Abstinence Only: Reality Denial is an Epic Failure

I am not amused by your pseudo-science.

I am not amused by your pseudo-science.

Cory Silverberg, coauthor of the book I recently reviewed for Sex In The Public Square, The Ultimate Guide to Sex and Disability, offered up a link to A Portrait of Sexuality Education and Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs in the States at the Sexuality Education and Information Council of the United States on Friday, a week ago.

As Abstinence Only Sex Mis-education goes hand in hand with Creationism and other anti-science propaganda, I set aside some time to read through the report. These issues concern me as a parent, and as a person striving to see that the leaders of tomorrow’s world are not handicapped by pseudo-scientific faith-based nonsense.

Because faith, by its very definition, is based on blind obedience to authority, it is the antithesis of science, which is based on reality and evidence. Authority, whether in the form of a dusty anthology of ancient superstition, a charismatic person of great influence, or an invisible zombie in the sky, need not apply. When science and faith collide, science will always provide the better description of reality, and like it or not, we live in the real world. We need accurate portrayals of reality to make intelligent, informed decisions regarding the health and future of the world’s children.

The good, the bad, and the ugly, lie below the fold.

The good news here is that the states are figuring out just what an epic bust Abstinence Only propaganda is, in terms of reducing teen pregnancies, reducing the incidence of STDs and STIs, or even reducing teen sexuality, a goal dubious in its very proposition. The report points out that 25 states are now dropping the programs altogether, foregoing the accompanying federal money.

To dramatize the shift, just last year we reported in this publication that ten states were out of the program, one of three federal funding streams dedicated to the perpetuation of the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry. In our Fiscal Year 2005 Edition, just three states, the pioneers of California, Maine, and Pennsylvania, had rejected the funding.   This is but one piece of an encouraging narrative that has emerged this past year; one that makes us believe we are witnessing a paradigm shift away from the decade-long expansion of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and toward a more comprehensive and evidence-based approach to sex education. New evidence on program effectiveness, states leading the way in supporting comprehensive sex education, increasingly poor adolescent health outcomes that coincide with the explosion of abstinence-only-until-marriage programming, and proof of Congressional oversight over this wasteful spending for the first time in history all help to create new storylines in America’s drama with providing sex education to its citizens.

Predictably, the main concentration of hold-out states is in the south, where faith tends to rampantly trump science in government. Seventeen of the remaining 25 states are Southern States.

Addressing the ‘accomplishments’ of Abstinence Only Sex Mis-education, the research provides this data:

During the last year, a series of data concerning the sexual health of adolescents has filled newspapers, startling the public as statistics reveal a quarter of female adolescents have a sexually transmitted disease (STD), and for the first time in 15 years the teen birth rate is on the rise.
Also disturbing, the worst health outcomes are often segmented along racial, ethnic, and geographic lines, with minority communities and southern communities experiencing the highest rates of STDs and teenage birth. These communities, already made vulnerable by cultural and structural barriers, experience the worst sexual health outcomes.

But reality denial in favor of faith is not just unhelpful, it is detrimental.

When compared with data from 2005, we see that no real progress has been made in the status of adolescent sexual health practices. In fact, the 2007 YRBSS found only one positive change from two years prior: more students report being taught about AIDS or HIV in school. These numbers are consistent throughout geographic regions. However, on all other measures, when compared to 2005 data, students’ have engaged in more sexual activities and in particular, more riskier sexual activities (such as more unprotected sex illustrated by a decrease in condom use). The changes were not statistically significant, although disturbing as they may indicate a coming trend in the wrong direction.

None of this is really surprising to anyone not in the industry of promoting antiscience. Ignorance, especially ignorance deliberately foisted on children, is by its very nature harmful. Keeping kids in the dark about the world around them is never an acceptable or useful solution to anything but the expansion of the bank accounts of the purveyors of ignorance.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Public Health Association, the U.S. Institute of Medicine, the American Psychological Association, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists all sent representatives and statements to the United States Congress, agreeing that Abstinence Only programs are abject in their utter failure in every regard.

But there is one area in which a bit of research seemed to show some benefit to students attending an Abstinence Only program. Dr. Stan Weed looked at 550 seventh grade students over the course of a year to determine what factors might influence the beginning of sexual intercourse.  Surprisingly, his research seemed to show that the 357 adolescents enrolled in the Reasonable Reasons to Wait: Keys to Character curriculum of the Reasons of the Heart Abstinence Only program were less likely to begin having sexual intercourse over the course of the following year than the 193 other students. Right wing proponents of the religiously motivated Abstinence Only movement suddenly saw daylight, and trumpeted this research far and wide.

Separately, a study of an abstinence program in Northern Virginia found that students who participated were more likely to delay first sex than peers in regular sex-education classes.

Stan Weed, director of the Institute for Research and Evaluation, studied seventh graders in three Fauquier County middle schools who participated in the Reasons of the Heart (ROH) abstinence program. He and his colleagues compared the ROH students with peers in two other middle schools who received family-life education. All 550 students were virgins when the study began.

A year later, 9.2 percent of the ROH students had had sexual intercourse, compared with 16.4 percent of the students in the family-life program. ROH students also were more likely to be positive about staying abstinent until marriage.

The findings suggest that “abstinence programs can achieve significant reductions in teen sexual initiation,” wrote Mr. Weed, whose study appears in the January issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior.

Dr. Weed is the director of the Institute for Research and Evaluation, a right wing think tank. Now, the cool thing about science is that anyone can do it, and it doesn’t matter if Dr. Weed is the personal secretary to Joe the auto mechanic, a college student, or the director of a right wing think tank. Good science is repeatable and verifiable by anyone. Dr. Weed’s association should however, tweak our bias detection meters. The Institute for Research and Evaluation is the darling of The Heritage Foundation, and that orginization’s connection with reality is, shall we say, somewhat tenuous.

On closer inspection however, it becomes clear that Dr. Weed’s study is fatally flawed at best, disingenous and, ironically, in bad faith at worst.

From the paper itself (.pdf), we learn that the study was not at all a comparison between Abstinence Only programs and comprehensive sex education. The researchers only compared one Abstinence Only program (ROH) to students who watched two 30 minute videos. The latter can hardly be described as meaningful sex ed, and we have no way of knowing from the paper how ROH stacks up against other Abstinence Only programs. At best, the study can compare students in the ROH program to students without sex ed.

Another important caveat here is that the study covered a time period of one year. We then have to limit any conclusions to a delay in the initiation of sexual intercourse. This was reported in the paper as the focus of the study, though that message seems to get lost when the results are touted by anti-sex ed groups.

So, bearing in mind that the study only compared the ROH program to a null control group specifically for the delay of first sexual intercourse, does this indicate that the ROH program persuades seventh grade students to delay the initiation of sex for at least one year compared to students without meaningful sex education? It turns out that no, even that very limited conclusion is not warranted.

The paper itself is again the key to understanding the results. The study was done by taking two surveys, one at the beginning of the study and one a year later, and 550 students were self-identified as virgins. It is these 550 students that make up the basis of the study. Given the point of the study, it was a necessary exclusion of 270 students who did not self-identify as virgins. However, by its very nature, that exclusion introduces a bias. The study only included students who were already more likely to delay the initiation of sexual intercourse, and that bias is significant and large. It is large enough in fact, that this point alone renders the conclusion pointless, and the study worthless.

Further, looking at the students’ responses in the initial survey to the question, ““How likely do you think it is that you will remain abstinent until you are married?”, there was a statisically significant difference in the program’s efficacy between students who answered “I am sure I will abstain until I am married” and the other responses, which ranged to “I am sure I will not abstain until I am married”.

What Dr. Weed and his colleagues really studied was the effectiveness of one Abstinence Only program in reinforcing a prepostulated determination of the delay of the initiation of sex.

In other words, at best the study indicates that ROH did about seven percentage points better than no sex ed at all at convincing students who were already determined to abstain from sex, to abstain for an extra year. That seems rather pitiful in light of the heavy advantage given to the ROH program by way of bias in the study.

In the end, even the Abstinence Only crowd’s very own study indicates that Abstinence Only programs simply do nothing but waste money, deny the reality of adolescent sexuality, and endanger the health of our children.

Of course, science has never been a stumbling block to the right wing. Let’s allow Will Dunham of Reuter’s to close out the post:

Programs teaching U.S. schoolchildren to abstain from sex have not cut teen pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases or delayed the age at which sex begins, health groups told Congress on Wednesday.

The Bush administration, however, voiced continuing support for such programs…

Yeah, shocking, I know.

7 Responses to “Abstinence Only: Reality Denial is an Epic Failure”

  1. Elspeth Says:

    My biggest complaint re: abstinence only is what they don’t teach, not what they do. In my Women’s Health course last year not one student (out of eighty) could correctly identify the majority of birth control items I’d laid out. Not one. Some of the items none of them had even heard of (i.e. the diaphragm). When I was in school in the 70s and 80s we played frisbee with the dang things in biology class. Knowledge doesn’t lead directly to usage, but I can’t cotton to instructing ignorance.

    One hundred years ago folks were smuggling b/c into the country. I sometimes think we haven’t changed, all that much.

    ~Elspeth (aka Beth)

  2. Stephanie Z Says:

    You absolutely must save that look over the glasses. Practice it if necessary. No matter what your children tell you (they’re biased), that is the look that will be invaluable for quelling those students who think that class time is their own special platform for being “funny.”

    Uh, great post too.🙂

  3. Lou FCD Says:

    Well hello then, Elspeth. Love what you’ve done with your hair! 🙂

    My biggest complaint with AO is the fact that it’s based on inaccurate data grounded in ignorance, which is exactly the opposite of education. As representatives of the state in a situation where children are required by law to be in attendance, schools are not supposed to be engaging in the promotion of religion, especially when it harms the children.

    AO is propaganda disguised as education, designed to coerce a religious viewpoint on to a captive audience of children, and is physically and intellectually detrimental. As the above quoted real studies show, AO kids are not getting the education they need to avoid STDs, STIs, and pregnancies while still in their teens.

    Education is supposed to be helping them, not hurting them.

    Steph,

    I am so practicing the look. I call it the “Someone’s about to get verbally spanked” look. It’s been known to strike fear in the hearts of grown Marines.

  4. Stephanie Z Says:

    Heh. I’ll bet it has. I think of it as the “Do you have the mental capacity to understand what you’re doing or do I have to help you to that understanding?” look. I saw Jane Yolen do it once at a rowdy convention and realized immediately that I had to add it to my repertoire. Of course, it was another two years before I needed glasses.

  5. Lou FCD Says:

    heh, I like your name for it.

  6. Elspeth Says:

    Lou *laughs* I’m liking what I’ve done with it, too.

    I’ve use the over the specs look on my kids — but the 18-yo? Not allowed to turn it back on me!


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