Hot Topics: The Case Against ‘Abstinence-Only’ Sex Education Programs

Hot Topics: The Case Against ‘Abstinence-Only’ Sex Education Programs


Elizabeth Schroeder is director of Answer, part of the Center for Applied Psychology in Rutgers Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology. Answer trains sexuality educators and provides information about sexuality for young people through its magazine, Sex, Etc. The study she discusses was conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Waterloo, and the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research.

Rutgers Today: According to a study published recently in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, young people involved in an abstinence-only sexuality education program really did abstain, at least for a few years. What does that tell you? 

Schroeder: What the research tells us is that this specific, abstinence-only intervention, provided by these specific professionals, under these specific circumstances, helped a specific population of students to delay having sex. It doesn’t mean, however, that all abstinence-only programs will have the same effects on all people. Most important, it does not mean that, after more than 20 years of failure, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are now suddenly effective, because they’re not. 

Rutgers Today: What's wrong with teaching young people to abstain from sex until marriage? 

Schroeder: There’s nothing wrong with someone choosing for her or himself to remain abstinent until marriage. There are, however, a few things wrong with teaching young people that they must remain abstinent until marriage. First, the message is heterosexist – it assumes that all students are heterosexual and can actually marry, which is not necessarily true. Second, it assumes that all heterosexual youth will grow up and want to get married, which many choose not to do. Third, programs teaching abstinence-only-until-marriage are not based on research and reflect a total lack of understanding of adolescent development and awareness about the world in which young people are living today. 

Rutgers Today: What is “comprehensive sexuality education,” and why do you favor it? 

Schroeder: Comprehensive sexuality education is a broad term that encompasses much more than what most think about when it comes to sex ed – like body parts and pregnancy and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. It also teaches important skills like communication and negotiation. It helps young people think critically and make effective decisions. It starts early, and builds on the knowledge and skills taught in each grade. We at Answer favor comprehensive sexuality education because the preponderance of research demonstrates that it is effective at helping young people delay sexual behaviors, use contraception and practice safer sex effectively when they do end up having sex, and use they skills they’ve learned to have healthy relationships both now and in the future.

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