Why Wait: The Benefits of Abstinence Until Marriage
The mainstream media constantly bombards young people with sexually explicit messages. Television programs regularly feature premarital sex and sexually provocative content, giving the impression that all young people are sexually active before marriage. The good news is that despite the media's targeting of young audiences with sex-saturated shows, teens prefer the abstinence message.
More Teens Remaining Abstinent
Increasing numbers of young people are practicing abstinence today. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the percentage of teens who have had premarital sex declined during the 1990s. In 1991, 54 percent of teens said they had had sex, compared to 47 percent in 2003.
Young People Value Sexual Abstinence
The fact that more teens are practicing abstinence is no surprise, since most teens view abstinence favorably. Almost all teens (94 percent) believe that teens should be given a strong message from society to abstain from sex until at least after high school.
Abstinence and the Decline in Teen Pregnancy Rates
Two studies indicate that abstinence has contributed to the decline in unwed teen birthrates, which declined 24 percent between 1994 and 2003 in the United States. A 2003 study found that the increase in the number of abstinent teens accounted for most of the decline in unwed teen births and 67 percent of the decline in out-of-wedlock teen pregnancies from 1991 to 1995.
Uganda's Success Story
Both abstinence and monogamy helped to curb the spread of AIDS in Uganda, where HIV infections reached epidemic proportions in the 1980's. The prevalence of HIV began to decline in the late 1980s and continued throughout the 1990s. In fact, between 1991 and 2000, HIV infection rates declined from 21 percent to 6 percent.
How did this happen? Shortly after he came into office in 1986, President Museveni of Uganda spearheaded a mass education campaign promoting a three-pronged AIDS prevention message: abstinence from sexual activity until marriage; monogamy within marriage; and condoms as a last resort. The message became commonly known as ABC: Abstain, be faithful, and use Condoms if A and B fail.
The government used a multi-sector approach to spread its AIDS prevention message: it developed strong relationships with government, community and religious leaders who worked with the grassroots to teach ABC. Schools incorporated the ABC message into curricula, while faith-based communities, including Christians, Muslims, and Jews, trained leaders and community workers in ABC. The government also launched an aggressive media campaign using print, billboards, radio, and television to promote abstinence and monogamy.
Condoms were definitely not the main element of the AIDS prevention message. President Museveni said, "We are being told that only a thin piece of rubber stands between us and the death of our Continent ... they (condoms) cannot become the main means of stemming the tide of AIDS."
Several reports show that the decline in AIDS prevalence in Uganda was due to monogamy and abstinence and not to condoms. According to Dr. Edward Green, an anthropologist at Harvard University and an expert on Uganda's AIDS programs, fidelity to one's partner was the most important factor in Uganda's success, followed by abstinence.
Negative Consequences of Unwed Teen Sex
Practicing abstinence helps couples to avoid the long-lasting negative consequences of premarital sex, including out-of-wedlock childbearing, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), emotional problems, promiscuity, and future marital break-up.
Today in the United States, 35 percent of all births are out-of-wedlock.
Out-of-wedlock childbearing has negative consequences for parents, children, and society. Unwed mothers and fathers are less likely to marry
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
Aside from the risk of pregnancy, those who engage in premarital sex have a high risk of contracting an STD. Each year there are 15 million new cases in the U.S., and more than 65 million people in the U.S. currently have an incurable STD.
Each year 3 million teens are infected with an STD
Emotional Consequences of Premarital Sex
Along with being at risk for STDs, young people who engage in unwed sex are likely to experience negative emotional consequences. A 2005 study of youth in grades 7-11 found that engaging in premarital sex often leads to depression. Compared to girls who abstain, girls who engage in premarital sex are two to three times more likely to be depressed one year later.
Increased Risk of Promiscuity and Divorce
Early premarital sex is also likely to lead to promiscuity and future marital breakup. A 2002 study of over 1,000 sexually experienced high school students found that among those who had sex before age 15, females were more than five times as likely, and males were 11 times more likely to have multiple sexual partners than were those who delayed having sex.
The Ineffectiveness of Contraception
The birth control pill provides no protection against STDs. The "typical use" of the pill has an 8 percent failure rate with regard to preventing pregnancy.
Parental Influence on Teen Sex
Many factors influence a teen's decision on whether or not to have premarital sex, and parents play a major role in this area. In a 2003 poll, 45 percent of teenagers said their parents influenced their decisions about sex most strongly.
Parental supervision also plays a big role in whether or not teens engage in sexual activity. A study of over 2,000 public high school students found that the more time youths spent unsupervised, the more likely they were to have had sex. Also, the more time boys were left unsupervised, the higher number of lifetime sexual partners they were likely to have. Among those who had had sexual intercourse, "91 percent said that their last time had been in a home setting, including their own home (37 percent), their partner's home (43 percent), and a friend's home (12 percent), usually after school."
Emotional connectedness between parents and teens and parental attitudes toward sex also greatly affect teen sexual behavior. The Adolescent Health Study found that "high levels of mother-child connectedness are independently related to delays in first sexual intercourse among 8th and 9th grade boys and girls and among 10th and 11th grade boys."
The Media and Teen Sex
The media greatly influences teen's sexual behavior. A study in Pediatrics found that teens who watched high amounts of television with sexual content were twice as likely as those who watched minimal amounts to initiate sexual intercourse during the following year. High exposure to sexual content was also associated with advanced forms of non-coital behavior. According to the study, discussions of sex on television had the same effect on teens as depictions of sexual activity.
Religious Teens Delay Sex
Religion plays an important role in helping teens to delay premarital sex. In a 2004 report by the National Center for Health Statistics, teens stated that the main reason they had not had sex yet was that it was "against their religion or morals."
Substance Abuse and Teen Sex
Drug and alcohol use, as well as delinquency, are associated with premarital sex. Teens who drink are seven times more likely, and those who use drugs are five times more likely to have sex than those who do not.
Delinquency and Teen Sex
According to a Department of Justice report, boys who engage in delinquency at an early age are likely to become tee
n fathers, and teen fathers are likely to engage in delinquent behavior. The report found that compared to teens who were not fathers, teen fathers were 7.5 times more likely to engage in serious delinquency during the same year they became fathers.
Comprehensive Sex-ed Programs
Young people are also very much affected by the messages on sex and abstinence that they receive in school. Unfortunately, the majority of schools teach "safe sex" or "comprehensive sex ed" programs which encourage contraceptive use and assume that young people will engage in sexual activity. Some experts claim that abstinence programs and comprehensive sex ed programs are becoming more similar. However, this is not the case. The underlying message of comprehensive sex ed programs is that sexual activity is OK for teens as long as they use "protection."
The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) developed guidelines for comprehensive sex education, which according to SIECUS have become "one of the most influential publications in the field." These guidelines call for teaching five- through eight-year-olds about masturbation, sexual intercourse, accepting cohabitation, and homosexuality. Upper elementary students learn about these topics as well as contraception and abortion. Topics for junior high students include sexual fantasies, body massages, and oral, vaginal, and anal intercourse. For high school students, SIECUS recommends adding discussion about using "erotic photographs" [otherwise known as pornography] and literature. Only one page out of one hundred is dedicated to abstinence.
Parents overwhelmingly reject the messages of comprehensive sex-ed and approve of abstinence education. In a 2004 Zogby poll, only 7 percent of parents approved of teaching teens that it's OK for them to have sex as long as they use condoms to protect against pregnancy and disease. However, 96 percent of parents said that sex-ed classes should teach that abstinence from sexual activity is best for teens. Also, 91 percent of parents said teens should be taught that the best choice is for sexual activity to be linked to love, intimacy and commitment - qualities most likely to occur in a faithful marriage.
Today, there are over one thousand abstinence-until-marriage programs around the United States, and one-third of public middle and high schools say both that abstinence is "the main message in their sex education" and that abstinence is taught as "the only option for young people."
Some people claim that abstinence education is ineffective and presents medically inaccurate information. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), a long-time enemy of abstinence education, makes this claim in a paper commonly known as "The Waxman Report." The report accuses abstinence programs of creating gender stereotypes and of teaching inaccurate information about contraceptives, abortion, and human reproduction. However, almost all of the "scientific errors" he found were not actually errors. They were medically accurate facts that his report took out of context or distorted.
There is plenty of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of abstinence education. Several studies published in peer-reviewed journals have found that students participating in abstinence programs are more likely to delay sex, to view abstinence more positively and to have an increased knowledge of the negative consequences of premarital sexual activity.
Federal Study on Abstinence Education
An interim report from a federal longitudinal study on four Title V abstinence programs found that abstinence education is effective in changing young people's attitudes with regard to sexual behavior. Compared to their peers in a control group, teens who participated in abstinence programs had an increased understanding of the negative consequences of unwed sex. Also, the students viewed abstinence more favorably and unwed sex more negatively.
Choosing the Best
Choosing the Best, an abstinence program based in Atlanta, Georgia, has developed curricula and parental education materials that are used nationwide. Since the company started in 1993, over one million students have completed CTB. Students in public or private schools are taught the program by their teachers, who can be trained by CTB staff. CTB has four age-appropriate programs for 6th through 12th graders. Each curriculum teaches students the consequences of premarital sex, the benefits of abstaining until marriage, relationship education, how to make a virginity pledge, refusal skills, and character education. Choosing the Best involves parents in their children's lessons and educates them about how to teach abstinence to their children.
An independent study conducted between 2002-2004 found positive results among students who participated in classes using the Choosing the Best curriculum. The study was based on 7th, 8th, and 9th grade students in a south metro Atlanta high school and its feeder middle school. Students were taught either CTB or the state-approved abstinence program. All students received a pre-test and two post-tests, one immediately following the program and another one twelve months later. Data on 318 students indicated that CTB students were 47 percent less likely to initiate sexual activity.
This abstinence program has also contributed to lower teen-pregnancy rates in Georgia. In Columbus, Georgia, CTB materials were used in all 8th grades for a period of four years. A study requested by the Georgia State Board of Education to examine the effectiveness of this curriculum found a 38-percent reduction in pregnancies among middle-school students in Muscogee County between 1997 and 1999. Other large school districts that did not implement the Choosing the Best program experienced only a 6-percent reduction in teen pregnancies during those same years.
Not Me, Not Now
Not Me, Not Now, a Rochester, New York based abstinence program, used a local mass media campaign, a user-friendly website, and a school-based program to promote the abstinence message. Television and radio ads, educational materials for parents, posters (and guides to accompany them) for schools, community centers and pediatricians' offices were part of this program, which aimed at youth age 9-14. Postponing Sexual Involvement, an educational series, was used in some elementary and middle schools in Monroe County.
An evaluation conducted between 1994 (before the program started) and 1997 found several positive results. Before the program, 34 percent of the students said they could adequately handle the consequences of sexual activity, compared to 22 percent after the program. Results of the Centers for Disease Control's Youth Risk Behavior Survey for Monroe County (for 1992, 1995 and 1997) found that the percentage of youth having sex by age 15 declined from 46 percent to 32 percent. Also, pregnancy rates among 15- to 17-year-old girls in Monroe County declined 22 percent between 1993 and 1996.
The Best Friends program, founded in Washington, D.C., in 1987 and operating in more than 100 schools in the United States, teaches students about many topics, including friendship, love and dating, self-respect, decision making, alcohol and drug abuse, physical fitness and nutrition, AIDS, and STDs. In addition, the program uses role model presentations, mentoring, community service, and a recognition ceremony at local schools to help young girls abstain from premarital sex, drugs, alcohol and smoking. The Diamond Girls program for high school students focuses on career development and leadership activities during monthly and weekend meetings. A recent study found that the Best Friends program is very effective in preventing junior high and high school girls from engaging in premarital sex or drug or alcohol use. The study compared data on Best Friends girls in grades six through eight in Washington, D.C., with that on District girls the same age who participated in the Centers for Disease Control's Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). Compared to the YRBS girls, Best Friends girls were more than six times less likely to engage in premarital sex, eight times less likely to use drugs, twice as likely not to smoke and almost twice as likely not to drink alcohol. Researchers controlled for age, grade, and ethnicity or race. Best Friends high school participants, known as Diamond Girls, were also compared to high school girls in the YRBS, both of whom live in Washington, D.C. Compared to YRBS girls, Diamond girls were nearly 120 times less likely to have premarital sex, 26 times less likely to use drugs, nearly nine times less likely to smoke and three times as likely to abstain from alcohol.
Operation Keepsake, a Cleveland, Ohio-based abstinence program started in 1988, teaches its For Keeps curriculum in 90 public and private schools in the greater Cleveland area. It is presently taught to at least 15,000 middle and high school students. Along with a classroom component, this program also includes peer mentoring, guest speakers, opportunities to make an abstinence pledge, and parental involvement.
A 2005 study on the For Keeps curriculum published in the American Journal of Health Behavior found several positive results among 2,069 middle school students, half of whom were taught the For Keeps curriculum. Compared to the control group, students learning For Keeps demonstrated a significant increase in their knowledge of HIV/AIDS and other STDs; a significant increase in their beliefs in being abstinent until married or older; and a decline in their intention to have sex in the near future. Sexually active teens receiving this program reported fewer episodes of sexual intercourse and fewer sexual partners.
Virginity pledges are effective in encouraging teens to delay sexual initiation, but a pledge by itself is not sufficient. Young people also need to participate in an abstinence program and to have family and friends who support and encourage them to remain chaste.
A 2004 study from Columbia and Yale Universities found that teens who make a virginity pledge are 12 times more likely than non-pledgers to be virgins at marriage.
Funding for Abstinence-until-marriage Programs
Although funding for abstinence-until-marriage has increased recently, comprehensive sex education and contraception programs are vastly over-funded in comparison. In 2002, abstinence-until-marriage programs received $144.1 million in federal and state government funding, while contraception sex-ed programs received $1.73 billion in 2002. In other words, government spent $12 to promote contraception for every dollar spent on abstinence education.
Abstinence-until-marriage programs have proven to be very effective in reducing sexual activity among young people. Their success in changing young people's views and behavior is due to the fact that they teach young people that saving sex for marriage is the best choice, one that will benefit them now and in the future. In addition, these programs give students the knowledge and skills they need to abstain until marriage.
Unfortunately, many abstinence organizations lack the financial resources to expand their programs. These organizations are small non-profits with shoe-string budgets, relying on donations, the sale of their materials, and government funding for survival. Due to their limited resources, they are often unable to meet the demand for their programs. Abstinence programs should receive more funding, because abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancy and STDs. More funding will enable these programs to bring the abstinence message to more young people, teaching them that the best way to find true happiness, intimacy and love is to save sex for marriage.
Bridget Maher is an analyst on marriage and family issues in the Center for Marriage and Family Studies at the Family Research Council.