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'Abstinence-Only' Delays Sex in Young Teens

Abstinence-Only Program as Effective as Safe-Sex Education at Getting Teens to Delay Sexual Activity, Study Says

Feds Abandon Abstinence-Only continued...

The safer-sex sessions encouraged condom use to reduce the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, and the comprehensive session included abstinence and safer-sex instruction.

Everyone who took part was also eligible to attend two, three-hour booster sessions three and six months after the initial session, followed by six 20-minute one-on-one counseling sessions over the next two years.

At the end of two years of follow-up, with 84% of the students still enrolled in the program:

  • The estimated probability of ever having sexual intercourse in students who participated in the abstinence-only intervention was 33.5% compared to 48.5% for students who took part in the program where neither abstinence nor safer sex was discussed. 
  • About 20% of the abstinence-only students and 29% of the students who participated in the general health program reported being sexually active during the previous three months. 
  • Self-reports of sexual activity did not differ significantly between the abstinence-only, safer sex, and combined instruction groups.

No Program Increased Condom Use

None of the interventions were found to have a significant impact on consistent condom use or unprotected sex.

The study appears in the February issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Nationally known teen sexuality researcher Douglas Kirby, PhD, of the health policy research group ETR Associates, says the finding that safer-sex instruction did not increase contraception use is a surprise.

“Every other major study to look at this has shown these (safer-sex) programs to increase condom use,” he says.

Kirby expressed less surprise at the finding that abstinence-only education can delay sex in younger adolescents.

“I have been saying for many years that it was only a matter of time before a well-designed abstinence-only program was found to be effective for delaying the initiation of sex,” he says. “But it is important to point out that these were sixth and seventh graders. This program conveyed the very sound message that the students would benefit from waiting until they were older to have sex. I don’t know many people who would disagree with that.”

University of Washington and Seattle adolescent health specialist Frederick P. Rivara, MD, MPH, agrees.

In an editorial accompanying the study, Rivara called for more rigorously designed research on abstinence-only programs, noting that, “no public policy should be based on the results of one study.”

Rivara says the study makes a good case for abstinence-only education for preteens and younger teens.

“For a 12-year-old this may very well be the right approach,” he tells WebMD. “But what works with a 12-year-old may not work with a 16- or 17-year-old.”

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