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Abstinence-only sex education

Laura Bush with an AIDS orphan at a center in Zambia that promotes abstinence and faith for youth.

Abstinence-only sex education is a form of sex education that teaches not having sex outside of marriage. It often excludes other types of sexual and reproductive health education, such as birth control and safe sex. Comprehensive sex education, by contrast, covers the use of birth control and sexual abstinence.

Evidence does not support the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education.[1][2] It has been found to be ineffective in decreasing HIV risk in the developed world.[3] It does not decrease rates of sexual activity or unplanned pregnancy when compared to comprehensive sex education.[1]

The topic of abstinence-only education is controversial in the United States, with proponents claiming that comprehensive sex education encourages premarital sexual activity, and critics arguing that abstinence-only education is religiously motivated and that the approach has been proven ineffective and even detrimental to its own aims.



Abstinence education teaches children and adolescents to abstain from sexual activity, and that this is the only certain method of avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). With a heavy focus on the importance of "family values," programs also teach that abstinence until marriage is a standard by which to live.[4][5]


Systematic reviews of research evaluating abstinence-only sex education have concluded that it is ineffective at preventing unwanted pregnancy or the spread of STIs, among other shortfalls.[1][6][7] The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended against the use of abstinence-only sex education because it has been found to be ineffective, and because the media frequently conveys information about non-abstinence.[8]

STI transmissionEdit

A 2015 meta-analysis found that abstinence-focused programs had no effect on the likelihood of contracting STDs.[9]

A Cochrane systematic review suggests that abstinence-only education neither increases nor decreases HIV risk in high-income countries.[3] In the developing world there is a lack of evidence of effect.[10] In 2008, Douglas Kirby reviewed the evidence for the effectiveness of abstinence-only education programs and found little evidence to justify the use of such programs.[11] A 2011 meta-analysis found that it was ineffective at reducing the risk of HIV infection among adolescents.[12] Abstinence education has also been found to include misleading medical information and exclude potentially life-saving information about sexual risk reduction.[13] A 2016 study found "that state-level abstinence education mandates have no effect on teen birth rates or abortion rates, although we find that state-level policies may affect teen sexually transmitted disease rates in some states."[14]


Research conducted on 48 states of United States showed that "The level of abstinence education (no provision, covered, promoted, stressed) was positively correlated with both teen pregnancy and teen birth rates.[15] Also, in John S. Santelli's research, the decline of teenage pregnancy rates during 1995–2002 were largely due to improved contraception, and the reduction in pregnancy risk among teenagers at age of 18 or 19 is entirely ascribed to more contraception.[16]

According to SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, "[s]cientific evidence simply does not support an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach."[17] A 2010 report by the Guttmacher Institute pointed out that pregnancy rates for teens 15–19 reversed their decline in 2006, near the peak of the Abstinence Only campaign in the United States.[18]

While sex education has been linked to a delay in the first time having sex,[19][20] abstinence-only programs specifically haven't shown this link, and do not seem to have an impact on if or when young people begin having sex.[21]

Society and cultureEdit


Proponents of abstinence-only sex education argue that this approach is superior to comprehensive sex education because it emphasizes the teaching of morality that limits sex to that within the bounds of marriage, and that sex before marriage and at a young age has heavy physical and emotional costs.[22] In addition, abstinence programs often teach young people that pleasure in sex is most likely to be found within marriage, and therefore, that they should wait to engage in sexual activity until they are married.[23] Abstinence generally places a great emphasis on the importance of the institution of marriage, which some proponents believe allows young people to grow and develop as individuals.[24]

Proponents suggest that comprehensive sex education encourages premarital sexual activity among teenagers, which should be discouraged in an era when HIV and other incurable STIs are widespread and when teen pregnancy is an ongoing concern. Many supporters of abstinence-only education do so out of the belief that comprehensive guides to sex or information about contraceptives will ultimately result in teens actively pursuing and engaging in sexual activities,[25] while others oppose the endorsement of contraception for religious reasons.[26] Teenagers are framed as less intelligent and less responsible than adults. They are seen as unable to control themselves due to 'raging hormones'. As a result, a teenager's sexual desire is something that needs to be controlled.[27] Thus, dividing the teens into two separate categories in the minds of adults: "the innocent and the guilty, the vulnerable and the predatory, the pure and the corrupting."[28]


Opponents and critics, which include prominent professional associations in the fields of medicine, public health, adolescent health, and psychology, argue that such programs fail to provide adequate information to protect the health of adolescents. Not only is information inadequate, but opponents believe that young people have the right to receive comprehensive information about how to protect themselves and their sexual health.[29] Accurate information is especially important since, although some supporters may claim that abstinence is an effective method, it has been found that a small percentage of people actually practice it.[29]

Some critics also argue that such programs verge on religious interference in secular education. Opponents of abstinence-only education dispute the claim that comprehensive sex education encourages teens to have premarital sex.[30] The idea that sexual intercourse should only occur within marriage also has serious implications for people for whom marriage is not valued or desired, or is unavailable as an option, particularly LGBT people living in places where same-sex marriage is not legal or socially acceptable.[31][32][33][34][35] Abstinence-only education is often criticized for being overly heteronormative, idealizing the institution of heterosexual marriage to the denigration of queer relationships.[36] In addition, the heteronormativity of abstinence-only education, as well as the focus on marriage, means that members of the LGBT community will never receive formal information about how to practice safe sex, which is problematic, since they are already at an increased risk for STIs.[37]

According to Advocates for Youth, abstinence-only sex education distorts information about contraceptives, including only revealing failure rates associated with their use, and ignoring discussion of their benefits.[38] The language surrounding medicine and health is construed as being both objective and value free.[36] This objectivity is then adopted by conservative politicians and campaigners to assert authority which historically holds its basis in religion.[39]


Another problem for abstinence education is the definition of abstinence. Santelli (2006) states that there is no strict definition of abstinence within the US federal government guidelines for teaching abstinence-only sex education, using a mixture of non-specific phrases, like "postponing sex" or "never had vaginal sex," while also using moralistic terms or phrases like virgin, chaste, and "making a commitment".[40] This has resulted in sexual activities that are not penile-vaginal, including mutual masturbation, oral sex and anal sex, being considered outside of the scope of abstention from sex, which is termed technical virginity.[41]

Global impactEdit

The U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) is the U.S government's initiative to combat HIV/AIDS globally.[42] PEPFAR works with the governments of 22 countries worldwide to create sustainable programs to prevent HIV and improve the lives of those suffering.[43] PEPFAR provides funding to other countries to help combat HIV/AIDS. It does so with certain guidelines and restrictions on the recipients. PEPFAR promotes an "ABC" approach – Abstain, Be faithful, and use Condoms. Funding recipients may give information about condoms to youth over 15 years old, but cannot use the funding to provide condoms or promote usage. In countries receiving funds from PEPFAR, teens under the age of 15 are not allowed to receive information about condoms.[44] The rationale behind this is to not encourage sexual activity despite evidence that condom use does not cause promiscuity.[45] PEPFAR was founded in 2003 with the mandate that 33% of its funds provided for prevention be used for abstinence-only education. Since the reauthorization in 2008, this mandate was removed, with a shift toward directives to spend at least 50% on abstinence-only education.[46] The role of partners has been an area of debate surrounding PEPFAR. In 2006, 23% of all the community partners were faith-based and debate exists over whether the U.S. should be allowing grants specifically written for faith-based organizations and prevention.[47] A few countries that have received PEPFAR funding – specifically Mozambique and Rwanda – have expressed distaste for the U.S.' push for faith-based education and abstinence-only funding.[47] Human rights groups have expressed concern that condom availability has decreased since PEPFAR's involvement in the global AIDS crisis.[48]

The $1.3 billion that the U.S. government spent on programs to promote abstinence in sub-Saharan Africa had no meaningful impact.[49][50][51]


In the U.S., states may apply for federal funding of abstinence-only sex education programs from either Title V, the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA), and/or Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE).[25] To be eligible for funding, programs must satisfy requirements given under the Social Security Act, which is reproduced here verbatim:[52]

(2) For purposes of this section, the term "abstinence education" means an educational or motivational program which—

(A) has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;
(B) teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children;
(C) teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;
(D) teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;
(E) teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;
(F) teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society;
(G) teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances; and
(H) teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.

Funding, which began in the 1980s, has continued to increase since its inception, though support for the programs and legislation surrounding them has become dependent upon the current administration.[53] For example, George W. Bush administration increased federal funding for abstinence-only programs (the only type funded even under the previous Clinton Administration), while the Obama administration reversed the emphasis and provided more federal dollars for comprehensive sex education.[54] President Donald Trump cut grants to comprehensive sex education[55] and proposed increased funding for abstinence-only education.[56]


The Christian Right, who initially stood against having school-based sex education programs, began supporting abstinence-only programs due to the focus on marriage.[57] As a driving force behind the abstinence movement, they have focused on getting more funding for these programs and have also been successful in creating more awareness surrounding abstinence through their use of activism.[58] To the New Right, the abstinence-only sex education movement was an opportunity and an avenue to change the current view and status of sexuality in America, aligning it more with their own values, and as a result, creating individuals who remained abstinent until marriage, and thus, citizens who embodied values of self-discipline and morality.[59] In addition, abstinence-only programs utilize ideas of individualism and personal responsibility when educating young people about sex, seeking to create individuals who take responsibility for sexuality and morality.[60] These ideas underlie the basis of conservative ideology, a focus on the individual having a strong place in the beliefs of this group.[61] Thus, it makes sense that support for abstinence-only programs as an effective form of sex education has been linked to conservative individuals.[62]


Religious doctrines take varying stances on contraception and pre-marital sex, some of which are covered by:

The philosophical sex-positive movement cuts across many religions, and rejects the idea that consensual pre-marital sex or contraception are immoral.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Ott, MA; Santelli, JS (Oct 2007). "Abstinence and abstinence-only education". Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology. 19 (5): 446–52. doi:10.1097/GCO.0b013e3282efdc0b. PMID 17885460. Abstinence-only curricula have been found to contain scientifically inaccurate information, distorting data on topics such as condom efficacy, and promote gender stereotypes. An independent evaluation of the federal program, several systematic reviews, and cohort data from population-based surveys find little evidence of efficacy and evidence of possible harm. 
  2. ^ Chin, HB; Sipe, TA; Elder, R; Mercer, SL; Chattopadhyay, SK; Jacob, V; Wethington, HR; Kirby, D; Elliston, DB; Griffith, M; Chuke, SO; Briss, SC; Ericksen, I; Galbraith, JS; Herbst, JH; Johnson, RL; Kraft, JM; Noar, SM; Romero, LM; Santelli, J; Community Preventive Services Task, Force (March 2012). "The effectiveness of group-based comprehensive risk-reduction and abstinence education interventions to prevent or reduce the risk of adolescent pregnancy, human immunodeficiency virus, and sexually transmitted infections: two systematic reviews for the Guide to Community Preventive Services". American journal of preventive medicine. 42 (3): 272–94. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2011.11.006. PMID 22341164. 
  3. ^ a b Underhill, K; Operario, D; Montgomery, P (Oct 17, 2007). Operario, Don, ed. "Abstinence-only programs for HIV infection prevention in high-income countries". Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (4): CD005421. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD005421.pub2. PMID 17943855. 
  4. ^ Lamb, Sharon (2013-10-01). "Just the Facts? The Separation of Sex Education from Moral Education". Educational Theory. 63 (5): 443–460. doi:10.1111/edth.12034. ISSN 1741-5446. Archived from the original on 2016-12-22. 
  5. ^ Lindberg, Laura Duberstein; Santelli, John S.; Singh, Susheela (2006-12-01). "Changes in Formal Sex Education: 1995–2002". Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. 38 (4): 182–189. doi:10.1111/j.1931-2393.2006.tb00277.x. ISSN 1931-2393. Archived from the original on 2016-12-20. 
  6. ^ Kirby, D. (2007). "Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases". National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Archived from the original on 2014-07-14.  "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2014-07-14. Retrieved 2014-08-15. 
  7. ^ Denford, Sarah; Abraham, Charles; Campbell, Rona; Busse, Heide (March 2017). "A comprehensive review of reviews of school-based interventions to improve sexual-health". Health Psychology Review. 11 (1): 33–52. doi:10.1080/17437199.2016.1240625. ISSN 1743-7202. PMID 27677440. Archived from the original on 2017-10-30. Abstinence-only interventions were found to be ineffective in promoting positive changes in sexual behaviour. 
  8. ^ Council on Communications and Media (September 2010). "American Academy of Pediatrics. Policy statement--sexuality, contraception, and the media". Pediatrics. 126 (3): 576–582. doi:10.1542/peds.2010-1544. ISSN 1098-4275. PMID 20805150. Archived from the original on 2017-11-09. 
  9. ^ Petrova, D; Garcia-Retamero, R (2015). "Effective Evidence-Based Programs For Preventing Sexually-Transmitted Infections: A Meta-Analysis". Current HIV Research. 13 (5): 432–8. doi:10.2174/1570162x13666150511143943. PMID 26149164. 
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  11. ^ Kirby, Douglas B. (September 2008). "The impact of abstinence and comprehensive sex and STD/HIV education programs on adolescent sexual behavior". Sexuality Research and Social Policy. 5 (3): 18–27. doi:10.1525/srsp.2008.5.3.18. 
  12. ^ Johnson, Blair T.; Scott-Sheldon, Lori A. J.; Huedo-Medina, Tania B.; Carey, Michael P. (1 January 2011). "Interventions to Reduce Sexual Risk for Human Immunodeficiency Virus in Adolescents". Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 165 (1): 77–84. doi:10.1001/archpediatrics.2010.251. PMID 21199984. 
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  28. ^ Fields, p. 6
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  41. ^ Bryan Strong; Christine DeVault; Theodore F. Cohen (2010). The Marriage and Family Experience: Intimate Relationship in a Changing Society. Cengage Learning. p. 186. ISBN 0-534-62425-1. Retrieved October 8, 2011. Most people agree that we maintain virginity as long as we refrain from sexual (vaginal) intercourse. But occasionally we hear people speak of 'technical virginity' [...] Data indicate that 'a very significant proportion of teens ha[ve] had experience with oral sex, even if they haven't had sexual intercourse, and may think of themselves as virgins' [...] Other research, especially research looking into virginity loss, reports that 35% of virgins, defined as people who have never engaged in vaginal intercourse, have nonetheless engaged in one or more other forms of heterosexual sexual activity (e.g., oral sex, anal sex, or mutual masturbation). 
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  53. ^ Trump Ignores Scientific Evidence Proving Abstinence Only Education Doesn’t Work
  54. ^ Trump administration cuts short teen pregnancy prevention program funding
  55. ^ Trump’s Proposed Budget Would Invest $277 Million in Abstinence-Only Education
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