For perhaps the first time ever, the public is getting a serious, dare I say “positive,” look at abstinence education (AE). Until recently, opponents to it have used advantages in money and media sympathy to shape, define and distort perceptions of abstinence education. Perhaps this new study offers a fresh opportunity to reopen minds. 

‘Just say no’ works 

Perhaps the most frustrating of abstinence myths is the narrow (and critics say unrealistic) directive for teens to “just say no” to sex. After all, they say, teens are just going to do it anyway, right? Not only is this mindset demeaning and condescending to teens, it is untrue. 

Abstinence is defined as making a decision not to engage in high-risk behaviors like illegal drug, alcohol and tobacco use, pornography, gangs, violence and, yes, premarital sex.  

Practicing abstinence is “primary prevention,” because it takes place before or instead of high-risk behaviors. It is always taught in the context of age-appropriateness. Teens learn goal-setting, decision-making and refusal skills. They get the facts about the consequences of high-risk behavior. They learn about the devastating impact of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and how contraceptives work (or don’t work). 

Beyond that, AE teens also learn about the emotional consequences of high-risk behaviors. AE educators know all too well that today’s teens face a myriad of choices. This so-called freedom of choice is actually emphasized in AE curricula as a means to pursue worthy goals and educational opportunities, develop healthy relationships and minimize stress. AE challenges abstinent teens to remain abstinent and sexually active teens to reconsider this unhealthy choice in favor of secondary virginity. 

AE recognizes and respects parents as primary educators of their children. But we also know that many are unprepared to set boundaries, articulate expectations and deal with the complexities of our violence- and sex-saturated culture. We work in partnership with parents, schools and faith-based groups to support teens in making healthy choices. 

Different worldviews 

“Comprehensive sex education” (CSE) advocates simply assume that, for the most part, teens will have sex, and virtually everything they “teach” flows from that dysfunctional premise. (According to the 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System, 52 percent of high school students reported they have never been sexually active — a steady increase from a decade earlier when AE received increased federal funding.) 

“Abstinence Plus” CSE programs teach abstinence as the best choice, while also promoting “safe sex” (condom use). Other CSE curricula emphasize condom use. “Safe” outercourse practices (sexual activity short of intercourse) are suggested — parent involvement often is not. 

It’s this kind of myopic worldview that’s led us into the current crisis where many young people are awash in disease, pregnancy and emotional and psychological brokenness. 

The study of AE is relatively new, but this latest study confirms what we’ve known all along: Single-focused abstinence-centered education is the most effective approach in reducing teen sex. It has a long-term positive impact on teens’ sexual behavior and is effective among high-risk teens. 

Contrary to what its critics claim, federally funded abstinence education programs do not teach “morals and religion.” What abstinence does teach is a message of primary prevention, irrefutable by faith-based and secular groups alike.  

Let’s not waffle when it comes to something as important as the future of our teens. Don’t they deserve the best? 

Sandy Pickert, RN, MPH, BSN, FNP, is executive director of Abstinence Education Inc., based in Wichita, Kan.

The New Data (sidebar)

A study published in the February issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that abstinence-only sex education was more effective than any other curriculum in delaying sexual activity among young teens. 

Participants : 662 black students in grades 6 and 7 

Course : An eight-hour abstinence-only intervention targeted reduced sexual intercourse 

Results : The participants’ mean age was 12.2 years; 53.5 percent were girls. For those in the abstinence-only intervention, 33.5 percent reported sexual initiation, compared with 48.5 percent in the control group. 

Conclusion : Theory-based abstinence-only interventions may have an important role in preventing adolescent sexual involvement.