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Abstinence-only sex education

File:Laura Bush talks with African boy.jpg
Laura Bush with an AIDS orphan at a center in Zambia that promotes abstinence and faith for youth.

Abstinence-only sex education is a form of sex education that teaches abstinence from sexual activity, and often excludes many other types of sexual and reproductive health education, particularly regarding birth control (contraceptives) and safe sex. This type of sex education promotes sexual abstinence until marriage and avoids discussion of use of birth control. Comprehensive sex education, by contrast, covers the use of birth control and sexual abstinence.

Evidence does not support the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education.[1] It has been found to be ineffective in decreasing HIV risk in the developed world.[2] It does not decrease rates of sexual activity or unplanned pregnancy when compared to comprehensive sex education.[1][3]

The topic of abstinence-only education is controversial in the United States, with proponents of it claiming that comprehensive sex education encourages premarital sexual activity, and critics arguing that abstinence-only education is religiously motivated and that the approach has been proven ineffective and even detrimental to its own aims.


Abstinence education teaches children and adolescents to abstain from sexual activity, and that this is the only certain method of avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and that abstinence until marriage is a standard by which to live. In the U.S., states may apply for federal funding of abstinence-only sex education programs. To be eligible for funding programs must satisfy requirements given under the Social Security Act:[4]

(2) For purposes of this section, the term "abstinence education" means an educational or motivational program which—

(A) has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;
(B) teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children;
(C) teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;
(D) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;
(E) teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;
(F) teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society;
(G) teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances; and
(H) teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.


Systematic reviews of research evaluating abstinence-only sex education have concluded that it is ineffective at preventing unwanted pregnancy or the spread of STIs, among other shortfalls.[1][5] Systematic review suggests that abstinence-only education neither increases nor decreases HIV risk in high-income countries,[2] and it has been found to be ineffective in decreasing HIV risk in the developed world.[2] The results of the National Survey of Family Growth show that American students who receive abstinence-only sex education are at a higher risk of pregnancy as compared with those who receive comprehensive sex education.[3]

According to SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, "[s]cientific evidence simply does not support an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach."[6] A 2010 report by the Guttmacher Institute pointed out that pregnancy rates for teens 15–19 reversed their decline in 2006, near the peak of the Abstinence Only campaign in the United States.[7] Sex education has been linked to a delay in the first time having sex.[8][9]

Society and culture


Proponents of abstinence-only sex education argue that this approach is superior to comprehensive sex education because it emphasizes the teaching of morality that limits sex to that within the bounds of marriage, and that sex before marriage and at a young age has heavy physical and emotional costs.[10] They suggest that comprehensive sex education encourages premarital sexual activity among teenagers, which should be discouraged in an era when HIV and other incurable STIs are widespread and when teen pregnancy is an ongoing concern. Many supporters of abstinence-only education do so out of the belief that comprehensive guides to sex or information about contraceptives will ultimately result in teens actively pursuing and engaging in sexual activities,[citation needed] while others oppose the endorsement of contraception for religious reasons.[11] Teenagers are framed as less intelligent and less responsible than adults. They are seen as unable to control themselves due to 'raging hormones'. As a result, a teenager's sexual desire is something that needs to be controlled.[12] Thus, dividing the teens into two separate categories in the minds of adults: "the innocent and the guilty, the vulnerable and the predatory, the pure and the corrupting."[13]

Opponents and critics, which include prominent professional associations in the fields of medicine, public health, adolescent health, and psychology, argue that such programs fail to provide adequate information to protect the health of adolescents. Some critics also argue that such programs verge on religious interference in secular education. Opponents of abstinence-only education dispute the claim that comprehensive sex education encourages teens to have premarital sex.[14] The idea that sexual intercourse should only occur within marriage also has serious implications for people for whom marriage is not valued or desired, or is unavailable as an option, particularly LGBT people living in places where same-sex marriage is not legal or socially acceptable.[15][16][17][18][19] Abstinence-only education is often criticized for being overly heteronormative, idealizing the institution of heterosexual marriage to the denigration of queer relationships.[20] According to Advocates for Youth, abstinence-only sex education distorts information about contraceptives, including only revealing failure rates associated with their use, and ignoring discussion of their benefits.[21] The language surrounding medicine and health is construed as being both objective and value free.[20] This objectivity is then adopted by conservative politicians and campaigners to assert authority which historically holds it’s basis in religion.

Another problem for abstinence education is the definition of abstinence. Santelli (2006) states that there is no strict definition of abstinence within the US federal government guidelines for teaching abstinence-only sex education, using a mixture of non-specific phrases, like "postponing sex" or "never had vaginal sex," while also using moralistic terms or phrases like virgin, chaste, and "making a commitment".[22] This has resulted in sexual activities that are not penile-vaginal, including mutual masturbation, oral sex and anal sex, being considered outside of the scope of abstention from sex, which is termed technical virginity.[23]

Global impact

The U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is the U.S government's initiative to combat HIV/AIDS globally.[24] PEPFAR works with the governments of 22 countries worldwide to create sustainable programs to prevent HIV and improve the lives of those suffering.[25] PEPFAR provides funding to other countries to help combat HIV/AIDS. It does so with certain guidelines and restrictions on the recipients. PEPFAR promotes an "ABC" approach – Abstain, Be faithful, and use Condoms. Funding recipients may give information about condoms to youth over 15 years old, but cannot use the funding to provide condoms or promote usage. In countries receiving funds from PEPFAR, teens under the age of 15 are not allowed to receive information about condoms.[26] The rationale behind this is to not encourage sexual activity. There is evidence that conflicts with this rationale.[27] PEPFAR was founded in 2003 with the mandate that 33% of its funds provided for prevention be used for abstinence-only education. Since the reauthorization in 2008, this mandate was removed, with a shift toward directives to spend at least 50% on abstinence-only education.[28] The role of parters has been an area of debate surrounding PEPFAR. In 2006, 23% of all the community partners were faith-based and debate exists over whether the U.S. should be allowing grants specifically written for faith-based organizations and prevention.[29] A few countries that have received PEPFAR funding – specifically Mozambique and Rwanda – have expressed distaste for the U.S.' push for faith-based education and abstinence-only funding.[29] Human rights groups have expressed concern that condom availability has decreased since PEPFAR's involvement in the global AIDS crisis.[30]

The $1.3 billion that the U.S. government spent on programs to promote abstinence in sub-Saharan Africa had no meaningful impact.[31][32][33]

Religion and sexual education

Religious doctrines take varying stances on contraception and pre-marital sex, some of which are covered by:

See also


  1. ^ a b c Ott, MA; Santelli, JS (Oct 2007). "Abstinence and abstinence-only education". Current opinion in obstetrics & gynecology 19 (5): 446–52. PMID 17885460. doi:10.1097/GCO.0b013e3282efdc0b. Abstinence-only curricula have been found to contain scientifically inaccurate information, distorting data on topics such as condom efficacy, and promote gender stereotypes. An independent evaluation of the federal program, several systematic reviews, and cohort data from population-based surveys find little evidence of efficacy and evidence of possible harm. 
  2. ^ a b c Underhill, K; Operario, D; Montgomery, P (Oct 17, 2007). Operario, Don, ed. "Abstinence-only programs for HIV infection prevention in high-income countries". Cochrane database of systematic reviews (Online) (4): CD005421. PMID 17943855. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005421.pub2. 
  3. ^ a b Kohler, Pamela; Manhart, Lisa; Lafferty, William (Apr 2008). "Abstinence-Only and Comprehensive Sex Education and the Initiation of Sexual Activity and Teen Pregnancy". Journal of Adolescent Health 42 (4): 344–351. PMID 18346659. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.08.026. 
  4. ^ Social Security Act, Section 510
  5. ^ Kirby, D. (2007). "Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases". National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.  [1]
  6. ^ SIECUS Fact Sheet (includes research citations).
  7. ^ Table 1.0,"U.S. Teenage Pregnancies, Births and Abortions: National and State Trends and Trends by Race and Ethnicity.", downloaded 20100127.
  8. ^ Wind, Rebecca (March 8, 2012). "Sex Education Linked to Delay in First Sex". Guttmacher Institute Media Center. 
  9. ^ Lindberg, Laura; Maddow-Zimet, Isaac (October 2012). "Consequences of Sex Education on Teen and Young Adult Sexual Behaviors and Outcomes" (PDF). The Guttmacher Institute 51 (4): 332–338. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2011.12.028. 
  10. ^ PBS, February 4, 2005 Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Episode 823 Retrieved on 2007-14-03
  11. ^ Shorto, Russel (May 7, 2006). "Contra-Contraception". New York Times Magazine. [2]
  12. ^ Fields, J (2012). "Sexuality Education in the United States: Shared Cultural Ideas across a Political Divide". Sociology Compass: 1–14
  13. ^ Fields, p. 6
  14. ^ Douglas Kirby, Ph. D.: Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy. National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2001. Homepage of the study.
  15. ^ K Van Wormer, R McKinney: What Schools Can Do to Help Gay/lesbian/bisexual Youth: A Harm Reduction Approach.
  16. ^ Journal of Adolescent Health: Volume 38, Issue 1, Pages 83–87 (January 2006): Abstinence-only education policies and programs: A position paper of the Society for Adolescent Medicine: John Santelli, M.D., M.P.H.a, Mary A. Ott, M.D.b, Maureen Lyon, Ph.D.c, Jennifer Rogers, M.P.H.d, Daniel Summers, M.D.e - "abstinence-until-marriage programs discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth, as federal law limits the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples."
  17. ^ United States Ignorance Only Hiv/aids, Human Rights and Federally Funded Abstinence-only Programs in the United States Texas: a Case Study; Human Rights Watch, September 2002, Vol. 14, No. 5(G)., Page 39.
  18. ^ Nancy D. Polikoff, Beyond straight and gay marriage: valuing all families under the law; Politics, Culture and Society Series, Beacon Press, 2008 ISBN 0-8070-4432-6, ISBN 978-0-8070-4432-2
  19. ^ Debran Rowland, The boundaries of her body: the troubling history of women's rights in America, SphinxLegal, 2004, ISBN 1-57248-368-7, ISBN 978-1-57248-368-2
  20. ^ a b Wilkerson, A. (2013). I Want to Hold Your Hand: Abstinence Curricula,Bioethics, and the Silencing of Desire. Journal of Medical Humanities, 34, 101-108.
  21. ^ Effective Sex Education, Brigid McKeon, 2006;
  22. ^ Santelli, John; Ott, Mary A; Lyon, Maureen et al. (January 2006). "Abstinence and abstinence-only education: A review of U.S. policies and programs". Journal of Adolescent Health 38 (1): 72–81. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2005.10.006. 
  23. ^ Bryan Strong, Christine DeVault, Theodore F. Cohen (2010). The Marriage and Family Experience: Intimate Relationship in a Changing Society. Cengage Learning. p. 186. ISBN 0-534-62425-1. Retrieved October 8, 2011. Most people agree that we maintain virginity as long as we refrain from sexual (vaginal) intercourse. But occasionally we hear people speak of 'technical virginity' [...] Data indicate that 'a very significant proportion of teens ha[ve] had experience with oral sex, even if they haven't had sexual intercourse, and may think of themselves as virgins' [...] Other research, especially research looking into virginity loss, reports that 35% of virgins, defined as people who have never engaged in vaginal intercourse, have nonetheless engaged in one or more other forms of heterosexual sexual activity (e.g., oral sex, anal sex, or mutual masturbation). 
  24. ^ "About PEPFAR". PEPFAR. 
  25. ^ "Partnership Frameworks". PEPFAR. 
  26. ^ Boonstra, H.D. (2007). "Young People Need Help in Preventing Pregnancy and HIV; How Will the World Respond?". Guttmacher Policy Review 10 (3). 
  27. ^ "Abstinence & Fidelity". PEPFARWatch. 
  28. ^ a b Dietrich, John (2007). "The Politics of PEPFAR: The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief". Ethics & International Affairs. 
  29. ^ "Access to Condoms and HIV/AIDS Information: A Global Health and Human Rights Concern". Human Rights Watch: 1–28. 2004. 
  30. ^ U.S. Push for Abstinence in Africa Is Seen as Failure Against H.I.V. By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. New York Times. FEB. 26, 2015
  31. ^ 19th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Seattle. US PEPFAR abstinence and faithfulness funding had no impact on sexual behaviour in Africa. Keith Alcorn. CROI News. 26 February 2015
  32. ^ The impact of PEPFAR faithfulness and abstinence funding on HIV risk behaviours in sub-Saharan Africa. Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, Lo N, Lowe A, Bendavid E. Seattle, abstract 160, 2015.
  • Williams, Mary E. (Ed.). (2006). Sex: opposing viewpoints. Detroit: Greenhaven.