Potential Harm of “Abstinence-Only” Education

In a blistering February 28, 2018, report on the resurgence and “rebranding” of federal abstinence-only sex education in public schools, the Guttmacher Institute decries the waste and potential harm of such programs.

The federal government has spent more than $2 billion since 1996 on programs for young people that promote sexual abstinence outside of marriage (“abstinence-only” education). Federal funding for these programs ballooned under the George W. Bush administration, then dropped significantly under President Obama. During the Obama era, proponents of abstinence-only programs found themselves on the defensive, faced with abundant evidence that abstinence-only programs do not work to deter or delay sex among young people. In response, abstinence-only proponents have adopted a new rhetorical frame to sugar-coat their message.

With the support of conservatives in Congress and the White House, proponents have tried to rebrand abstinence-only programs as “sexual risk avoidance” programs; many have co-opted—and turned upside-down—several other terms such as “evidence-based” and “medically accurate and complete,” and language on “healthy relationships” and “youth empowerment,” all of which are typically associated with broader, more inclusive programs that respect young people.

The Guttmacher report lambastes “abstinence only” education as ineffective (“[A]ccording to scientific evidence amassed over the past 20 years, abstinence-only programs do not have a significant impact on the age of first sexual intercourse, number of sexual partners or other sexual behaviors”); unresponsive to the needs of young people (“withholding potentially life-saving sexual health information and skills, abstinence-only programs…[do] long-term damage by deterring condom and other contraceptive use among sexually active adolescents, increasing their risk of unintended pregnancy and STIs”); in violation of ethical principles; perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes; and stigmatizing sex, sexual health, and sexuality.

Furthermore, by eschewing life-saving evidence-based information regarding condoms and other protective measures, “abstinence only” programs do not prepare young people to prevent their acquiring the HIV virus.

The Guttmacher report, by Jesseca Boyer, concludes, “This effort to reinvigorate federal abstinence-only programs is dangerous and counterproductive. For decades, abstinence-only programs have failed to meet the needs and uphold the rights of young people. A name change and claims of raising the standard of behavior for all young people do nothing to correct these flaws. Young people deserve more than the same programs under a new name; it is past time to end federal funding for abstinence-only programs.”

—Reporting by Hank Trout

Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-eight-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.