February 15, 2010

Just Say No to Sex: Is Abstinence Only Education Effective?

new sally By Sally Raskoff

A recent study about sex education is now big news: abstinence-only sex education is effective! No other scientific study of such programs has found any success, so it’s no surprise that this should make a splash in the news media.

Looking at the study more closely, and with a sociological lens, there are some important issues to consider.

The basic study used data from four different urban (low income) middle schools in the same northeastern city in four groups: one received an 8 hour “abstinence-only” curriculum by specially trained teachers who discussed the risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs); one received an 8 hour “safer-sex” curriculum; one received a more comprehensive curriculum for either 8 or 12 hours that included information from both programs already mentioned; and one group received an 8 hour “healthy living” curriculum that is not considered sex education.image

The research design states that they were randomly assigned into these groups. The curriculum was for an 8-10 hour learning experience and the students were re-surveyed 24 months after the initial class to assess their sexual histories during that time.

Two years after the class, it appears that 48.5% of the control (healthy living) group was sexually active compared to 42% in the comprehensive group, 52% in the safer sex group, and 33.5% in the abstinence-only group.

The abstract of the article summarizes these findings and includes some other details. The mean age of the African American participants was 12.2 years, thus their average age at the follow up would be a young 14. About 84% of the them were still enrolled at the follow up survey, so the overall findings omit 16% who moved or dropped out of the study.

Are these points relevant? Perhaps.

We’re talking about 12 and 14 year olds and their likelihood to have sex.


Looking at the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Survey data for a northeastern urban city (New York City), almost half of the high school students reported ever having sexual intercourse – although less than 10% had done so for the first time before they were 13 years old. Of course, while this data is for the entire city of New York, the study in question is specifically in low-income urban schools thus they may not be comparable.

Here are the data for the Boroughs individually and two other northeastern cities:


The study group was in 8-9th grade when they were followed up thus comparing these data above (for the 9th grade) to the study’s findings, it appears that the 40-50% figures aren’t too far out of the norm. Some of these cities have a large population of people who have relatively lower average income levels, compared to averaging out all of New York City.

Is it problematic that 15.6% of the people are missing from the analysis? Whether or not their inclusion would have altered the pattern is an unknown factor. There are many reasons why these students would have dropped out , and in fact a 15.6% disappear from a low-income urban school population is lower than one would expect.

Access to the research report is only through a subscribed database thus the public wouldn’t be able to find out any more details. If your school library gives you access, look up the study and see what else you can find out about its research design and methods.

The authors, interviewed on NPR and other media outlets, talk more about the specific curriculum and how it was different from previous ‘abstinence-only’ programs. clip_image004This curriculum was “not moralistic” nor was it “negatively oriented” according to the media reports. Instead, it sounds like they discussed the very sociological concept of how life chances are affected by the choice of whether or not to have sex.

One might also notice that this study did not ask about pregnancy or STI incidence nor did it follow the subjects past the age of 14 (yet). Not much attention has been paid to some of their other significant findings, e.g., multiple partners. The students that received the more comprehensive curriculum had “reduced reports” of having multiple partners compared to the control group.

When you consider risk behavior of children, i.e., having sex before one is 13 or 14, this study is fascinating, but more detailed analysis needs to be done before we jump to broad conclusions about what type of program is effective. The media reports have mentioned that the researchers (and others) caution about drawing societal conclusions from the results of any one study. Such warnings are important to heed – especially once you look into the details!


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Just Say No to Sex: Is Abstinence Only Education Effective?:


I agree with abstinence-only sex education! Instead of teens being taught to only practice "safe sex", they are taught to remain abstinent of it altogether.

The study of the varying sex-ed and healthy living groups for the middle schools was quite interesting. The effectiveness of the abstinence-only group doesn't really surprise me. However, I was a little surprised that the other curriculum didn't show a percentage as low as the abstinence-only group when the follow-up survey was conducted, but I understand why safe-sex curriculum would be not as effective. Overall, the experiment was extremely interesting and knowing information, like the results and tests from this study, is important to be aware of especially if schools try to have effective abstinence education for their students.

I wonder if the phrase "abstinence education" is appropriate in regards to this study. It appears that the program did not advocate abstinence but instead educated these students on the potential problems associated with sexual activity. Do we know if the program made the point that all premarital sex should be avoided? Also, in regard to the data collection, has anyone looked into the possibility of a sort of "self-fulfilling" prophecy among those in the abstinence group? Herein there is the possibility that some may have denied having sex in order to satisfy researchers that their efforts were indeed effective. This is akin to students saying they liked my lectures even though they were bored in order to be polite towards me. Also, it is possible that the safe-sex group may have felt more comfortable revealing the truth about their sexual behavior.

From my point of view not only the study itself should be critically examined, but also its presumtion. Who seriously thinks a 8-10 hour curriculum could make a significant impact on young adolescent's sexual behaviour? You will, of course, always find someone who is affected in some way or another.

Well, there are two ways you can look at this that relates to my sociology class about being a leader. One, by being a good leader, you need to make smart decisions and have your priorities straight. Having sex is not a smart decision, therefore making unprotected sex even worse. A leader leads by example, and one that has their priorities straight and makes good decisions, gets looked up upon.
The other way would be that since there aren't enough role models and leaders to help prevent this type of behavior, people and younger kids are taking part in it. If a young teen has no one to look up to, then how are they suppose to know what's right and wrong? Being a leader makes a big difference in the world and can definitely impact other people.

I believe that even though the schools should be teaching abstinence and to wait, it doesn't mean it will stop anyone from having sex. In my opinion, if a teenage wants to take the responsibility to have sex, then take any consequence that would come with it. I am a teenager myself, and I see people all over telling there children to wait, so teens won't go to the parents then if they are having sex, and ask for a birth control or such. Which is leading to why we are getting so many pregnancies. Its easier to promote the being safe than abstinence, because either way, the teenager will be having sex sometime or another. May not be as a teen, but they still will. Its a meer choice for the teenager, not other people.

Interesting...I think the more those kids are taught the less problems there might be with sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies. That is if the kids are being taught the right thing.

Interesting, but I do not think that the sampling was very representative of all teens, it should have been a bit more random, to make the results more reliable. It should have included teens from different economic classes. I agree that abstinence only classes should be taught, but I think the study should have been geard to all teens.

Ok while I agree that abstinence is really the only course of action for preventing teenage pregnancy I feel that the evidence in which was gathered was biast and not a good sample. Those in a low income, rough neighborhood have the probablity of not making the wisest decisions. Therefore I feel that the sample was not accurate enough to stir such an outburst.

Interesting study, but I think that we should still teach safe sex methods to target the sample that are going to have sex anyways.

No matter what a teenager is told, they are pretty much going to do whatever they want. We should also take into consideration the kind of role model a teenager has, the kind of economic class they're from, peer pressure and the media's effect on a teenager's mind. I think both abstinence and safe sex should be taught in schools.

I don't agree with abstinence only education at all! While I think that teaching kids to wait or refrain from sex while they are so young is important, it is very unrealistic to not educate them! Chances are, kids are going to have sex. Wouldn't you want to get facts from an educated teacher instead of being misinformed by friends or the media? I think that schools should teach kids safe sex while stressing the important of abtinence.

Abstinence is something that every High School student needs to learn about. The Statisics on this blog are very interesting.

I think teaching young kids abstenence is a great idea instead of just safe sex. That way they learn right from the start sex is sometin to wait until your older for. Teaching kids safe sex is like saying its okay as long as you dont get pregnant.

I agree that abstinence education is good, but looking back at my own experiences as a young teenager, I certainly didn't listen. I think abstinence should be stressed, but the most important part is to educate about how to keep safe from disease and pregnancy. Too many middle and high schoolers were pregnant. They obviously didn't listen to the abstinence message either, so at least they could have known more about how to keep their bodies safe.

I think it's great to see that there are reliable results showing that abstinence only sex education works. Keep up the good work!

I think the most obvious response to this study is that it needs to be replicated and with other demographics of people. If the lower income population that was included in the study is indeed affecting the results, then the study needs to be conducted again in both lower income areas as well as with children from all types of demographics. Never trust a study that has only been done once! If there is any validity in the findings, then the study can be reproduced with similar results elsewhere.

i agree very strongly with this i feel if people focused more on abstience and safe sex programs then teens wouldnt want to do it as much and if they did they would know the consequnces

The result of this study is amazing. I'm happy to know that abstinence only sex education works. Great study by great people.

I know the statistics about condom. They break. They slip. What we've done is not told the whole truth about condoms. ... My position is, if you can get people to use condoms perfectly, and you can make sure they use them, and tell them what the risks are, and tell them the breakage rates and slippage rates are, it's a good strategy. ... I believe that monogamy is the answer to HIV infection. I understand that people think I'm not a realist in this area.
The importance of attaining self sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity

The results from this study shocked me. I am glad to know there are schools out there promoting abstinence. Most schools teach about safe sex and hand out condoms and tell the girls about contraceptives. They need to understand that the best way to avoid pregnancy and STDs at such a young age is to NOT have sex until they are married or at an age where they can accept the consequences of such acts.

Sex education is now necessary for our new generation, in the present time its really hard to cope with this problem, we need to train our new generation about these issues.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Become a Fan

The Society Pages Community Blogs

Interested in Submitting a Guest Post?

If you're a sociology instructor or student and would like us to consider your guest post for everydaysociologyblog.com please .

Norton Sociology Books

The Real World

Learn More

Terrible Magnificent Sociology

Learn More

You May Ask Yourself

Learn More

Essentials of Sociology

Learn More

Introduction to Sociology

Learn More

The Art and Science of Social Research

Learn More

The Family

Learn More

The Everyday Sociology Reader

Learn More

Race in America

Learn More


Learn More

« The Hardest Job I've Ever Had | Main | Sociology Majors on the Job Market »