Transitions: The Controversy over Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs
Volume 12, No. 3, March 2001
This Transitions is also available in [PDF] format.
Sue Alford, Editor & Director of Public Information Services, Advocates for Youth
1. Federally mandated abstinence-only-until-marriage education jeopardizes the health and lives of young people by denying them information that can prevent unintended pregnancy and infection with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV.
Youth need to know how to avoid the potential negative consequences of sexual intercourse. Every young person urgently needs accurate information about contraception and condoms. STDs and unintended pregnancy are extremely common. Consider the following:
- One-half of all new HIV infections occur among people ages 25 or less.1
- One-quarter of all new HIV infections occur among people under age 21.1
- The human papilloma virus—genital warts—is so common that experts believe three-quarters of all the sexually active people in the world have been infected with it.2
- In the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth, 28 percent of all women reported having had an unintended birth, and one-fifth of those women reported the birth as unwanted.3
|Researchers show that teenagers who receive contraceptive education in the same year that they choose to become sexually active are about 70 percent more likely to use contraceptive methods (including condoms) and more than twice as likely to use oral contraceptives education. That is why the National Institutes of Health recommends that, although sexual abstinence is a desirable objective, programs must include instruction in safer sex behavior, including condom use.3
2. Proponents of abstinence-only-until-marriage education assume that, if young people do not learn about contraception, they will not have sexual intercourse.
Throughout human history, people have had sexual intercourse. Often, people had to rely on contraceptive methods that were not very effective in preventing unwanted pregnancy because highly effective methods were not available. Today, highly effective methods are available to help people avoid unintended pregnancy, if they know about these methods and have access to them.
The fact that some U.S. teens report oral and/or anal intercourse while considering themselves 'virgins' underscores the fact that lacking information does not prevent young people from having sexual intercourse. It may, however, prevent them from making healthy choices about sexuality.
However, abstinence-only-until-marriage education goes further. It discourages young people from using contraception. It encourages young people to believe that condoms and modern methods of contraception—such as birth control pills, injectable contraception, implants, and the intra-uterine device (IUD)—are far less effective than they, in fact, are. Many abstinence-only-until-marriage programs discuss modern methods of contraception only in terms of failure rates (often exaggerated) and censor information about their correct use and effectiveness. Thus, many of these programs keep young people in ignorance of the very facts that would encourage them to protect themselves when they eventually become sexually active.
- By age 18, about 71 percent of U.S. youth have had sexual intercourse.6
- One recent study found that, by the age of 18, more than 75 percent of young people have engaged in various heavy petting behaviors.7
- Another study found that 25 to 50 percent of teens report having had oral sex.8
- A third study focusing exclusively on adolescent 'virgins' (defined in the study as teens who had not experienced vaginal intercourse) found that nearly one-third of respondents reported having participated in masturbation with a partner. In the same study, 10 percent of teens who defined themselves as virgins had participated in oral intercourse and one percent had participated in anal intercourse.9
- Data from a nationally representative survey indicate that, in 1999, 49.9 percent of all high school students have had sexual intercourse. The percentage rises by grade level—38.6 percent of ninth graders have had sexual intercourse compared with 64.9 percent of seniors.10
- By the time young people reach age 20, about 80 percent of males and 76 percent of females have had sexual intercourse.6
Federal legislation does not define sexual activity when it requires sexuality education classes to teach that abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard for all school-age children.5 Holding hands, kissing, deep kissing, petting—each of these may be included in the disapproved category of 'sexual activity' in individual abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula. At the same time, these curricula provide no guidance about very real behaviors that put youth at risk—oral and/or anal intercourse. Yet, the reality is that almost every American teenager today has had at least one romantic relationship by the time he/she is 18, and most young people have engaged in 'sexual activity.' In fact, most American parents would be likely to worry about the well-being of a teenager who went through his/her entire teenage years without even one romantic relationship.
If these young people have had abstinence-only-until-marriage sexuality education, they will not know how to protect themselves and their partners from STDs and unintended pregnancy. In the end, research demonstrates that, instead of keeping young people from having sexual intercourse, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs merely keep them from having safer sexual intercourse.
3. Federal requirements assume that young people will not learn about sexuality from any source other than sexuality education classes.
Legislators and congressional staff do not acknowledge the world in which young people live. If they did, they would hesitate to push, as an ultimate value, something that is actually a norm. Moreover, it is a norm that is contradicted by nearly every television show, movie, popular magazine, song, or music video that young people see, hear, or read. This legislatively mandated norm is contrary to the behaviors of many adults (including members of Congress and their staff) that young people hear or read about. Young people learn about sexual expression nearly everywhere they turn in society. They do not learn about responsible, mutually respectful, sexual expression in many places—and certainly not in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. In such programs, they learn instead about a single congressionally mandated standard that is at odds with nearly every other sexuality message they receive from the society in which they live.
Federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs must teach that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.5 By contrast, a recent nationally representative poll found that 56 percent of U.S. adults agreed that sexual intercourse should be reserved for a committed, monogamous relationship, whether or not people are married. Only 33 percent believed that sexual intercourse should occur only within marriage.11 Moreover, 93 percent of men and 79 percent of women report having had sexual intercourse prior to marriage.12
The refusal of abstinence-only-until-marriage proponents to accept the reality of young people's lives also creates a vacuum for youth as to what constitutes 'sexual activity.' Indications are emerging that many youth engage in unprotected sexual activities, such as oral and anal intercourse, while avoiding coitus (vaginal-penile intercourse). Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs cannot even address these issues because they shrink from discussing specific sexual behaviors.
Comprehensive sexuality education rests upon certain core values, including
- Every individual has dignity and self-worth.
- Sexual relationships should never be coercive or exploitative.
- All sexual decisions have effects or consequences.
- Every person has the right and the obligation to make responsible sexual choices.13
Comprehensive sexuality education encourages young people to complement these values with the values of their parents, society, and culture and to define and clarify the values by which they can live fulfilling, satisfying lives. Comprehensive sexuality education does not supplant family values; rather it provides young people with the tools to integrate these values into their lives and daily decision-making.
When a teen identifies his/her own values and the norms that are consonant with those values, that teen is unlikely to fall back on doing something because 'everyone is doing it' or to engage in activities just to circumvent an arbitrarily imposed standard. A vital developmental component in comprehensive sexuality education is encouraging teens to think and teaching them how to think rather than what to think. It is a component that is missing in abstinence-only-until-marriage education, which prefers to tell teens what to think and distrusts their ability to think for themselves.
4. Federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage education too often provides young people with medically inaccurate information.
Abstinence-only-until-marriage education provides no information about contraception and condoms other than failure rates. Moreover, it often provides inaccurate information, even about failure rates. In asserting that condoms are ineffective, abstinence-only-until-marriage education usually relies on studies that either pre-date today's highly effective latex condoms or that are not scientific in their research and analysis and, thus, are not published in peer-reviewed journals. Another tactic of proponents of abstinence-only-until-marriage education is to link condom failure with sexually transmitted infections that may occur in areas of the body that condoms do not cover and, thus, could not protect. For example, recent abstinence-only arguments against using the condom to prevent HIV infection have focused on the inability of condoms to protect one totally against human papillomavirus (genital warts).14 What opponents fail to mention, however, is that genital warts may be transmitted across portions of the anatomy (such as the upper thighs, lower abdomen, the groin, testicles, labia majora, or anus) that condoms do not cover.2
Second, federal guidelines require abstinence-only-until-marriage programs to teach that sexual activity outside of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.5 First, consider the assertion about harmful physical effects of sexual activity outside of marriage. Certainly, sexual intercourse can result in unplanned pregnancy, STDs, and/or HIV infection. But these results are not necessarily "likely." Moreover, these negative physical consequences are not linked to marital status and may occur inside or outside of marriage. It is precisely to protect against negative physical consequences that comprehensive sexuality education provides young people with information on contraception and condoms.
Next, consider the claim about negative psychological effects of sexual activity outside of marriage. There is simply no sound public health or medical data to support this assertion. Most people have had sexual relations prior to marriage with absolutely no negative psychological consequences. For example, one study reported that, when premarital sexual intercourse is satisfying, it positively affects the relationship for both males and females.15 The largest study ever undertaken of adult sexual behavior found that more than 90 percent of men and more than 70 percent of women recall wanting their first sexual intercourse to happen when it did.12
Sexuality is a natural, normal, and positive component of life. Comprehensive sexuality education can address issues in a positive, helpful manner that encourages young people to make responsible and safe decisions that protect their sexual health.
- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Young People at Risk for HIV Infection. Atlanta, GA: The Centers, 1999.
- Marr L. Sexually Transmitted Diseases: A Physician Tells You What You Need to Know. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
- National Center for Health Statistics. Fertility, Family Planning, and Women's Health: New Data from the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth. [Vital & Health Statistics, Series 23, no. 19]. Hyattsville, MD: U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services, 1997.
- National Institutes of Health. Consensus Development Conference Statement. Rockville, MD: The Institutes, 1997.
- Welfare Reform Act of 1996 (P.L. 104-193).
- Alan Guttmacher Institute. Sex and America's Teenagers. New York: The Institute, 1994.
- Roper Starch Worldwide. Teens Talk about Sex: Adolescent Sexuality in the '90s. New York: SIECUS, 1994.
- Newcomer S, Udry J. Oral sex in an adolescent population. Archives of Sexual Behavior 1985; 14:41-46.
- Schuster MA, Bell RM, Kanouse DE. The sexual practices of adolescent virgins: genital sexual activities of high school students who have never had vaginal intercourse. American Journal of Public Health 1996; 86:1570-1576.
- Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Youth risk behavior survey, American high school students, 1999. Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report 2000; 49(SS-5).
- Hickman-Brown Public Opinion Research. Overview of Research Results. Report to Advocates for Youth and SIECUS. Washington, DC: Advocates for Youth, 1999.
- Michael RT et al. Sex in America: A Definitive Survey. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1994.
- National Guidelines Task Force. Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education. New York: SIECUS, 1994.
- Wetzstein C. Unfamiliar sexual disease has no cure, spreads easily. Washington Times, Nov. 7, 2000.
- Cate RM, et al. Sexual intercourse and relationship development. Family Relations 1993; (April):162.
Next Chapter: Sex Education Programs: Definitions & Point-by-Point Comparison
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Transitions (ISSN 1097-1254) © 2001, is a quarterly publication of Advocates for Youth—Helping young people make safe and responsible decisions about sex. For permission to reprint, contact Transitions' editor at 202.419.3420.
Editor: Sue Alford