A new study published in the journal Pediatrics should give pause to anyone who thinks abstinence-only sex education by itself will halt teenage promiscuity. In fact, the study found it was parental and environmental influences that appeared to have the most impact on when teenagers become sexually active. The findings couldn't come at a better time. Congress and the new administration are poised to reconsider the $176-million flowing into abstinence-only programs. The money would be better spent on broader programs that provide children with comprehensive, scientifically based and age-appropriate curriculums that give them information on preventing pregnancy and disease.
The study, based on data from a federal longitudinal study, found that teenagers who pledge to stay virgins until marriage are just as likely to engage in premarital sex as teens who do not pledge. Plus, teens who pledge abstinence are far less likely — once they become sexually active — to take steps to prevent pregnancy or disease, such as using condoms. Those who promise abstinence do delay intercourse until an average age of 21, about four years longer than most U.S. teens. But the study found the delay is not due to the pledge but to the teens' religious and conservative orientations.
The study supports what critics of abstinence-only education have said all along: That such pledges may assuage parents' fears but they do a disservice to children who need a better understanding of their sexuality to prevent pregnancy and disease.
Few people discount the importance of discussing abstinence. In Florida — with the sixth highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation and one of the highest rates of new AIDS cases — it should be part of any sex education discussion. But common sense dictates teenagers need more than that. And in a February poll of Florida voters by the St. Petersburg Times, more than 80 percent agreed public schools should provide comprehensive sex education. The federal government should heed that advice.