Abstinence-only sexual education (also “abstinence education” and “abstinence-until-marriage education”) refers to a group of sexual education curricula intended to teach children that they should abstain from sexual intimacy with another individual until they become adults and usually until they are married. Many U.S. state and local boards of education have adopted these programs, which typically focus on sexual activity as inappropriate and/or impractical for adolescents and which avoid discussion of the specific details of sexual activity, contraception, and sexual disease prevention. These omissions have been protested by parents and civic organizations, who argue that adolescents must be informed with up-to-date and accurate information regarding sexuality so that they can make informed decisions about whether or not to engage in sexual activity.
While teaching about sexual abstinence has always been a salient part of sexuality education in the United States, only in the last decades of the 1900s did the idea of teaching sexual abstinence to the exclusion of other components of sexuality become the dominant discourse in sexuality education. For example, for fiscal year 2005, the U.S. federal government allotted $167 million for abstinence-only sexual education programs to be administered by state health departments, school districts, hospitals, religious organizations, and “pro-life” organizations. This amount was just over twice the amount allotted for such programs in 2001, but still over $100 million less than was proposed by the president.
Proponents of abstinence-only sexual education argue that teaching children about sex and contraception encourages them to engage in sexual behaviors and undermines the authority of their parents. They suggest that effective abstinence-only sexual education programs delay initiation of sexual activity, thus preventing teenage pregnancy and the transmission of sexual diseases.
Critics of abstinence-only sexuality education cite the lack of evidence of the effectiveness of abstinence only programs, while arguing that some sexuality education programs that involve instruction in abstinence as well as contraception and disease prevention have been shown to have statistically significant results in delaying sexual initiation. Abstinence-only programs have also been criticized for confounding religion and science and for inaccurately presenting scientific evidence to exaggerate or misstate the effectiveness of contraception as a means of pregnancy and disease prevention. While some critics have allowed that particular abstinence-only programs have led to small delays in sexual initiation among young adolescent participants, they also cite evidence that suggests that many of these same individuals are less likely to use contraceptive devices when they do have sex and less likely to seek medical assistance if they contract a segregated disease.
- Kirby, D. (2001). Emerging answers: Research findings on programs to reduce teen pregnancy. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Reduce Teen Pregnancy.
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