Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What Does Work For Teen Abstinence?

A new study came out from Mathematica, commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services, testing the effects of sexual abstinence education courses aimed at middle schoolers. As previous studies have shown, abstinence-only curricula don't have an effect. One new element in this study: unlike previous studies, taking a "true love waits" pledge or the like had no effect, either.

Most of these programs in this study were targeted at high-risk populations, so the overall results are not representative of all kids. It is good news, therefore, that even in this high-risk population, half were still virgins late in high school.

One section of the study profiled the kids who were abstinent. Of the many factors that the original curricula included, such as improving knowledge of which contraceptives worked best, and what the risks of sexually transmitted diseases were, none made any difference in whether kids would actually avoid sex as teens. Only two factors were significant predictors of teen abstinence:
1) If the middle schoolers supported abstinence themselves; and
2) If their friends did, too.

This study could not take the question back one step further: why do some middle schoolers believe in abstinence, and why do they find friends who agree? I think the heart of the answer to that question is that those kids are more likely to have parents who clearly support waiting for sex, make a credible example in their own lives, protect the kids from some temptations, and know who their kids' friends are.

There is no magic bullet to assure teen abstinence, but there is much to give us hope – most especially, the fact that most kids are smart.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for reporting this. I guess no one should be surprised that offering information is no silver bullet when it comes to human behavior. Human behavior happens in that complex web of relationships, values, accountability, and results that is much more formative than a class we take over thirty weeks.

Anonymous said...

As a former teenage virgin whose friends were teenage virgins, I think I can take it a step farther - I agree with the part about parents that shield them from certain temptations (my mother's reasons for a 10:00 curfew? "Nothing good happens after midnight"), but while my mother always wanted to know who I was with, she didn't ask questions more personal than their names and maybe a contact #.

While I didn't exactly ask potential friends if they were sexually active, those that were or became so during the time I was friends with them weren't as likely to hang out with us socially. I can't really think of how to explain it other than they (with their sex and drinking) were a little too frightening for me, and I (with my early curfew, strict parents, and Friday nights at the bowling alley) was a little too boring for them. Those of us that weren't in to breaking the rules soon fell out of contact with the 'bad girls' in our clique... we just didn't have anything in common anymore.

Now? I'm almost 24 and still a virgin. Many of my friends are still virgins as well. Now it's less of an issue than when I was 13, 14, 17... it's not as taboo, but I still find myself largely in the company of people that have similar attitudes on drinking, sex, and how we like to spend a Friday evening.


LMR said...

I had a similar experience to anonymous (except that my mom tacked on "getting pregnant will ruin your life" to "nothing good happens after midnight") The one thing I will add is that on my senior class trip, I ended up rooming with some of the "bad girls." As we were sitting around talking about sex, it became obvious that none of us knew what we were talking about. And, incidentally, the one girl I knew who got pregnant in high school (and ruined her life) was a "good girl" from a "good family" I knew from my church youth group.

The point is that teaching abstinence only reinforces the taboo American society has about sex and stops any real discussion on the subject - even among teenagers themselves. Obviously parents should play the largest role in this discussion, but if kids were more open with each other about sex they would probably discover that attitudes toward the subject are shared across the lines of these high school cliques.

Anonymous said...

In response to the anonymous responder before me, I am nearly twenty and still a virgin (by choice), and although I feel that abstinence is not taboo among groups of friends (my friends, anyway), it is slightly odd to be inexperienced. Everyone seems very accepting of one's current choice (abstinence or monogamy or promiscuity, etc.) because college and the early twenties are the acceptable time for experimentation. However, I feel that to have been always abstinent (to still be a virgin) is disparaged by most of my peers. It is not often brought up, but when it is, others automatically think that I must have nothing to say about sex, just because I have not experienced it myself. This is not true, for even though I lack firsthand experience, I still have a view and opinions about it that go beyond my personal choice.

You have found a wonderful circle of like-minded people, and I envy you for that. I think it is very difficult to find people who accept you for who you are (and still as a thinking person) without belittling you-consciously or not-for your choices to not participate in a certain behavior.

Anonymous said...

Hi, "First Anonymous" again. Never realized that my comment would set off a conversation, but that's cool...

Now at no point did I say I wasn't friends with "the bad girls" - each year of school it seems there were one or two that hung out with us in a sort of mutual fascination... it just never lasted very long. We talked about the things that made us different, but I just never understood what they saw in their choices - and I'm sure they felt the same way about mine.

Nor did I mean to imply by any means that all of my friends now are virgins. I think that's pretty much impossible to find at this age (unless I have very few friends), but seeing what casual sex has left some of my friends with (broken hearts, weird diseases and unwanted children) just serves to reinforce the decision I made so long ago - when it didn't even feel like a choice.

It's hard to be the virgin when not all of your friends necessarily understand your choice (and dating can be rediculous for those that have learned to expect casual sex partners). As far as the belittling... I'm sorry it happens, but know it does. If it helps, I've later had people tell me they're jealous of me because they wish they had waited. Not that everyone feels that way, but be patient - people tend to chill out after college.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks to the anonymous who remind blog readers that there are still people who consciously choose fidelity. You encourage one another and those who might feel alone. You also encourage us parents, who want our sons to meet women to whom they can pledge their lives in mutual fidelity.

Gruntled said...

This is a very rich conversation -- thank you all. The one point I have been chewing on is the idea that talking about sex is taboo in America. I find the opposite -- it is hard to avoid talk about sex. What is harder to find is a well-developed argument that casual, expected sex is bad for sex. Sex has been mcdonaldized, like most other common things. Principled virginity can foster the conversation about the higher meaning that sex can have.

Anonymous said...


Are you familiar with Lauren Winner's "Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity"(Brazos)and Wendy Shalit's "A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue" (Free Press)?

Gruntled said...

Read about 'em; haven't read 'em. My understanding is that the meat of Winner's book is in the post-high school years, when she had to really be self-regulating.