This is the proof that abstinence-based sex education doesn't work

Being a teenager can be hard work at times. If raging hormones, mounting school work and furious arguments with your parents about curfews weren’t enough to deal with, you've also got to navigate the complexities of terrible first kisses, "the base system", and losing your v-plate. Let’s be honest, all of us probably have a fair few formative sex stories (by which I mean fails) that we look back on and cringe at. But for some, teenage lust can have a much more long-lasting and serious impact.

At present, the USA has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the developed world, with 209,480 young women under the age of 20 giving birth in 2016. While rates of teenage pregnancy have been steadily falling in recent years, something that has been credited to an increase in information and access to contraceptives, this figure does not include pregnancies that do not make it to full-term. Child Trends, a nonprofit research organisation that focuses on improving the lives of children, estimates that a quarter of teenage pregnancies in the US end up in an abortion. 

Yet despite the progress being made, in 2017, President Trump announced that the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Programme, which provides funding for evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention initiatives, would be scrapped. Consequently, $220 million worth of investment which was predicted to support 1.2 million teens over the next two years has been lost. In its place, Trump’s proposed fiscal budget for 2019 has allotted $75 million to spent on abstinence-based and "personal responsibility" sex education approaches, which traditionally make no mention of birth control or how to practice safe sex.

Couple touching pregnant belly Credit: Pixabay/ estebantroncosofoto0

The move to cut the programme has been heavily criticised by many and is currently being challenged by a coalition of nine organisations, including Planned Parenthood, who believe that its cancellation will have catastrophic effects. Advocates of abstinence-based sex education, on the contrary, say that the scheme normalises teen sex and that the positive impacts have not been seen strongly enough. But in the modern age, in an increasingly secular society, is there really any hope for abstinence-based programmes to be successful?

Not according to a report by The Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine, who have asserted that such programmes: "are not effective in delaying initiation of sexual intercourse or changing other behaviours. Conversely, many comprehensive sexuality education programs successfully delay initiation of sexual intercourse and reduce sexual risk behaviours." With the average age for first time sex in the US currently standing at roughly 17 for both girls and boys - and by this logic not set to drop - but the age for first marriages rising, failing to provide students with inaccurate information about contraception puts them at risk of unintended pregnancy for more years than ever.

In addition to failing to delay the age at which individuals lose their virginity, the same report also concludes that abstinence-based programmes "inherently provide incomplete information and are often neglectful to sexually active adolescents". For individuals that are already sexually active, sex ed lessons are important in providing information that empowers them to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia, the most common type in the USA. No matter what your opinion on pre-marital sex is, it's clear that it's probably not the best idea to bin off condom tutorials in a country where STD rates have hit some of their highest levels ever, with David Harvey, executive director of the National Coalition of STD Directors telling CNN that such illnesses are "out of control with enormous health implications for Americans."

It's not only one report telling us this, however. A summarised review of numerous studies, published Health Psychology Review, which looked into the implementation of school-based sexual health interventions, also supported the idea that abstinence-based programmes were less effective. After looking at the results of a total of 224 controlled trials and analysing the components present in the programmes that succeeded, it concluded that: "Abstinence-only interventions were found to be ineffective in promoting positive changes in sexual behaviour." By contrast, more comprehensive sexual health programmes "were found to be effective in improving knowledge and changing attitudes, behaviours and health-relevant outcomes."

There is also a strong argument - most notably presented by a 2003 US House of Representatives Committee report - that abstinence-based sex education programmes are liable to manipulation by those wishing to promote particular religious views. The report, which looked specifically at federally funded abstinence programmes, found that over 80 per cent of abstinence-based curriculums used at the time contained "false, misleading, or distorted information about reproductive health". This included inaccurate data on conception, the likelihood of condom failure and implications of abortion processes. 

Worryingly, it also included treating gender stereotypes as scientific facts, such as the idea that women’s happiness is judged through relationships and citing one programme as teaching that a man will be "less discriminating about those to whom he is sexually attracted." Several even imply that mental health and substance abuse can be avoided by abstaining from premarital sex. In propagating these ideas, such programmes risk impacting on young women’s educational performance and castigating young men as aggressors.

A cucumber with a condom on Credit: Pixabay/ Bru-nO

If there is one thing that's guaranteed about American politics, it's that you can't appeal to everybody, and whether or not sex education should be abstinence-based or evidence-based is a debate that has gone on for as long as the subject has been taught. But the decision to scrap a programme that has achieved real results in reducing teenage pregnancy in favour of one that's been proven to be ineffectual appears to be move rooted in satisfying a certain voter contingent.

But at the end of the day, whether parents or politicians want to admit it or not, teenagers do and will continue to have sex - and pretending it isn't happening isn't going to stop it. So rather than burying heads in the sand, it's time to arm them with the facts and allow them to make informed decisions.