Until now, I've somewhat ignored a new study that found an abstinence-only program had delayed the start of sexual activity among middle school African American girls in the Northeast, but not because I don't think it's great news: It is. I don't think anyone wants middle-school girls having loads of sex. But I didn't want to give the study more attention than it deserved.
Both the Washington Post and the Christian Science Monitor want to draw big conclusions about what this could mean for U.S. sex-education policy, especially since President Obama has cut funding for abstinence-only programs.
But the study did two things that don't really back up the claim that abstinence-only education totally works. First, it encouraged the teens to delay sex until they were ready, not until they were married. The latter is the way conservatives want the programs to look. Second, we already knew abstinence-only programs could cause teens to delay their sexual activity -- just not all the way until marriage. According to a 2001 study, virginity pledges can work in some instances, but those who break the pledge are less likely to use protection. So the delay doesn't translate into lower rates of STIs or, probably, unintended pregnancy.
So while this group of teenagers started having sex later, the number who had sex was only 9 percentage points lower than the group who were given comprehensive sex education that included information on contraceptives and on the importance of delaying sexual activity. I'd rather all those girls were using condoms than just waiting a few years to start.
-- Monica Potts
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