Phi Beta Cons

Finally, a Decent Study of Abstinence Education?

I ask this not because I like the results — personally, I’d rather schools didn’t teach sexual morality, and I’d also rather they left it to parents to teach (or not teach) the facts about contraception — but because I like the methodology.

Most studies of abstinence education compare kids who get it to kids who don’t, the problem being that they’re different groups of kids that might have different tendencies regardless of what they’re taught. You can try to “control” away the differences, but this approach will never be as good as a true experiment, with randomly assigned experimental and control groups.

By contrast, a new study randomly assigned kids to one of three different weekend seminars. One seminar taught abstinence, a second taught “comprehensive” sex ed (basically, “abstinence is great, but if you have sex, here’s how to do it safely”), and a third taught only safe sex. Over the next 24 months, according to the students’ self-reports, a third of the first group, 42 percent of the second, and half of the third started having sex. Just as important, none of the seminars had any impact on how likely sexually active kids were to use condoms.

In school, I hated preachy seminars like these, so I’m skeptical one can really have this strong of an effect. Also, I worry that the kids who took the abstinence course just told the researchers what they wanted to hear. Further, the subjects in this study were black urban middle-schoolers (average age 12), and the results may not hold for different demographics.

I hope other academics try to replicate this research — and, my skepticism aside, I hope this does prove to be a way of lowering teen pregnancy and STD rates.

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