Abstinence-only programs do not delay sexual initiation, prevent STIs

Abstinence-only programs do not delay sexual initiation, prevent STIs


Santelli JS, et al. J Adolesc Health. 2017. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.06.001

Sexual education that promotes “abstinence-only-until-marriage” is not effective at limiting sexual initiation or sexual risk behaviors, according to a review published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Additionally, the authors claim that these programs violate adolescent rights, stigmatize or exclude groups of teenagers and strengthen damaging gender stereotypes.

“The weight of scientific evidence shows these programs do not help young people delay initiation of sexual intercourse,” John Santelli, MD, MPH, professor of population and family health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said in a press release. “While abstinence is theoretically effective, in actual practice, intentions to abstain from sexual activity often fail. These programs simply do not prepare young people to avoid unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases.”

The authors gathered reports from those involved in sexuality education and adolescent health. Additionally, information regarding abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) program policies and viewpoints from government reports or advocacy organizations were included.

Through analysis, Santelli and colleagues observed that AOUM programs were disconnected from health professionals because they were mostly concerned with character and morality as opposed to health behaviors and outcomes.

According to the review, the median age for marriage for American men and women rose over the past 60 years. The gap between age of first intercourse and first marriage in women was observed at 8.7 years, whereas the gap between these two factors was observed at 11.7 years in men.

A noticeable change in educational practices has also been observed. Between 2000 and 2014, instruction on human sexuality decreased from 67% to 48%. Of the schools that taught about sexuality, 50% of middle schools and 76% of high schools taught that abstinence was the most effective way to prevent pregnancy, STIs and HIV. Birth control was discussed in only 23% of middle schools and 61% of high schools, and only 10% of middle schools and 35% of high schools included information about the correct use of condoms.

“Young people have a right to sex education that gives them the information and skills they need to stay safe and healthy,” Leslie Kantor, PhD, MPH, assistant professor of population and family health at the Mailman School of Public Health and vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in the release. “Withholding critical health information from young people is a violation of their rights. Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs leave all young people unprepared and are particularly harmful to young people who are sexually active, who are LGBTQ or have experienced sexual abuse.”

“Adolescent sexual and reproductive health promotion should be based on scientific evidence and understanding, public health principles and human rights,” Santelli said in the release. “Abstinence-only-until-marriage as a basis for health policy and programs should be abandoned.” – by Katherine Bortz

Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.

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