Study: Abstinence programs ineffective, waste millions of federal dollars

NEW YORK — Saving oneself until marriage has long been viewed as a no-brainer method to prevent contracting sexually transmitted diseases and partaking in risky sexual behavior; but a new study finds that abstinence is not only out of touch and ineffective, promotion of the practice is also a giant waste of federal funds.

Researchers at Columbia University delved into the effectiveness of the de facto abstinence-only-until-marriage policy espoused in the United States, finding that the guidelines were less effective than comprehensive programs at deterring unwanted sexual behavior.

Young couple kissing
A new study finds that not only are federally-funded programs promoting abstinence ineffective, but they’re a waste of tens of millions of dollars.

“The weight of scientific evidence shows these programs do not help young people delay initiation of sexual intercourse,” says co-author Dr. John Santelli in a university news release. “While abstinence is theoretically effective, in actual practice, intentions to abstain from sexual activity often fail.”

Some of the many variables that comprehensive programs better address include sexual initiation, number of sexual partners, frequency of sexual activity, use of contraception, frequency of unprotected sex, STDs, and likelihood of becoming pregnant.

Abstinence is no longer en vogue, the authors argue, pointing out that many adolescents have sex earlier and marry later.

At present, the average time elapsed between one losing their virginity and getting married is 8.7 years for young women and 11.7 years for young men.

Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the U.S. have hampered efforts to inform youth about sexual behavior, which is illustrated by many statistics. Between 2002 and 2014, for example, the percentage of secondary schools that integrated sex into their curriculum fell by 19 percent.  From two decades ago to today, nearly 30 percent fewer students are being taught about birth control methods, which the researchers found maddening.

“Young people have a right to sex education that gives them the information and skills they need to stay safe and healthy,” emphasizes Dr. Leslie Kantor, a professor at Columbia. “Withholding critical health information from young people is a violation of their rights. Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs leave all young people unprepared and are particularly harmful to young people who are sexually active, who are LGBTQ, or have experienced sexual abuse.”

Over the past quarter century, Congress has spent $2 billion on domestic abstinence-only programs, which doesn’t include foreign aid targeted toward such policy goals. Current funding for programs continue at $85 million per year. States are prohibited from educating students about contraceptive use or methods, except when used to inform about failure rates.

With their findings, the researchers affirm that policy must be based on empirical models, which do not support the use of current abstinence strategies.

“Abstinence-only-until marriage as a basis for health policy and programs should be abandoned,” concludes Santelli.

Santelli et al. published their findings in the September 2017 edition of the Journal of Adolescent Health.


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