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Killing Abstinence
What teens and parents have to lose.


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Robert Rector

This week, the media gave us what appeared to be startling news: Research, appearing in a journal published by the American Medical Association, showed (shock!) that abstinence programs dramatically reduced teen sexual activity.

No one knowledgeable about abstinence education, however, would find this startling. In fact, eleven previous sound studies showed strong positive effects from abstinence programs. The mainstream media simply ignored them. Unfortunately, the most recent story came too late — President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have already terminated the federal government’s abstinence programs.

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What other story has the mainstream media ignored? The big one concerns the positive effects of abstinence on teens. Obviously, abstinent teens are not going to get pregnant or contract an STD. But the research shows that, in general, they also will be happier and less depressed than their permissive peers.

Abstinent teens also do dramatically better in school. They are half as likely to drop out as their sexually active peers. And teens who abstain until at least age 18 are twice as likely to attend and graduate from college as those who become sexually active while in high school. The extra schooling achieved by abstaining teens will add, on average, an additional $400,000 to their lifetime earnings.

Skeptics might wonder if this effect occurs solely because some sexually active girls have babies and are forced to leave school; however, in this comparison, such cases have been left out. Perhaps abstinent teens come from better socio-economic backgrounds and are therefore more likely to go to college anyway? Nope, the stark differences in educational accomplishment persist, even when the abstaining teen is compared to a sexually active teen from the exact same background.

When an abstinent teen is matched against a sexually active teen who is identical in gender, race, parental education, family income and structure, educational aspiration, and self-esteem, the abstinent teen is still nearly twice as likely to attend and graduate from college.

Why is this? In part, it is because abstaining teens (contrary to elite opinion) are somewhat smarter and more mature, and have greater self control. In part, it is because sex is an overpowering psychological force that can cause youth to lose future orientation and work focus. In addition, teen sexual activity is linked to drug and alcohol abuse, violence, and oppositional attitudes towards parents — not a recipe for success.

The simple fact that abstaining teens are twice as likely to go to college would seem to be an important piece of information. It’s the sort of thing that should be made widely available to teens, parents, and educators. But don’t hold your breath waiting for the government or the media to tell anyone.

Abstinence-education programs used to provide this sort of information. But Obama has shut down the federal abstinence programs. The remaining federally funded sex ed has a very different message. According to the sex-ed experts favored by congressional liberals, as long as the teen wears a condom, teen sex has no negative effects. The federal government now promotes this same message in schools: “Protected sex” is all about fun, with no downside.

Masquerading as “comprehensive” sex ed, current sex-education programs show to students that society expects and accepts teen sexual activity. Casual, transitory sexual relationships in the teen years will be exciting, “fun” and “sexy.” For example, the highly touted curriculum Be Proud! Be Responsible! instructs teachers to

invite [students] to brainstorm ways to increase spontaneity and the likelihood that they’ll use condoms. . . . Examples:  . . . Store condoms under [the] mattress. . . . Eroticize condom use with partner. . . . Use condoms as a method of foreplay. . . . Think up a sexual fantasy using condoms.  . . . Act sexy/sensual when putting the condom on. . . .  Hide them on your body and ask your partner to find it. . . . Wrap them as a present and give them to your partner before a romantic dinner. . . . Tease each other manually while putting on the condom.

A similar, widely promoted curriculum, Focus on Kids, prompts teachers to

state that there are other ways to be close to a person without having sexual intercourse. Ask youth to brainstorm ways to be close. The list may include . . . body massage, bathing together, masturbation, sensuous feeding, fantasizing, watching erotic movies, reading erotic books and magazines . . . 

With the jettisoning of abstinence funding, teens will no longer be taught about the link between abstinence and educational success. They will, however, be taught about using “grape jelly, maple syrup and honey” as condom lubricants after the dance on Friday night. Who could object to that?

– Robert Rector is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.



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