecture about other possibilities which may not be explicitly discussed in the report. It would be irresponsible of the CDC to write this report were it aware of other potentional causes which it left undescribed.

    So I think the claim that abstinence only education did not change things just is clearly true, but it is a modest claim. I think another claim I main, the leaving children without knowledge of condoms and other ways of preventing pregnancy and disease will lead to

  8. JJ, the problem with even modest causal claims is the presence of other (potential) causal factors — like the cuts to family planning clinics, for example. How do we know abstinence only sex-ed didn’t prevent an even larger increase that would, ceteris paribus, have been caused by those cuts?

    In epidemiological contexts, we know that factor A has an effect while factor B doesn’t because large sets of data produced by careful, controlled experiments (or sampling techniques) have, upon analysis, shown a correlation with A and no correlation with B. This is how we know, for example, that tobacco smoke is linked to certain kinds of lung cancer in ways that more common air pollutants are not. The problem I was pointing to in my last comment was that these careful, controlled experiments haven’t been done in studies of sex-ed, at least as far as I know. To use some philosophy of science jargon: The CDC study (which, as far as I know, is a perfectly good study) has identified an explanandum, but (according to the Guardian article) specifically avoids even speculating about the explanans. This is why it cannot be used to support even very general claims about causal connections. That’s simply not what the report was doing. Other studies have tried to make causal claims, but they’re either methodologically weak or appeal to statistical fallacies. What we need is a good study that looks into some potential explanans.

  9. Noumena, I think this is actually very complicated. I’m not sure quite what to say, but here’s a try:

    1. I think we disagree about “prevent.” Here’s how I’d use it: the abstinence only education did not prevent things from getting worse. It may be that it helped to keep them from getting much, much worse.

    2. The CDC brings into the statistics an increase in intra-couple physical violence against women, and its correlation with all the other factors is very suggestive of plausible hypotheses about needed effective education.

    3. I think your conditions for knowledge are too restrictive. We can get very far without epidemiological investigations if we know what the underlying mechanisms are. And we are learning more and more about how people choose actions, for beliefs, etc.

    4. Abstinence only education does not endorse unwed people going to family planning clinics. Perhaps the closure of the family planning clinics contributed to the rise in undesirable diseases and pregnancies, but that just means that policies of abstinence only thinking got put in place by other means.

    Now it might be said that what’s really needed is more abstinence only education to counteract the clinic closures. There really is no evidence for that, so I agree that it’s a possible hypothesis, but I think philosophy alone probably doesn’t equip us to evaluate its plausibility.

    5. We did have a huge social experiment in abstinence only education before the pill was available. The fact that many women’s behavior changed very rapidly once the pill was available suggests to me that what held the chaste behavior in place was not the education.

  10. Jo Faulkner, I don’t know what “abstinence only” program YOU attended, but that is not what they teach. “sex is something that only boys want, and you just have to find ways to say no” is not what they teach, I know from first hand experience. As far as your book, The Politics of Virginity, I have a book that I would like you to read.


    Really a wonderful book that deals with the philosophical aspects of personhood and life.

  11. John, I was so interested to see the book you referred to. My introduction to philosophy was through similar Thomistic texts. And in the end, I feel actually grateful to have been introduced to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas by people largely or entirely innocent of modern science and/or most of Western cultural development between us and Aristotle, with the exception of Aquinas. I mean, what’s to object to the derivation of the principles of human happiness from Aristotle’s four causes?

    But the general project of writing such texts is, I fear, fundamentally very deceptive. Of course, to describe it as such is to assume the author himself is aware of the struggle toward wisdom that has taken places over the last couple of millennia, and has simply chosen to write as though most of it never occurred. Perhaps he feels it is deeply wrong. Still, as a philosopher, I can hardly applaud never acknowledging it.

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