On July 6, 2012, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee released a report that supports the abstinence education message that groups like Concerned Women for America (CWA) have touted for years. The report, “A Better Approach to Teenage Pregnancy Prevention: Sexual Risk Avoidance,” concludes that sex education based on an abstinence message is “the best public health strategy to prevent unintended teen pregnancies and sexually-transmitted infections (STIs).”
The report compares the Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA) approach with the Comprehensive Sex Education (CSE) approach and finds the SRA approach to be better because the CSE approach “is based on the presumption that sexual behavior after puberty is inevitable,” while the SRA approach “is guided by the most current adolescent behavioral theory and optimal health.” The findings show that CSE is based on risk reduction, whereas SRA is based on risk avoidance.
CSE is the most prevalent type of sex education in the United States, due mostly to the fact that it receives far more federal funding than abstinence-based programs. The National Abstinence Education Association released a chart in April 2012 that shows the funding ratio for abstinence education versus non-abstinence education has been steadily declining since FY 2008 when the ratio was 1:4 ($176.5 million to $670.4 million); in FY 2012 it is 1:16 ($55 million to $902.94 million) and in President Obama’s FY 2013 budget it will plummet to 1:24 ($37 million to $894.24 million).
Despite all of that money, the Congressional report states that CSE has done little in the last 20 years to reduce the rate of teenage pregnancies in part because it takes a values-neutral approach to teenage sexual behavior and does not give guidance to students. Nor does it give age-appropriate advice or help teens make the healthiest choice.
The SRA approach follows the model set by successful public health campaigns aimed at teenagers to help reduce teenage drinking, smoking, and reckless driving. The reason these campaigns are successful is that they take teenage behavior into account. They do not tell teens how to reduce the risk of drinking, smoking, or reckless driving; they tell them these actions are harmful to them.
The report discusses new brain science research, brain imaging, which shows “emotion, rather than reason, often influences teen decision making.” Teens take risks but lack the controls to manage those risks. Giving teenagers medical information in CSE classes and expecting them to assess and reduce their risks during sexual behavior based solely on the information without the context of values and morals is unrealistic and has proven to be a failure.
The bottom line is that SRA programs will have more positive outcomes because they are based on helping teens make the healthiest choice, which is abstinence. CSE programs cater to the lowest common denominator; teens cannot control themselves and, therefore, will have sex, so they should be taught how to reduce their risk for pregnancy and infection rather than be taught that the healthier choice is to delay sex until they are older. While there is often a token lesson on abstinence in CSE programs, it is in direct conflict with the bulk of the lessons taught in the program. Teaching teens that you expect them to have sex because they have no self-control is not going to lead to risk avoidance.
As Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse, Senior Fellow of CWA’s Beverly LaHaye Institute, writes in her new book, Marriage Matters,
The data support the abstinence position as the very best for young people’s well-being, future success, and later happiness in marriage. The teen pregnancy rate dropped 37 percent over the last two decades and currently is at a seventy-year low. During approximately the same time frame, teen abortions have also declined significantly and are the lowest in more than thirty years, so the decrease in teen pregnancy is not from increased abortions. Research studies indicate that the drop cannot be attributed to increased contraceptive use, either, because teen sexual activity has dropped as well. Peer-reviewed research studies report that teens in abstinence education programs are significantly less likely to be sexually active than their peers. (p. 194)
Imagine saying to teens, “I know you will go out drinking, so stay healthier by drinking ‘lite’ beer instead; I know you smoke, so to stay safer, only smoke ‘light’ cigarettes; and I know you text and drive, so I bought you a cell phone with a larger screen to make it safer.” Just as those ideas make no sense, neither does telling teens, “I know you will have sex, so I bought you some condoms to make it safer.”
And that is why risk avoidance programs will have far more success than risk reduction programs.