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Many people in the USA and the UK are still advocating abstinence-only sex education that avoids giving advice to schoolchildren about topics such as contraception.

The advocates of the abstinence approach argue that giving children advice about sexual behaviour and contraception just encourages them to experiment at an earlier age and this has too many dangerous consequences.

But what does the evidence say? Does pro-abstenance education achieve more abstinence? Does broader sex education lead to less "responsible" behaviour and earlier sexual activity? Which approach leads to fewer sexual diseases and lower rates of teenage pregnancy?

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The exact opposite is true.

Short version: Abstinence only does not delay sexual activity in teens, and when they do have sex, they are unaware of protection, thus leading to higher incidence of pregnancy and STDs.

The Center for Research and Education on Gender and Sexuality mention that advocating a position of abstinence doesn't significantly alter the behaviour, and is highly detrimental because the behaviour is not modified by any relevant knowledge of safe practices.

70% percent of youth are still sexually active by the time they are 19, what can we expect to happen to them when they've been denied access to accurate sexual health information? Is slightly delaying the onset of youth sexuality a better outcome than providing youth with accurate health information to protect themselves and their peers? This question is even more pressing when the vast majority of research shows that abstinence-only sex education programs don't even delay teen sexuality as well as programs that provide youth with accurate health information.

This study calls abstinence only education (or lack thereof) a failure for America:

Studies consistently reveal that approximately half of all adolescents engage in sexual intercourse before graduating high school,1 and many legal scholars have analyzed the correlation between youths’ sexual activity and abstinence-only sex education.2 Studies also consistently reveal that the percentage of Black American3 adolescents engaging in sexual intercourse substantially exceeds that of their White American4 counterparts,5 but few legal scholars have analyzed the relationship between Black youths’ sexual activity and abstinence-only sex education.6 Legal scholars have addressed the dangers that abstinence-only programs cause for gay and lesbian youth,7 and for girls,8 but have all but failed to address the social ramifications such programs have on racial minorities.9 Several scholars argue that the right to information10 or freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment11 precludes federal endorsement of abstinence-only sex education. Others base legal justification for comprehensive sex education, as opposed to abstinence only education, in international human rights law.12

Now, there is some contrary data out there. However, it seems to have very limited applications.

Abstinence-only classes recently found to deter sex might work for some youngsters

There is still this cautionary quote

Bill Albert, chief program officer of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “It’s noteworthy, because to date we have had no evidence to suggest these abstinence-only programs are successful.”

The limitation being that the teens should have no sexual experience at all (to what degree is not defined clearly in the article). This study is only one out of many, so many parameters are still unknown at this time. It may have been a fluke, a good report, or even a fraud. Only time will tell in this politically motivated and charged climate.

The prevailing evidence though indicates that it is highly ineffective in all ways.

Previously, when discussing abstinence-only education, most people would reference a recent summary by the Cochrane Collaboration. The Cochrane folks studied 13 abstinence-only education programs – they could not find one that showed an “enduring effect” on teen’s sexual behavior.

In addition to the Cochrane study, another federally funded study of four abstinence-only programs by the Mathematica Policy Research Inc., published in April of 2007, revealed similar results. The research group found that “participants had just as many sexual partners as nonparticipants and had sex at the same median age as nonparticipants.” In other words, abstinence education programs did nothing favorable – the result was the same as if there were no program being offered at all.

Now a third study, this by Janet E. Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, revealed some of the most troubling data of all. A national longitudinal study of adolescents, specifically 934 high school students, examined one of the factors used as a measurement of success for abstinence-only education programs, the virginity pledge.

In the most recent study, researchers compared teens who had taken the virginity pledge to those who had not taken a pledge. The researchers found results similar to the aforementioned studies.

First, the rate of the teens taking part in sex was the same. Those taking the virginity pledge were just as likely to have intercourse. The only positive, statistically small, was that those taking the pledge had 0.1 fewer sex partners over the five year study than did those who did not take such a pledge.

However, two other findings were most damning. First, those taking the virginity pledge were less likely to protect themselves. Pledge takers were found to be less frequent users of condoms and other forms of birth control.

Therefore, those youngsters who took the virginity pledge were not only just as likely to have intercourse, they ultimately were more likely to take part in sex in an unsafe manner. This has led experts to conclude that the lessons students take from their abstinence-only education programs is a negative and/or faulty view of contraception.

This article also lays out some interesting information with some great links to follow up on. Again, the data indicates that abstinence only is a bad idea all around, and actually contributes to the problems of unwanted pregnancies and STDs which both programs state they are trying to prevent.

As I mentioned earlier, most of the abstinence only education programs are not motivated by evidence, but rather by ideology. As The Journal of Religion and Society reports:

In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies (Figures 1-9). The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly.

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    I wonder if any of those studies controlled for demographic group differences related to use of protection? E.g. if there's a high correllation of people participating in abstinence only and people who'd be unlikely to use protection (for religious, cultural or other reasons), then the case for causation between abstinence only and lack of protection would be significantly weakened. Personally, I consider all such studies bunk because in Soviet Russia, where there was NO sex education at all, everyone in high school knew what a condom was and how babies are made. – user5341 Feb 16 '12 at 2:23

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