Sex and Ignorance: Putting Kids at Risk

With evidence mounting that abstinence-only programs are terribly ineffective, we’re now seeing that simplistic approaches like “virginity pledges” also fail the test of reality when it comes to teens and sex.

Teens who take virginity pledges are just as likely to have sex as teens who don’t make such promises — and they’re less likely to practice safe sex to prevent disease or pregnancy, a new study finds.

“Previous studies found that pledgers were more likely to delay having sex than non-pledgers,” said study author Janet E. Rosenbaum, a post doctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “I used the same data as previous studies but a different statistical method.”

This method allowed Rosenbaum to compare those who had taken a virginity pledge with similar teens who hadn’t taken a pledge but were likely to delay having sex, she said. She added that she didn’t include teens who were unlikely to take a pledge.

“Virginity pledgers and similar non-pledgers don’t differ in the rates of vaginal, oral or anal sex or any other sexual behavior,” Rosenbaum said. “Strikingly, pledgers are less likely than similar non-pledgers to use condoms and also less likely to use any form of birth control.”

That pledgers are less likely to use condoms when they do have sex shouldn’t be surprising. “Virginity pledges” are often part of abstinence-only programs that either ignore condoms and other methods of responsible pregnancy and disease prevention or seriously downplay their effectiveness. In fact, they often actively discourage the use of condoms.

It’s way past time that public policymakers stop bowing to the abstinence-only fraud and start promoting education programs that deal with reality. Texas would be a good place to start.

Nearly 14 years ago, then-Gov. George W. Bush persuaded the Texas Legislature to make abstinence the primary component of sex education in the state’s public schools. Section 28.004 of the Texas Education Code requires that sex education materials “present abstinence from sexual activity as the preferred choice of behavior” for unmarried persons of school age. The materials must also “devote more attention to abstinence from sexual activity than to any other behavior” (such as using condoms). On its face, the law seems to make sense. After all, it’s hard to imagine any parent who thinks it’s a good idea for teens to have sex. But many school districts (and — no surprise — certain members of the State Board of Education) have recklessly interpreted the law as an excuse to teach abstinence-only-until-marriage.

So despite having the highest teen birthrate (tied with New Mexico) among the 50 states, Texas teaches most teens almost nothing about how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases except for remaining abstinent — something many teens clearly are not doing. In other words, faced with a serous public health crisis, many Texas policymakers think ignorance will protect our kids. Brilliant.

Polling shows that the vast majority of parents know that promoting ignorance is foolish and actually want schools to teach students about both contraception/disease prevention and abstinence. That’s just common sense.

The Texas Freedom Network is sponsoring one-day Leadership Development Institute trainings that will help advocates learn the skills they need to promote responsible sex education policies. You can learn more about these training opportunities here.

2 thoughts on “Sex and Ignorance: Putting Kids at Risk

  1. It is tough to tell from the news story referenced, but the reanalysis apparently covers virginity pledges and not abstinence only programs. The study appears to reveal that what actually works, apparentlyd despite the lack of contraception education was religious belief:

    “She said teens who are religious tend to delay having sex, but that has nothing to do with virginity pledges or abstinence-only sex education programs.”

    Public schools do not appear to be the appropriate forum for encouraging the beliefs found effective by this study. The study also apparently may not have controlled for honesty or intelligence. Since many who took the pledge, violated it, and didn’t even recall having made the pledge, those religious students that did not take the pledge may have had more mature self awareness of what they were actually honestly willing to commit their older selves too, in circumstances they may not yet be able to anticipate. It is also not clear whether the author included all who took the virginity pledge, or applied the same religious filter that he used on the non-pledgers. That would appear to be the more valid control.

  2. The teen birth rate cited does not control for marriage. Texas and New Mexico both have large hispanic populations which enter both marriage and parenthood at younger ages. The statistic appears to have been intended as a criticism, but does not appear appropriate to the purpose.

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