NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 2, 2010

A new study weighs in on the controversy over sex education, finding that an abstinence-only intervention for pre-teens was more successful in delaying the onset of sexual activity than a health-promotion control intervention.  After two years, one-third of the abstinence-only group reported having sex, compared to one-half of the control group.  The study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania appears in the February 1 edition of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. 

While abstinence-only intervention did not eliminate sexual activity all together, this is the first randomized controlled study to demonstrate that an abstinence-only intervention reduced the percentage of adolescents who reported any sexual intercourse for a long period, in this case two years, following the intervention. 

According to lead author John B. Jemmott III, PhD, professor of Communication in Psychiatry and of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine and Annenberg School for Communication: 

  • It is extremely important to find an effective intervention that delays sexual activity; the younger someone is when they have sex for the first time, the less likely they are to use condoms
  • Abstinence-only interventions may have an important role in delaying sexual activity until a time later in life when the adolescent is more prepared to handle to consequences of sex.
  • This can reduce undesirable consequences of sex, including pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections like HIV/AIDS. 

Major findings: 

  • There was a 33 percent reduction in self-reported sexual intercourse from the abstinence-only group, compared to the control group, by the end of the study.
  • Of the students who reported that they were sexually active during the study, there were fewer reports of recent sexual activity from the abstinence-only intervention participants (20.6 percent) compared to the control participants (29.0 percent). 

The researchers noted that, in the United States, the consequences of early sexual involvement -- including HIV, other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and unintended pregnancies -- are especially great among African American adolescents.  An effective abstinence-only intervention could stave off unwanted consequences until adolescents mature and are prepared to handle the consequences of sex. 

Source: News Release, "Onset of Sexual Activity in Tweens Delayed By Theory-based Abstinence-only Program; Penn Study Shows," University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, February 1, 2010. 

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