Teens and Abstinence: What's the deal?

Teens and Abstinence

The debate over teens and sex was reignited last year when it was revealed that Sarah Palin’s daughter was pregnant out-of-wedlock at 17. Now, just months after having her son, Tripp, Bristol Palin has now become the new face of abstinence-only sex education.

“Regardless of what I did personally, I just think that abstinence is the only way you can effectively, 100% foolproof way you can prevent pregnancy,” she told ABC’s Good Morning America.

Interestingly, Bristol’s ex and the father of her four month old, Levi Johnston, does not agree.

“Abstinence is a great idea,” Johnston told CBS This Morning. “But I also think you need to enforce, you know, condoms and birth control and other things like that to have safe sex. I don’t just think telling kids, ‘You can’t have sex,’ it’s not going to work.”

During the Bush administration, abstinence only programs received $1.3 billion in funding despite numerous studies, including a congressionally mandated and federally funded study done in 2007, that showed that these programs neither prevented nor delayed teenage sexual activity.

What the stats say

Melody Barnes, director of the team that coordinates White House domestic policy, says that Obama’s proposed budget “reflects the research.”

“In an area where Americans wants to confront a problem, they want solutions they know will work, as opposed to programming they know hasn’t proven to be successful. Given where we’ve been in recent years, I think this is a very important moment,” Barnes said.

Obama’s 2010 budget proposed almost $164 million for teen pregnancy prevention, including $110 million for community-based programs. About 75% of that is for programs proven to have delayed sex and increased contraceptive use or reduced teen pregnancy. The other 25% has been slated for “innovative programs” which includes a possibility that abstinence-only program could be funded, if evidence is presented of its effectiveness.

Several studies have questioned the effectiveness of abstinence programs. A study published this year in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that teaching about contraception was not associated with increased risk of sexual activity or sexually transmitted diseases, as many abstinence-only supporters have insisted.

Another report, published in Sexuality and Social Policy, done by Douglas Kirby, who has studied ex education programs for decades, found that a few of the nine abstinence programs he reviewed showed “weak evidence” for delaying sex, but most did not delay initiation of sex. In comparison, nearly half of the 48 comprehensive sex education programs he studied reduced the number of partners and increased condom or contraceptive use, while ¼ of these programs reduced the frequency of sex.

Teens and abstinence

One of the most distinctive features of abstinence-promotion programs are virginity pledges whereby teenagers and young adults promise to refrain from sexual intercourse until marriage.

The first virginity pledge program, dubbed True Love Waits, was started in 1993 and  now claims over 2.5 million pledgers worldwide in dozens of countries. A slew of virginity pledge programs followed.

Purity vows have becoming increasingly popular due to celebrities like Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers publicly announcing their promise to wait, but a new study suggests that while as many as one in eight American teens take a virginity pledge, the pledges are ineffective. The report, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that pledge takers are not more likely than other teens to delay sexual activity, and unmarried pledgers are also less likely than non-pledgers to use birth control and drastically less likely to use condoms. The latter has prompted concern that abstinence-only programs may be promoting a negative view of condoms and birth control.

Interestingly, teen pregnancy rates have declined consistently since 1991, but the American Journal of Public Health attributes that 77% reduction to increased contraceptive use. Nonetheless, the U.S. now has the second highest teen birth rate in the developed world at 41.9%. The Obama administration claims to have considered all these factors in their decision to decrease abstinence-only in favor of comprehensive sex education which teaches abstinence along side contraceptive methods such as condoms and oral birth control.  

What do you think? Is comprehensive sex education a more effective measure to combat teen pregnancy and STD infection rates? Or do you feel that abstinence-only programs are the way to go? Leave comments below to tell us what you think.