More Evidence on Abstinence-Only vs. Comprehensive Sex Education

By Rachel Walden — April 2, 2008

A recent study in the Journal of Adolescent Health reports on a survey of about 1700 teens (ages 15-19) who completed the National Survey of Family Growth. They were asked about whether they received any formal sex education before initiating vaginal intercourse (only heterosexual teens were included), and whether it was abstinence-only or comprehensive (with instruction on contraceptives).

Among the findings:

  • 9.4% of participants reported that they had not received any sex education, 23.8% reported abstinence-only instruction, and 66.8% reported comprehensive sex education.
  • Nearly half of the teens had already had vaginal intercourse by the time of the survey.
  • Neither type of sex ed was significantly associated with reducing rates of vaginal intercourse compared with no education.
  • Neither type of sex ed was associated with reducing rates of sexually transmitted infections. However, many teens may not know their STI status, given that only 4.8% of girls reported ever having received such a diagnosis, compared with recent CDC estimations that suggest the figure should have been more like 25%.
  • Teens who received comprehensive sex ed were significantly less likely to report a pregnancy than those who received no formal sex ed. Abstinence-only sex ed was not significantly associated with a reduction in teen pregnancy.

The authors also noted disparities in sex education, stating that “Generally individuals receiving no sex education tended to be from low-income nonintact families, black, and from rural areas. Participants reporting abstinence-only education were typically younger and from low-to-moderate–income intact families, whereas adolescents reporting comprehensive sex education were somewhat older, white, and from higher-income families and more urban areas.”

In general, it’s good to be skeptical of what teens say of their own sexual behavior, and the authors note that additional formal studies are needed. As the debate continues, however, it’s helpful to have another piece of information indicating that teens are having sex no matter which type of education they receive, but those receiving comprehensive sex ed may be faring better when it comes to teen pregnancy, and not faring any “worse” when it comes to initiating sexual activity.

Related: Lawmakers’ Letter to Obey Asks That Abstinence-Only Funding Go to More Effective Programs

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