Sunday, April 15, 2007

Abstinence-only programs don't work? Shock!

Bloglandia is abuzz this weekend with the news that a federally funded study of “abstinence only” sex education programs found that they are not effective in reducing sexual activity or increasing age at first sexual activity amongst young people. The study, by Mathematica Policy Research Inc., followed participants from four abstinence-only programs as well as young people from the same communities who were not receiving structured sex education. It is by far the largest study that has been done on the topic, looking at more than two thousand students in cities and in rural communities and conducting long-term follow up research. The four programs studied were chosen because they were supposed to be the “all-star” programs. The federal government spends $176 million funding abstinence-only sex education programs annually (and approximately, oh, PRACTICALLY NOTHING on comprehensive sexuality education). Put it all together into once sentence and this is what you get:

A federally funded study has demonstrated that the government is spending $176 million annually on abstinence education programs that are ineffective while refusing to seriously fund other, potentially more effective comprehensive programs.

This is big news, right? And yet, somehow, it got buried. It was released late on a Friday. There was hardly a word about it on NPR, and major media outlets like the New York Times and CNN have only posted the AP story (the Washington Post does have a staff-written story up, and it’s good). The Bush administration immediately went into spin-control mode, as evidenced by a soundbite from Harry Wilson, a top official at the Administration for Children and Families: "This study isn't rigorous enough to show whether or not [abstinence-only] education works." Clearly this administration wouldn’t recognize rigorous research if it bit them on the ass – I’m suddenly reminded of the rigorous research (read: forged letter) that served as evidence enough for us to start a war in Iraq.

The Medical Institute for Sexual Health, a pro-abstinence organization, released a statement about the report in which they claim that the “small and unrepresentative study sample” (of the programs, that is, not the participants) and “methodological issues” mean that “the study findings provide an insufficient basis for policy decisions.” Clearly, no evidence will ever be enough for these people. They would much rather look to the results from tiny, poorly conducted studies that make their programs look good.

Meanwhile, the researcher at Mathematica who was in charge of the study is quick to point out that the students receiving abstinence-only sex education were no less likely than their peers to use protection when they began having sex. According to the AP article,
“Trenholm said his second point of emphasis was important because some critics of abstinence programs have contended that they lead to less frequent use of condoms.”
In actuality, I think it’s fair to point out, most critics of abstinence-only programs contend that they lead to less frequent use of condoms compared to comprehensive sex education. From what I can tell, this study didn’t examine where or how the control group students were getting their sexual information. No one expects young people to just spontaneously use condoms – that’s why we have a responsibility to educate them about risks and options and consequences with all of the information in our arsenal.

Like I was saying, though: this is big news, despite the fact that it isn’t getting the attention it deserves. The major funding program for abstinence programs is going to expire in June, at which point Congress will have to consider whether or not to renew it. This study gives proponents of comprehensive sexuality education all the evidence they need to get some changes made. Big things are on the horizon, kids. Us sex educator types might actually be able to get jobs some time in the next 5 years!

speaking of sex educators: photo by the brilliant and beautiful G. Reichert !


Love and Latex said...

Jobs? Like paying jobs?! Whoa...

Thanks for posting this right when I'm preparing to write a huge paper on sex education in the US. Love it! And I love you!

La Estrella said...

I quite enjoyed this! I had no idea this study came out, it would have been wonderful to use in my paper last semester. Also to use when arguing with one of my friends who thought that abstinence-only programs work.

A very well written piece here, hun.