February 4, 2010
New research suggests abstinence-only sex education can help younger students delay sexual activity.
The study, led by John B. Jemmott III of the University of Pennsylvania, is the first to evaluate an abstinence program in comparison to several alternative strategies over a long period. Conducted between 2001 and 2004, it involved 662 black sixth- and seventh-graders from four Philadelphia public middle schools.
The students were randomly assigned to one of four curricula: an eight-hour abstinence-only program; an eight-hour safer sex-only program targeting increased condom use; eight- and twelve-hour comprehensive interventions targeting sexual intercourse and condom use; or an eight-hour health promotion intervention targeting health issues unrelated to sexual behavior, which functioned as a control group.
The abstinence-only class, unlike many such programs, did not take a moralistic tone but rather encouraged children to delay sex until they were ready -- not necessarily until marriage. It did not disparage condoms or portray sex outside marriage as never appropriate. Students were divided into small groups to discuss their views about abstinence and knowledge of HIV and other STDs. They also participated in role-playing and brainstorming exercises designed to correct misperceptions about sex and STDs, offer ways to resist peer pressure and encourage abstinence.
Follow-up at two years found approximately 33 percent of students in the abstinence program started having sex, compared with 52 percent in the safe-sex class, 42 percent in the comprehensive curriculum, and 47 percent in the control group. The abstinence program had no negative effect on condom use -- a key criticism of the approach.
"The take-home message is that we need a variety of interventions to address an epidemic like HIV, [STDs] and pregnancy," said Jemmott. "This study suggests abstinence programs can be part of the mix of programs that we offer."
The study, "Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention over 24 Months," was published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine (2010;164(2):152-159).