Should Sex Ed Just Teach Abstinence?

American Psychological Association Calls for Comprehensive Programs

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 23, 2005 -- Sex education programs for teens should cover more than sexual abstinence, says the American Psychological Association (APA).

The APA, the world's largest association of psychologists, isn't against discussing abstinence. Instead, the group wants a comprehensive sex education program which would include other topics, including condom use and ways to avoid HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Programs that exclusively promote abstinence -- without focusing on other issues such as condom use and ways to prevent HIV transmission -- are too restrictive, says the APA. The APA also questions the effectiveness of such programs, saying there's little scientific evidence that supports abstinence-only programs.

The APA has issued a resolution favoring comprehensive sex education programs. One of the main reasons for the APA's stand is the increase in newly identified cases of HIV in teens since 1994. Abstinence-only programs or abstinence-until-marriage programs as a way to prevent HIV have not been shown to be effective in the long term, especially in sexually experienced teens, says the report.

Teens aren't too young to be affected by HIV.

"The proportion of newly identified HIV cases among persons under 25 has increased since 1994," says the APA. "Most of those diagnosed with AIDS at ages 21 to 24 were most likely infected during adolescence."

One in five young people has had sex by age 15, says the APA. "Most adolescents who are sexually active do not use condoms consistently," says the APA.

Which Teens Are Most at Risk for HIV?

Teens' biggest HIV risk factor is sexual behavior. HIV infection risk is higher for some groups of teens. That includes males who have sex with males, who account for the majority of teens with HIV. A disproportionate number of AIDS deaths and new HIV cases in teens also occur in girls and people of color, says the APA.

Other higher-risk groups include:

  • Homeless teens
  • Gay, bisexual, and transgendered teens
  • Teens who inject drugs
  • Survivors of sexual abuse
  • Mentally ill adolescents
  • Teens in the juvenile justice or foster care systems
  • Teens who start having sex at a younger age
  • Teens who have intercourse more often
  • Teens who are less consistent about condom use
  • Adolescents with more than four sexual partners
  • Teens with another sexually transmitted illness
  • Adolescents who have anal or vaginal intercourse with an infected partner


Most studies show that comprehensive sex education programs that cover condom use do not lead to earlier or more frequent sex, says the APA. Until abstinence programs are scientifically proven effective, they shouldn't get funding, says the APA.

The association says that both comprehensive sex education and abstinence-only programs delay the onset of sexual activity. However, studies show that only comprehensive sex education can help protect teens from pregnancy and sexually transmitted illnesses when they first have sexual intercourse and as they continue to be sexually active.

Studies of abstinence-only programs show unintended consequences of unprotected sex -- pregnancies and STDs, such as HIV/AIDS, says psychologist Maureen Lyon, PhD, chair of the committee that produced the report, in a news release.

WebMD Health News


SOURCES: American Psychological Association,"Resolution in Favor of Empirically Supported Sex Education and HIV Prevention Programs for Adolescents." American Psychological Association, "About APA." News release, American Psychological Association.
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