Conservatives are sending abstinence-only curriculum into classrooms at increasing rates, and a new study shows these programs are not only ineffective but unethical. Congress and the Trump administration are working to reverse the trends of more comprehensive sexual education, which had begun to improve during the Obama administration.
WHAT THE STUDY SHOWS
A report published in September’s Journal of Adolescent Health (JAH) finds that sexual education programs promoting “abstinence only until marriage” (AOUM) fail on numerous levels based on scientific data. Researchers evaluated previous scientific research, reviewed articles on the subject, and data from human rights groups to reach their conclusions. This wealth of evidence starkly contrasts with the small number of studies that support abstinence-based education programs—long endorsed by conservative groups.
The JAH report focuses on several specific weaknesses in the AOUM education curriculum. First, the research indicates AOUM education fails to reduce rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
“These programs simply do not prepare young people to avoid unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases,” according to co-author Dr. John Santelli, MPH, professor of Population and Family Health at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.
By teaching kids that abstinence is the only way to ensure avoiding STIs and pregnancy, experts warn we fail to provide them with critical knowledge.
Another co-author of the report, Laura Lindberg, says it’s “not just unrealistic, but it leaves our young people without the information and skills that they need.” A research scientist at the Guttmacher Institute—a reproductive health research group that supports abortion rights—Lindberg adds, “We fail our young people when we don’t provide them with complete and medically accurate information.” She also states that AOUM education “violates medical ethics and harms young people” because these programs fail to inform students about other methods to prevent pregnancy and STIs, and exaggerate the risk of contraceptive failure.
In fact, the report states: “programs that promote abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) or sexual risk avoidance are scientifically and ethically problematic and—as such—have been widely rejected by medical and public health professionals.”
It maintains that numerous international human rights treaties and other universally acknowledged documents “provide that all people have the right to ‘seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds,’ including information about their health.” The report further states that access to information about sexual health “is a basic human right and is essential to realizing the human right to the highest attainable standard of health.”
According to the JAH report, another unethical element to the AOUM curriculum is the promotion of the idea that a heterosexual, monogamous marriage provides the only acceptable circumstances for sexual intercourse. In doing so, these programs may exclude or stigmatize numbers of youth by reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes.
Additionally, the report found the AOUM approach ineffective in delaying the onset of sexual intercourse because people within society are delaying marriage and, sometimes, declining to marry at all. In fact, the age of people getting married continues to rise, but the average age of first sexual experience has held steady at 17 to 18 since the 1990s. The result is a growing number of people having premarital sex.
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