Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Q & A
programs are designed to promote the conservative social idea that sexual behavior is only morally appropriate in the context of a heterosexual marriage. While these programs often replace more comprehensive sexuality education courses, they rarely provide information on even the most basic topics in human sexuality such as puberty, reproductive anatomy, and sexual health. Instead, these programs focus on the importance of marriage and suggest that all sexual behavior outside of marriage is inevitably harmful.
Since 1981, the federal government has consistently supported abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Money for these programs comes primarily from three federal funding streams: the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA), the Title V Welfare Reform Act, and Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE). In Fiscal Year 2008, the federal government allocated a total of $176 million dollars to these three funding streams. These three specific funding streams, however, do not represent the total amount of money available to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Additional funding for these programs has been allocated through a variety of federal funding vehicles including congressional earmarks and traditional HIV/AIDS- and STD- prevention funding streams such as those administered by HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (For more information on funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, see our No More Money website. It is worth noting that the federal government currently provides no money for comprehensive sexuality education.
The federal government does not require an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach, and cannot require or control the content of sexuality education that is not supported by federal funds. Unfortunately, many states and communities see the availability of federal money as a “stamp of approval” for an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach, and the substantial federal investment in these programs has drastically increased the number of abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula and materials that are available to schools and community-based programs. The federal government does, however, set strict requirements for those programs accepting abstinence-only-until-marriage funding from any of the three funding streams. These programs must adhere to an 8-point definition of “abstinence education.” Among other things, the definition states that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of all human sexual activity” and that “sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” (emphasis added) This definition has been interpreted to mean that programs may not discuss contraceptive methods except to emphasize their failure rates. (For the complete A-H definition, see our No More Money website.)
SIECUS supports teaching young people about abstinence. SIECUS’ Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education; K-12 states that one of the four primary goals of sexuality education is to “help young people exercise responsibility regarding sexual relationships, including abstinence [and] how to resist pressures to become prematurely involved in sexual intercourse.” Abstinence, however, is just one of 39 sexual health topics included in the Guidelines. Teaching young people solely about abstinence is insufficient and leaves them woefully unprepared to make sexual health decisions now or in their future. In addition, federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs must adhere to a strict eight-point definition. While some aspects of the law’s definition are not objectionable, others run counter to research, public health findings, the goals and tenets of comprehensive sexuality education, and the realities that today’s young people face daily. (For more information on what is wrong with the federal definition of “abstinence education,” see SIECUS’ community action kit.) Moreover, many abstinence-only-until-marriage programs rely on fear, shame, and guilt to try to control young people’s sexual behavior. These programs include negative messages about sexuality, distort information about condoms and STDs, and promote biases based on gender, sexual orientation, marriage, family structure, and pregnancy options. It is never appropriate to give young people inaccurate or biased information about their sexuality. (For more information on fear-based abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, see SIECUS’ community action kit.)
There are no published studies in the professional literature that show that abstinence-only programs will result in young people delaying sexual intercourse. In fact, a federally funded evaluation of Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, released in April 2007, found these programs to be ineffective. The study, conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found no evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs increased rates of sexual abstinence among participants. Students in the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs had a similar age of first sex and similar numbers of sexual partners as their peers who were not in the programs. Over 13 states have evaluated their Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and similarly found that the programs had little, if any, beneficial impact on young people’s sexual behavior. In addition, a “meta-study” published in the British Medical Journal examined the results of 13 evaluations of abstinence-only programs which together included almost 16,000 students. The study found that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs were ineffective in changing any of the behaviors that were examined including the rate of vaginal sex, number of sexual partners, and condom use. The rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among participants in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs were unaffected. As a result of this meta-study, the researchers concluded that recent declines in the U.S. rate of teen pregnancy were most likely the result of improved use of contraception rather than a decrease in sexual activity.
Although they were once the sole province of religious organizations, many secular groups and schools now host events where students sign “virginity pledges” as a way to promote pre-marital abstinence. Today, virginity pledges are also part of most abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula and programs. Research has found that under certain conditions these pledges may help some adolescents delay sexual intercourse. When they work, pledges help this select group of adolescents delay the onset of sexual intercourse for an average of 18 months—far short of marriage. However, the studies also found that those young people who took a pledge were one-third less likely to use contraception when they did become sexually active than their peers who had not pledged. These teens are therefore more vulnerable to the risks of unprotected sexual activity such as unintended pregnancy and STDs, including HIV/AIDS. Further research found that, among those young people who have not had vaginal intercourse, pledgers are more likely to have engaged in both oral and anal sex than their non-pledging peers. In fact, among “virgins,” male and female pledgers are six times more likely to have had oral sex than non-pledgers, and male pledgers are four times more likely to have had anal sex than those who had not pledged. And, the research has confirmed that, although some students who take pledges delay intercourse, ultimately they are equally as likely to contract an STD as their non-pledging peers. In fact, researchers found that the STD rates were higher in communities where a significant proportion (over 20%) of the young people had taken virginity pledges. Clearly, virginity pledges are not an effective strategy for keeping young people healthy.
 Christopher Trenholm, et. al., Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs: Final Report, (Trenton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., April 2007), accessed 6 September 2007, www.mathematicampr.com/publications/pdfs/impactabstinence.pdf .
 Kristin Underhill, Paul Montgomery, Don Operario, “Sexual abstinence only programmes to prevent HIV infection in high income countries: systematic review,” British Medical Journal Online (July 2007), accessed 13 August2007, http://bmj.com/cgi/content/full/335/7613/248 .
 Peter Bearman and Hanah Brückner, “Promising the Future: Virginity Intercourse,” American Journal of Sociology 106.4 (2001): 859-912; Peter Bearman and Hanah Brückner, “After the promise: The STD pledges,” Journal of Adolescent Health 36.4 (2005): 271-278.