Abstinence-Centered Sex Education Works Best Without God

The religious right is wetting itself over a new study that showed an program promoting abstinence for teenagers is showing some success:

“Finally, a study that proves what those of us who have been teaching abstinence have known for years,” [Leslee Unruh, president and founder of National Abstinence Clearinghouse] said, “these programs help develop self-control and self-esteem, teaching kids they do not need to fall prey to the game of Russian Roulette with condoms.”

Well, yes, and no. The study showed important differences between the abstinence-only programs pushed by Unruh’s group and other religiously conservative groups like Focus on the Family. The most important difference is that along with encouraging abstinence, the program also used strategies proven effective in comprehensive sex education curriculum—giving children practical information about condoms and other forms of contraception.

NPR’s Brenda Wilson produced and eye-opening report on the new research.

BRENDA WILSON: Study author John Jemmott, a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says he did the study to see if an abstinence-only program could be effective if it used teaching methods that have been successful in sex education programs. In this study, specially-trained teachers didn’t just lecture teens about not having sex, they engaged them in discussions about what it would mean if they did.

Professor JOHN JEMMOTT (Social Psychologist, University of Pennsylvania): They begin by considering, you know, what are their goals and dreams for the future. What would they like to do five years from now? What would they like to do ten years from now? And then they have to consider how sexual involvement might make it difficult or impossible to achieve some of those goals.

Therein lies the key—this study asked young people to consider their dreams and goals, it asked them to think in practical terms about their lives. Will you be able to finish high school if you have to come home and take care of your baby? How will you pay for college and diapers? What made this program more effective than those pushed by the religious right is that it completely eliminated the religious element from the equation. Instead of being afraid of offending God and being condemned to hell for having sex, these kids were asked to consider their own self-interest. How would sex mess up the plans you have for your life? Instead of a dread of divine punishment somewhere in the distant future, they were given a more immediate consequence: What will you forego in the next few years for a few minutes of pleasure?

Another important distinction is that this study didn’t push the centerpiece of religious-based abstinence only education—the primacy of waiting until marriage. Nor did it promote a “virginity pledge” through which teens are asked to pledge to God and each other to remain celibate until their wedding night.

In short, when religious trappings, and moralizing lectures are laid aside and young people are encouraged to think through the consequences of having sex (mainly unprotected sex), and are given the tools on how to have safe sex when they choose, they respond by delaying sexual activity.

If this research immediately proves anything, however, it’s that children don’t need a religious guilt trip to keep them in line. Instead, they respond best when they are treated with respect, given a chance to think through problems on their own, and given the education they need to make informed decisions about their lives.

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