More support for Abstinence Plus sex education

Remember Linda Klepacki, the analyst for sexual health at Focus on the Family Action? She's been having a bad time of it lately. I just got another Citizen Link alert from her trying desperately to spin the latest blow to funding the Federally supported Abstinence Only sex education program. The Title V block grant program that supplies almost 88 million dollars a year toward Abstinence Only education is due to expire at the end of June, and the many recent setbacks to Abstinence Only education seem to indicate that the possibility of renewal is doomed.

Abstinence Only sex eduction, as you may recall, promotes abstaining from sex until marriage, and discourages the use of contraceptives – either by not mentioning them at all, or by exaggerating their risks and failure rates. Abstinence Only sex education teaches that sex outside of marriage is not only immoral, but that severe emotional and physical costs may also result. Proponents of Abstinence Only sex education claim that Abstinence Plus sex education (which stresses abstinence, but includes information about safe sex and contraceptives) actually encourages teenage premarital sexual activity.

No one denies that abstinence is the most effective way to prevent pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted disease. It is clear, however, that teaching abstinence does not seem to result in increasing the practice of abstinence among teens.

The latest blow against Abstinence Only sex education is a new study to be published Thursday in the American Journal of Sociology. This study, released by the University of Minnesota sociology department, strikes down the claim that premarital sex always results in severe emotional trauma. From the Minnesota Daily:
... while some girls who became sexually active without being in a committed relationship before the age of 15 suffer from depression in their lives, a majority did not. Researchers found the same for boys under the age of 14.
From USA Today:
The latest analysis by Ann Meier, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota, found that those who are most vulnerable to depression or low self-esteem are girls who had their first sex before 15 and boys under 14.

Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health of 8,563 students in grades seven through 12 during the mid-1990s, Meier compared mental health measures of teens who were virgins during the study with teens who lost their virginity during the study.

"Among those who had sex, only about 14% experienced increases in depression or decreases in self-esteem," she says. "In terms of depression, these are relatively modest increases. For 86%, it had no big effect."
Meier points out that this study does not, by any means, give a “green light” to premarital / teen sex. From the Minnesota Daily:
[Meier] said there are no positive effects from losing virginity early, and although the section of people who have mental problems is lower than once expected, it is still a relatively large number of young people.

... the broader implications of the study are that early sex can have a negative psychological effect on girls, and schools should have more comprehensive sexual education.
Linda Klepacki spins the study in this way:
For this study to state that teens 15 and younger tend to be less committed in sexual relationships demonstrates its incredible disconnect from reality. Research shows us that young girls are much more likely to be pressured into sex by much older boys than older teen girls. The term 'statutory rape' is more apropos for 14-year-olds having sex than the term 'committed.'
The Citizen Link alert then states:
According to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 63 percent of sexually experienced 12- to 19-year-olds wish they had waited longer before having sexual intercourse.
To which Klepacki responds, "Is this statement not a direct result of an emotional response?

There are a couple of odd things here. Klepacki and Citizen Link are willing to identify the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, but they don't identify who did the “research” that young girls are pressured into sex by older boys. Instead she goes straight on to use the emotionally laden word “rape”. It took me almost a minute to realize that she didn't back up her assertion of the likelihood of rape.

I can almost feel sorry for religious conservatives on this issue. They've suffered a lot of setbacks lately. The 8 year study by the Mathematica Policy Research corporation which was commissioned by Congress to find the effectiveness of Abstinence Only education showed that:
... youth in the four evaluated programs were no more likely than youth not in the programs to have abstained from sex in the four to six years after they began participating in the study. Youth in both groups who reported having had sex also had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same average age.
After the report was released, Democratic leaders in Congress indicated that they would probably drop funding for Abstinence Only sex education, labeling it a “colossal failure.

I've already blogged that on May 24th, the San Jose Mercury News reported that the overwhelming majority of Californians prefer that comprehensive sex education be taught to their kids in school.

However, that shouldn't be surprising since a January 2004 survey of the general public and of parents by the Kaiser Foundation over the subject of Sex Education in America found that the 94% of parents thought it was appropriate to teach school age kids about methods of birth control. The same study indicated overwhelming agreement by parents that it was appropriate to teach about abortion, how to use a condom, masturbation, homosexuality, and oral sex. (link to PDF)

To add insult to injury, a new book written by Mark Regnerus, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, shows that teens that profess evangelical beliefs and who have pledged to remain virgins until marriage manage to delay sex for only a period of 18 months, on average. Slate's article on the professor's book states:
Evangelical teens are actually more likely to have lost their virginity than either mainline Protestants or Catholics. They tend to lose their virginity at a slightly younger age—16.3, compared with 16.7 for the other two faiths. And they are much more likely to have had three or more sexual partners by age 17: Regnerus reports that 13.7 percent of evangelicals have, compared with 8.9 percent for mainline Protestants.
Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, and other proponents of Abstinence Only are clearly out of touch here. They are out of touch with scientific reality and with popular parental opinion. Most parents remember what it was like to be a teen, and so they do the smart thing of taking a “belt and suspenders” approach toward teaching their children about sex. They want to teach their kids to abstain, and at the same time they want to reduce and control the possible consequences of sex.

The Abstinence Only crowd keeps telling the parents that they don't need the suspenders – but that just doesn't make any sense.


Randy said...

I know you linked to the item below, and it's not at all far down anyway, but I still think that that Roy Zimmerman quote could bear to be repeated here. As a matter of fact, I think I'll do so here, if that's all right with you:
Teaching 'Abstinence Only' education is like teaching 'Just Hold It' potty training.

More seriously, though, in Meier's U of M study, comparing the mental health of those who've abstained to that of those who haven't, throws up a big post hoc, ergo propter hoc flag for me. I'd expect those who are suffering from depression, and lack of self-esteem in particularly, might be more likely to have sex younger, especially if pressured. Which is the indicator of which there? (All aside from the matter of it being a statistically small 14%.)

Calladus said...

Yes, perhaps depression made the teens more likely to engage in sex. But what was being measured was how much 'severe emotional cost' resulted from having sex at an early age.

The results, at 14%, are statistically only slightly above the signal to noise ratio for statistical analysis. Certainly they are nowhere near the level predicted by Abstinence Only supporters.

The study points out that there is no good reason for a young person to become sexually active, and plenty of reasons to wait. The preponderance of evidence does show, however, that no matter what, a certain population will become sexually active while young, and before marriage - and the best way to help these people is to include the teaching of safer sex and birth control.