Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Abstinence Education Debate

The Christianity Today blog for church leaders/pastors, Out of Ur, posted a brief clip of an article regarding the ineffectiveness of Church-based abstinence education programs. The whole post:

"Our collective efforts to deter premarital sex are not that successful: 41 percent of churchgoing, conservative Protestant men's relationships become sexual within one month, barely lower than the national average of 48 percent. We expend so much energy to generate so little difference."

The general tenor of the article seems clear, but without the whole thing it is a little hard to read the author’s full intent. Nonetheless, I would like to push back on a couple of issues this raises.

The Data

First of all, it is not at all clear that abstinence based education is ineffective or even unwanted by teens and families. Some of the newest data gathered by the HHS show not only that families want abstinence education, but that it does appear to be effective in changing the beliefs and behaviors of students.

Teen-sex advocacy groups have pushed for an end to abstinence education funding, despite the fact that a recent HHS study showed most teens and their parents support the core message of the program. The study, The National Survey of Adolescents and Their Parents, was posted Monday to the HHS website after significant grassroots pressure. It calls into question whether recent sex education policy decisions truly reflect cultural norms or clear evidence-based trends. According to the findings, about 70% of parents agreed that it is “against [their] values for [their] adolescents to have sexual intercourse before marriage” and that “having sexual intercourse is something only married people should do.” Adolescents gave similar responses.

There is a tremendous amount of pressure from non-abstinence based programs to ignore this kind of data or rely on older surveys that seem to show a greater support for sexual license. So it is interesting, if not very telling, that it takes pressure to get this kind of information released.

And further (in the link for the “talking points”):

“Abstinence-only program helps kids postpone sex,” read the Reuters headline on February 2, 2010.

A landmark study was released February 1, 2010 that measured three distinct sex education programs, using a randomized control study. It is published in the February edition of Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine and adds to the growing body of research showing the effectiveness of abstinence education programs. It found that abstinence education was very effective at reducing teen sex and worked better than both “comprehensive” sex education and “safe” sex programs.

The research has been widely covered by every major media outlet, including the Washington Post, The New York Times, and USA Today. Even those who have been hesitant to acknowledge the value of abstinence education in the past have called this study a “game changer.”

This study signifies rigorous research demonstrating the effectiveness of abstinence-centered education and joins 17 other abstinence studies with positive behavioral impact included in the NAEA document, Abstinence Works 2010.

So I don’t think the issue about the effectiveness of abstinence education is nearly as closed as some think it is. But I have another concern beyond the data.

The Value

Even if we can come up with conclusive proof that funding for abstinence-based education is not “producing results,” exactly what kinds of results are our actions bound by? True, the church wants to see a serious decrease in sexual activity in teens, but are we willing to give up the message of sexual purity simply because of some studies funded and promoted by organizations invested in teenage sexuality?

If we give up on the message of sexual purity at an early age, exactly when do we expect young people to “become adults” and suddenly decide on sexually healthy lifestyles? Will it magically happen at 16? 20? 30? 40? If we allow a message of sexual license and birth-control to be their education early on, how can we take ourselves seriously when we want them to be sexually pure in their 20s or when they are married with kids?

The church’s message is either sexual purity or it is not.

The smart abstinence-based education programs will continue to refine and target their message to reach kids when and where they need it and be as effective as possible. And the smart church will not give up on them.

1 comment:

Turner Times said...

Great article, Phil. We're using videos by Mark Gungor and Pam Stenzel (Sex, Dating, and Relating) with our church teens & young adults. Quite a different outlook than most these days. In a nutshell: tell them the gory, honest truth about STD's and don't seriously date (being alone with each other) until you're ready to find someone to marry. Also, it's contradictory to tell Christians to not have sex before marriage and at the same time urge them to delay marriage until their late 20's. The church gets more upset about 19 and 20 year olds marrying than couples living together these days.