Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Abstinence Education Might Work?

I once wrote that abstinence is a wonderful principle. All wingnuts should follow it life-long. That way we'd get a functioning country in just one generation.

But I have never really believed that abstinence-only would be an adequate sexual education for teenagers, and the reason is simple: That's what teenagers have been told all through the history. (Well, teenage girls, at least. Teenage boys were often told something rather different, having to do with which women you could schtupp without risk.)

All this opinionating of mine was about teenagers. What to tell younger children or pre-teens is a totally different matter, especially when it is done at home by parents. There abstinence education might well work (in the sense of making children delay sex) as long as the peer pressure is not yet operating. Now a new study suggests that this might work at school, too:

The study released Monday involved 662 African American students from four public middle schools in a city in the Northeastern United States. They were randomly assigned to go through one of the following: an eight-hour curriculum that encouraged them to delay having sex; an eight-hour program focused on teaching safe sex; an eight- or 12-hour program that did both; or an eight-hour program focused on teaching them other ways to be healthy, such as eating well and exercising.

The study involved a series of sessions in which instructors talked to them in small groups about their views about abstinence and their knowledge of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

They also conducted role-playing exercises and brainstorming sessions designed to correct misconceptions about sex and sexually transmitted diseases, encourage abstinence and offer ways to resist pressure to have sex.

Over the next two years, about 33 percent of the students who went through the abstinence program started having sex, compared with about 52 percent who were taught only safe sex. About 42 percent of the students who went through the comprehensive program started having sex, and about 47 percent of those who learned about other ways to be healthy did.

The abstinence program had no negative effects on condom use, which has been a major criticism of the abstinence approach.

Here's the one critical question I have about the findings of this study: How was the information about starting sex obtained?

It must have been based on self-reporting. I'm not sure about you, but if I had gone through a program which strongly advocates delaying sex, and only that, I might lie about having started it any way. I'm sneaky that way, and want approval and stuff. Maybe the children in this study were not sneaky at all and maybe this aspect had no effect. But I would be happier if the results were based on something more than self-reporting.

That something could be a longer term follow-up, I guess, including data on sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies.