Challenging Dogma

...Using social sciences to improve the practice of public health

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Campaign: Failure to Provide Unbiased Sexual Education and the Detrimental Consequences for Youth – Michelle Chang

The United States has double the adolescent pregnancy and birth rates of any other industrialized country (1). Three in ten teenage girls (31%) become pregnant at least once before they reach the age of 20, while eight in ten of these pregnancies are unintended and 81% are to unmarried teens (2). Every year, three million teens, about one in four sexually active teens, get a sexually transmitted disease (STD) (3).

Astounding pregnancy and STD statistics such as these has stimulated much debate on the approaches that need to be implemented to decrease these rates. These matters have long been a magnet for drawing in controversy and a magnitude of opposing opinions. The Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Campaign is one approach that has undeniably stirred controversial debate and has had a national impact. The driving force behind this campaign has arguably been affiliated with religious and faith-based teachings, providing the youth with information based on a limited scope of sexual education. In the initiative to combat the public health issues of the rising trends in unwanted teenage pregnancies and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, the Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Campaign has failed to address sexual education in an accurate and complete manor, and does not reach out to the entire youth population as it should. Also, this critique examines the influence of political powers on the movement of this unsuccessful approach and the relevance of the Social Control Theory on the average teenage population.

Deficiencies of a Detrimental One-Sided Perspective

The Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Campaign portrays a one-sided and biased perspective which unfortunately does not support an all-encompassing sexual health education. At such an influential and transitional period in the lives of these youth, where social pressures and reliance on others for self-assurance are important for how a teen defines oneself, this type of education will inevitably have gravely damaging effects. Adolescents and teenagers are impressionable, making them susceptible to losing a sense of their individual identities, while gaining a more socially driven perspective compelled by their desire to be socially accepted. Lacking the appropriate knowledge about sex and possessing personal insecurities puts a majority of youth at risk for engaging in unsafe sexual activities because it may be seen as socially acceptable. Adolescents and teenagers spend such a large portion of their lives in school, where they acquire a comprehensive education pertinent to academic, social, and life lessons. But, an abstinence-only instruction, as the sole source for sexual education, provides censored information about other safe sexual possibilities, attempting to steer teenage thoughts only toward the campaign’s one agenda: abstinence.

This federally mandated education jeopardizes the health and lives of young people by denying them the information that can prevent unintended pregnancy and infection with STDs, including HIV (4). Abstinence-only preaches the notion that abstaining from sex is the only method to prevent unintended pregnancies and STD transmission. However, the reality for those who do decide to engage in sexual activities, is that the omission of such necessary prevention information, such as contraception and condom use, will only contribute to the high statistics involving unintended pregnancies and STD contraction.

Research shows that young adults who took virginity pledges as teenagers had the same rates of STDs as other young adults once they became sexually active, indicating that these pledges are an unrealistic attempt to deter premarital sexual behaviors and STD contraction. These teens are also less likely to know their STD status, putting them at a higher risk for infecting a partner or acquiring long-term health consequences (5). An abstinence-only education will only contribute to the engagement of riskier behaviors, such as no condom use or oral sex in efforts to preserve their alleged virginity. These actions can become incredibly dangerous and contagious given that the majority of virginity pledgers are inconsistent pledgers.

Many abstinence programs contain false or misleading information and discriminate against homosexual youth. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America indicates that the campaign promotes three consistent messages: 1) sexual activity between unmarried people has negative physical and psychological consequences; 2) all people are expected to live in monogamous heterosexual marriages; and 3) bearing children out of wedlock hurts child, parent, and society (6). These types of messages put negative connotations on any conduct outside of the abstinence and heterosexual marriage realms. On the other hand, a comprehensive sex education does stress abstinence but includes age and developmentally appropriate, medically accurate information (7). This approach focuses on the individual for making his or her own decisions, rather than making decisions influenced by social pressures. It confers every person with the right and responsibility to make conscientious sexual choices. Ultimately, teens will behave as they see fit according to their own situations, and the abstinence-only education will falsely protect these teens because it provides a lack of proper sexual knowledge to keep them safe when making sexual decisions.

Failure to Address and Relate to the Spectrum of the Youth Population

The current abstinence-only public health approach frames sexual behaviors as negative and inappropriate actions, while instead promoting the idea that abstinence is a positive virtue that is exclusive to those who do not engage in sexual behaviors and those who follow this moral code. This method of teaching teenagers to abstain from sex until marriage does not provide the support to those who may not have already followed in this abstinence path, considering the fact that nearly half (46%) of all 15-19-year-olds in the United States have had sex at least once (8). It disregards youths who do not fall within the abstinence category and allows them to slip through the cracks. If this was the only sexual education provided in school, these teachings would discriminate or frown upon teenagers who already had sexual encounters. With these teenagers, listening to “abstinence-only” may make them feel like it is too late for them, make them feel guilty, or subject them to low self-esteem or even depression, which could have injurious and negative cascading effects. Those who may feel shamed by this, may feel like they are being ostracized and alone in the matter because they do not live up to the expected rules of non-sexual engagement.

Other groups that may be negatively impacted by the lack of information and support include teenagers who have previously been pregnant, are pregnant, or have already contracted a sexually transmitted disease. For these youth, this abstinence education would not provide them with complete applicable information regarding pregnancy or how to treat STDs once sexual encounters had already occurred. This inevitably delays treatment (if the teen decides to seek treatment) because they are being denied the information they need to know regarding available services and the locations of treatment centers in order to obtain proper care. The sense of shame produced by the abstinence-only approach might also deter teens from seeking help and services. There is no support or follow-up information provided for this group who might be in greatest need of advising and comfort. They would also become a high risk group because they are subjected to a number of different risk factors: they are not getting the support at home because family members are not aware of the situation; schools and programs without comprehensive sexual education do not provide the necessary extent of information; they will not receive any necessary counseling, prenatal/medical visits, or treatments because they do not know how to access such services; and other distressing emotional and mental factors may contribute to an already frightening situation.
Influential Push for Abstinence-Only Education Despite Ineffective Results

Political power and more available resources have fueled the Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education push across the country. An important issue is the concern that the abstinence-only education is a product of legislative and policy maker initiatives. This is yet another reason why this educational method is ineffective with teens because the disclosed information is based upon personal moral beliefs, rather than based on sound research and scientific evidence, such as from government-funded evaluations that indicate these programs show no long-term success in delaying sexual initiation or reducing sexual risk-taking behaviors among program participants (9). An ambiguous line between personal judgment and duty to society exists, and is too easily crossed if you have adequate power. Possessing political power and equally important, opportunities for increased funding have definitely put abstinence-only on the map for a preferred education by many.

According to President Bush’s FY 2006 budget, it was projected that there would be a $39 million increase in spending on abstinence-only education, totaling the request for these programs to $206 million in federal funds. Evidence has shown that these programs are not effective in protecting the youth population from unwanted pregnancies and STDs, yet President Bush continues to increase funding, thereby failing to execute his own suggestion of spending taxpayers’ dollars wisely (10). The Bush administration needs to rearrange their priorities to better reflect what is good for the country as a whole and for future generations. Eliminating funds such as for local schools to overly fund a program that will use improper scare tactics and put a misleading spin on sex and methods to avoid sexual consequences reveals a lack of judgment on part of the Bush administration. During President Bush’s tenure as governor of Texas from 1995 to 2000, for instance, with abstinence-only programs in place, the state ranked last in the nation in the decline of teen birth rates among 15- to 17-year-old females (11). This fact reveals that the implementation of these programs is not associated with a successful reduction of teen birth rates. At the core of this issue, money and power, not efficacy, are the driving forces for what is taught. The more resources and support provided to enhance the abstinence-only movement, the more missed opportunities and deprivation of freedom of choice to a comprehensive sexual curriculum will result.

The Application of the Social Control Theory in the Youth Population

The Social Control Theory proposes that in regard to people’s relationships, commitments, values, norms, and beliefs, keeping their moral codes intact will encourage them not to commit deviant acts (12). The Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education is promoted by religious groups and individuals in attempt to impose particular religious values, morals, and beliefs in regard to sexual orientation, non-marital sex, contraception, and abortion on public school students. This education implies that engaging in any sexual activity before marriage would constitute as a deviant act. Abstinence is envisioned as the norm, while engaging in sexual practices would be considered unacceptable and against the moral standard. In application of the Social Control Theory, the abstinence-only education bases their teachings on particular values, morals, and relationship beliefs, which in their eyes would automatically deter teens from engaging in deviant sexual behavior, but this approach is a significant limitation because these values are not the same values that teenagers in the average population uphold. The average teenage norms and beliefs are greatly influenced by social and environmental factors, and not by strict religious morals. An enormous amount of money is being flushed into a program that does not fully understand or take into account the real-life factors and circumstances of the majority of teens. This education fails to recognize the complications of teenagers and the possibility of an instant change in sexual perspective once a sexual opportunity arises. Because the majority of teenagers do not maintain an abstinence-only framework, the abstinence-only education lacks the necessary means to properly inform and protect the youth populations in these situations.


The adolescent and teenager risks for unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases are not solely attributed to the actual behaviors and sexually activities they engage in, but are also importantly affected by their notions and beliefs about sex, contraception, and pregnancy. Programs promoting positive attitudes toward contraceptive use, rather than ones focusing solely on the negative consequences of becoming pregnant, may be most effective at reducing teen pregnancies (5). The Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education possesses many deficiencies and flaws in its efforts to reduce unwanted teenage pregnancies and transmission of sexually transmitted diseases based on the following: (1) this approach has religious connotations (not necessarily religious views of the teen) which ultimately eliminates the discussion of necessary and medically accurate information to help avoid such consequences, (2) only those who follow the moral code will benefit from this education, while leaving others to fall into high risk categories, (3) this education is driven by influential political and personal beliefs unproven to be effective in benefiting teens, and (4) as teen behaviors are driven by their values and morals through the Social Control Theory, the abstinence-only education fails to recognize the perspective of the average teenage population.

In eliminating the option to learn the comprehensive details of sexual education, the abstinence-only education is hurting the cause and contributing to the cycle of uneducated behaviors. Instead of protecting this young generation, this approach is blinding adolescents and teenagers from the harsh realities of sexual conduct and will not prepare them for life lessons they may encounter in the future. The best method of educating a more competent and responsible generation is to provide them with a structured and well-informed perspective that individuals can decipher for themselves, allowing them to make more appropriate life-long decisions, something a comprehensive sexual education will provide.


  1. Strasburger VC. Pregnancy: Teen Pregnancy Rates in the USA. Cool Nurse Online, 2007. Accessed April 4, 2007.
  2. Teen Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, Pregnancy and Childbearing: General Facts and Stats. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy: Updated Nov 2006. Accessed April 4, 2007.
  3. Statistics: STDs. SADD: Students Against Destructive Decisions. Accessed April 4, 2007.
  4. Alford S. What’s Wrong with Federal Abstinence-Only-Until Marriage Requirements? Advocates for Youth 2001 Mar; 12(No.3). Accessed April 4, 2007.
  5. Wind R. New Studies Signal Dangers of Limiting Teen Access to Birth Control Information and Services. Guttmacher Institute [Online]. 2005 Jan 18. Accessed April 6, 2007.
  6. Bader E. Reproductive Rights: Abstinence Only Education. Z Magazine Commentary Online 2005 Jan;18(No. 1). Accessed April 4, 2007.
  7. Advocates for Youth. Comprehensive Sex Education. Accessed April 5, 2007.
  8. Abma JC et al., Teenagers in the United States: sexual activity, contraceptive use, and childbearing, 2002, Vital and Health Statistics, 2004, Series 23, No. 24.
  9. See Mathematica Policy Research Institute, Inc., The Evaluation of Abstinence Education Programs Funded Under Title V Section 510: Interim Report, p. 4, as well as state-level studies cited by Advocates for Youth. A second federal report was completed in 2004 and submitted to the U.S. Congress and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for review, but has yet to be released.
  10. President Bush’s FY 2006 Budget: Increased Funding for Abstinence-Only Education Puts Teens at Risk. Guttmacher Institute [Online]. 2005 Feb 9. Accessed April 6, 2007.
  11. “Science or Politics? George W. Bush and the Future Sexuality Education in the United States,” [fact sheet]. Advocates for Youth. Online at
  12. “Social Control Theory.” Criminology [serial online]. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Page last modified 1 April 2007. Accessed April 5, 2007. Available from: URL:

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