Blog: Recent Research
New research on prevention interventions Print
You may have seen a few newspaper articles with titles like “Abstinence-only programs might work, study says” in the past couple of days.  But are newspapers telling the whole story?   

The articles are based on a recent study by respected researchers John B. and Loretta S. Jemmott and compare results for young people receiving three kinds of programs:  an “abstinence-only” intervention, designed to help teens wait until they are ready; a “combined intervention” which included information about abstinence as well as contraception and condoms; and a safer-sex-only intervention with no information about abstinence. 

The study focused on young African American preteens in an urban area and found that this new type of abstinence-only program can help some very young adolescents (average age 12) delay sexual initiation for up to 24 months.

It is important to note that the study provides no data in support of the failed abstinence-only-until-marriage programs of the Bush era
.  The abstinence-only program in this study would not have been eligible for federal funding during the Bush years because it did not fit the “8 point definition”. The program goal was to help early teens avoid sex until they are ready—a totally different objective than the federally funded abstinence programs already proven ineffective by the long-term Mathematica study “which showed no impact on teen behavior”.

In the Jemmotts’ own words: “It [the abstinence-only intervention] was not designed to meet federal criteria for abstinence-only programs. For instance, the target behavior was abstaining from vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse until a time later in life when the adolescent is more prepared to handle the consequences of sex. The intervention did not contain inaccurate information, portray sex in a negative light, or use a moralistic tone. The training and curriculum manual explicitly instructed the facilitators not to disparage the efficacy of condoms or allow the view that condoms are ineffective to go uncorrected.”

Public Policy Implications: Five Points to Keep in Mind

1. Almost one-quarter of the young people in the study were already sexually active when the study began.  This is the problem with the “only” component of any “only-type” program.  An abstinence-only program provides no information about condoms and contraception even though, in this case, approximately one-quarter of the young people in the intervention already had had sex.

2. Previous research on virginity pledges (Bearman and Bruckner), demonstrated that initial delays in sexual activity wore off in the later teen years.  Half of all teens are sexually active by the age of 17 and 70 percent of youth have had sexual intercourse by age 19.  These teens need information about both abstinence and contraception.

3. There is good research showing that many comprehensive sex education programs -- programs that provide information about both abstinence and contraception/condoms -- are effective at helping young people delay sexual initiation as well as at using contraception/condoms when they do become sexually active.  Thirty years of public health studies have clearly determined that the provision of information about condoms and contraception does not increase sexual activity among teens or lower the age of sexual initiation.

4. Given limited resources, shouldn’t we invest tax payer dollars in programs that can deliver both delay in sexual initiation and increased contraceptive and condom use by those who are sexually active? 

5. Further, shouldn’t we respect young people enough to provide them with all of the information they need to take personal responsibility for their sexual health?

The Obama administration is on the right track in funding only science-based programs with evidence of effectiveness.  The administration should also consider how scarce resources are best invested and recognize the rights of all young people to complete, accurate and honest information about their sexual health.


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