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Posted at 6:08 AM ET, 02/ 3/2010

Why I doubt the abstinence-only sex ed study

By Valerie Strauss

I’m not an expert on scientific research but I question whether we should draw any big conclusions from a highly publicized research study on an abstinence-only program that is being touted as persuading young teens not to have sex.

The study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, dominated headlines this week because it concluded that a specific kind of abstinence-only program had been more effective than other kinds of sex education.

But unlike some abstinence-only programs, the one that was used in the study did not encourage kids to have sex only after marriage or condemn condom use. In addition, the program tested was created for the study and is not used in schools.

The abstract of the study says that the outcomes were self-reported, meaning that the researchers took the word of middle and high school students about whether they had had sex or not. Surely many of the kids told the truth about whether or not they had sex. But all of them? I don't think so. We already know that self-reporting in other medical studies has proven to be a problem.

Take a study on the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control titled “Validity of Self-Reported Height, Weight, and Body Mass Index: Findings From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2001-2006.” That study determined that on average men overreport their height and their weight while women overreport their height but underreport their weight.

Let’s not forget about a study released last week showing data that teen pregnancy rates started rising during the years in which abstinence-only programs were the only sex ed programs being funded by the two successive Bush administrations.

The pregnancy rate among 15-to-19-year-olds increased 3 percent between 2005 and 2006 -- the first jump since 1990, according to an analysis of the most recent data collected by the federal government and the nation’s leading reproductive-health think tank. Experts blamed several factors for the rise, including the increase in abstinence-only programs. Maybe the experts were right about the causes and maybe they weren’t, but the data on teen pregnancy ecrtainly seems to indicate a continuing problem.

And late last year, a task force of independent experts reviewed an analysis of 83 studies of sex ed programs conducted between 1980 and 2007 and determined that: programs that encourage teens to delay sexual activity and teach them about contraception cut risky sexual behavior, increase condom use and lower the chances of getting the AIDS virus and other infections. The task force said, however, that there was insufficient evidence to know whether abstinence-only programs that encouraged teens to remain sexually inactive until marriage are effective.

Meanwhile research studies have shown for a long time that comprehensive sex ed targeted to specific populations can reduce risky behavior among teens, even those who are already sexual active.

I hesitate to jump to a conclusion about what works and what doesn’t on the basis of one study in which kids reported on their own sexual behavior.

Tell me why I’m wrong.

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By Valerie Strauss  | February 3, 2010; 6:08 AM ET
Categories:  Health  | Tags:  sex education  
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If this program was created solely for the study and has not actually been used in schools, why is it being reported as effective?

Posted by: sanderling5 | February 3, 2010 11:21 AM | Report abuse

sanderling5 wrote:

If this program was created solely for the study and has not actually been used in schools, why is it being reported as effective?


It was found to be effective on the study participants who did use the program. Just because they say it was not used in schools does not mean they did not use it for the study. The author is correct though that any study based on self reporting can be problematic and that needs to be accounted for. I have not read the study but it would be interesting to see if there was an adjustment made to the statistical data to account for misreporting by participants.

Posted by: gooch0001 | February 3, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

This "study" is much too limited to draw any conclusions. One reason among many, many reasons is that we don't know anything about the individual teachers--how effective were they as teachers, how did students react to them, how might their personal opinions affected the way they presented the material, etc. etc.

Posted by: aed3 | February 3, 2010 10:18 PM | Report abuse

This was not an actual empirical study. It was an opinion poll.

They basically indoctrinated students to say they abstained and two years later they asked them if they abstained and those who were indoctrinated mostly said what they were told to say.

But they did not have any actual data about STD diseases or pregnancies, so it is still possible, and highly likely, that those who said they abstained had higher rates of pregnancy and STD rates.

This was a Rationalist poll as opposed to an Empirical study. It only tells us about the biases of the researchers and nothing about what actually occurred in reality.

Posted by: zoniedude | February 4, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

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