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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Why “Abstinence Education” Fails (Part I)

News outlets have run more than a few articles in the past year (some for years) questioning the effectiveness of abstinence education programs and whether we should still be spending tax dollars on its continued promulgation. It’s no secret critics of abstinence education exist in droves and I believe their main argument is teens are going to have sex no matter what; so why not spend our (we being taxpayers) time and money on educating them how to do it safely (pun sort-of intended)? Though statistics as to the effectiveness of these programs are debated (often by those on opposite ends of the political spectrum), it’s clear that these programs haven’t ushered in a new era of overwhelming and unprecedented drops in teenage sex and all the societal troubles that often result. The question is why not?

If there was ever a shoo-in, out-of-the-ballpark, sure-fire political policy hit, it should be abstinence education. I mean sexual abstinence is thee proverbial cure-all for so many social ills. How can you bumble such a failsafe initiative?! Here we have the method that reduces unwed unwanted pregnancies (and subsequent fall-through-the-cracks orphans and abortions) and a host of sexually transmitted diseases to absolute 0. Read that again…sexual abstinence reduces unwed unwanted pregnancies and many/most STDs to 0%! ZERO freaking percent! (Yes I know married couples can transmit disease and have unwanted pregnancies also, but their negative effect and burden on society is much less) Further, sexual abstinence greatly reduces (and I don’t have the statistics to back up on this one but I’m sure they’re out here) the proven emotional trauma and baggage that premarital sexual relationships inevitably bring for mentally and emotionally developing teenagers and young adults. Basically it is the only truly, all-encompassing “safe” sex. So knowing this bulletproof resume in preventing STD’s and other societal and familial burdens, how come abstinence education has been mostly ineffective in turning the tide of our sexually-active youth? Sure, as critics often say, some teens are gonna have sex no matter what they’re told. But what about all those other millions of reasonable kids out there that pause and listen to elders and educators who tell them lifestyle wisdom like drugs are bad, staying in school is good, and being active and fit will benefit your health? Even considering them, is it a fools quest to try to educate kids on the benefits of abstinence? No I don’t think it is. Well then why isn’t it working...? Why? It’s because we lie to them.

Well "lie" may be a strong word here. It’s not like abstinence educators are cognitively deceptive. It’s more the whole general mantra of abstinence education, as conveyed by abstinence education countrywide (and maybe worldwide), out and in the church mind you, is unrealistically portrayed (and in some ways I think the “church” is more negligent here). It’s unrealistically portrayed because it just doesn’t reflect how things go down in real life. It’s sort of why I’ve always felt anti-youth smoking campaigns have always been enervated; lacking true persuasive power for teens faced with said peer pressure. Sure these campaigns portray the negative health effects accurately and try to assert some form of adolescent personal accountability and realization of the future consequences. But the one thing that these anti-smoking campaigns have always missed is acknowledging the fact that despite all the negative press and health effects, smoking still remains “cool”…and trying to fit in and be “cool” will always be most teenagers’ primary concern. Think back to your high school days… What was one thing most of the cool and popular kids in your class did? Smoke of course. Sure one day it may not be the cool thing to do…but that day has yet to come if we’re honest with ourselves. And so that’s why I feel these anti-smoking campaigns still remain somewhat powerless; they neglect to acknowledge that smoking is socially cool (pretty much universally in teenage circles) and if you don’t do it…sure you may be smarter and healthier, but it probably won’t earn you any points with the cool kids crowd. And those points are like gold across high school campuses everywhere.
In the same way I feel abstinence education struggles with the same neglect. Abstinence is not the cool thing to do. Let’s just be honest and get that out of the way. Not only is it not socially cool, it is also neither temporally rewarding, physically pleasurable, fun, nor easy to stay committed to and continually exhibit the restraint necessary. Add to that the social ridicule one is most likely to receive and you have a recipe for teenage social disaster. And like the anti-smoking campaigns, teens aren’t stupid. They know the cool kids smoke and that having sex is fun and pleasurable - the cool kids are probably doing that too. They also know adults “lie” to them when they say otherwise, and it’s this elder deception that motivates them even more in many cases to commit the very things they’re told not to. This is why abstinence education continues to operate with pedestrian results I believe (among other things I may get into in future posts).

Though I’m not saying we can convert every teen into a card-carrying virgin until marriage, I do believe there is a way to at least give it to the youth straight; without all the suspect bells and whistles adult educators are so often guilty of doing… Yes teens are stupid, but they’re not that stupid. They know a persuasive argument, which needs to speak their language mind you, when they hear one.

What is my solution? You’ll have to come back to this blog to find out in the near future :)


  1. I like the article here, and would have to agree with most all of your thoughts on it. But what about the "tie-ins" all over society that interact on teens as well? The reason abstinence programs start-off crippled, is because they exist and act like a water pistol vs. a firehose in a water fight. Add up the cumulative sex-energy and promotion on TV advertising through commercials, teen-movies, teen-shows, and reality programs, and you have a mountain of sex promotion w/o consequences. The porn industry never shows the result of irresponsible sexual encounters, over and over and over and over again. Then add Hollywood and the music industry juggernauts to this equation, and you get a veritable tidal wave of advice saying "go ahead and do whatever feels right... you only live once - you deserve this - it feels good". Because of the reasons above, teens are basically engineered for sex by our modern culture. How does any abstinence program combat this tidal wave? Think of the billions of dollars that are made by selling sex ideals, behaviors, and endeavors? Why would that be given up for abstinence?

  2. Great comments and thoughts John! I agree with does seem like a losing battle considering the onslaught you speak of. Hopefully in my "part 2" of this article I can shed some light on what I think could be a possible solution...