What abstinence-only sex education really means…

I had thought I was finished with the whole Playfoot/Silver Ring Thing for the time being – at least until the High Court issued its judgement and we could see whether sense and reason have prevailed, but then I’m a bit of sucker for debunking bad science (and bad social science for that matter) so when I came across some information and the research data that’s in widespread use by pro-abstinence only groups I just had to take a look for myself.

The historical background to this is that since 1996 the US Federal Government has poured around £1billion dollars into the funding of abstinence-only-until-marriage sex education programmes – Silver Ring Thing, in the US, had its modest sum of federal funding suspended in 2005 after complaints from the ACLU, amongst others, about its use of federal funds to push its religious agenda in breach of the US’s constitutional separation of religion and state, and then withdrew from the programme entire. It was never, however, a major recipient of federal grants.

And yes, the date is correct and this did all kick into gear under that noted abstainer, Bill ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ Clinton, a fact that will become rather more ironic in a short while.

These programmes were established under a programme common known as ‘Title V’ under which £50 million per year was distributed amongst States, who are required to match-fund the programme with three State-raised dollars to every one Federal dollar received, and operate these programmes to very specific parameters, such that these programmes must:

  • · Have as their exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realised by abstaining from sexual activity;
  • · Teach that abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children;
  • · Teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;
  • · Teach that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity;
  • · Teach that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;
  • · Teach that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society;
  • · Teach young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances, and
  • · Teach the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.

These programmes are not permitted to advocate or discuss other contraceptive methods other than in the context of their failure rates.

Right, that information should, hopefully, put to rest the idea that abstinence education programmes are about ‘choice’. They’re not, they’re about pushing an agenda derived from a very conservative brand of Christianity and using it as a means of social engineering. These programmes are also, and unsurprisingly, inherently discriminatory as they are constructed in such as way as to entirely exclude any reference to or acknowledgement of same-sex relationships.

These programmes got a further shot in the arm with the election of George W Bush, who introduced a second, and even more lavishly funded abstinence-only programme that bypassed State authorities and funnelled money directly to organisations delivering abstinence programmes, many of which were ‘faith-based’ (naturally). For the fiscal year 2006, the amount of money allocated to this programme was $155 million.

In 2001, the abstinence-only lobby got the real boost they were looking for with the publication of a study by Bearman and Brueckner [Bearman, P. S. & Brueckner, H. (2001). Promising the future: Virginity pledges and first intercourse. American Journal of Sociology, 106, 859-912.] that appeared to confirm the success of these programmes. This research used non-experiemental correlation data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, conducted between 1995 and 2003, which surveyed 20,000 young people from the age of 12 to 18, including 4,000 that had taken a virginity pledge, and arrived at two conclusions that supporters of abstinence-only education immediately leapt upon and promoted heavily as ‘proof’ that their preferred approach to such education was a success.

First, the study indicated that those who took the ‘virginity pledge’ tended to commence their first full sexual activity (i.e. full penetrative vaginal intercourse) anything up to two years later than the control group that had not undergone an abstinence-only education programme and made a virginity pledge. The study concluded that this indicated a causal relationship between abstinence-only education and the decision to delay the commencement of sexual activity.

Second, the study showed a lower incidence of sexually transmitted disease in the ‘pledge group’ (4.6%) than in the non-pledging group (7%).

Which sounds promising, until you consider that a delay in becoming sexually active of a couple of years is only going to amount to abstinence until marriage if the pledge group all get married within two years of taking the pledge. You won’t be surprised to find that the majority don’t – get married within two years, that is. Oh, and, of course, you still have 4.6% of the pledge group contracting an STD, which shows that a fair number of those taking the pledge most certainly do fall off the virginity wagon.

Nevertheless, the pro-abstinence camp were not to be deterred by such trifling details and pronounced themselves to be a resounding success, which in turn had a direct impact on both State education policy and government health policy. By 2002 it was estimated that up to a third of US secondary schools, which cover the ages of 11-18, were using an abstinence-only approach to sex education, and, in 2003, the US Department of Health altered the evaluation criteria for these programmes so that to justify their continued receipt of funding they simply had to report back on numbers taking virginity pledges where, previously, they were required to report “the proportion of program participants who have engaged in sexual intercourse” and the birth rate of female program participants.

The problem with this last policy change should be obvious – the US government have stopped measuring the performance of these programmes in terms of their actual impact on adolescent sexual activity and have, since 2003, simply measured the number of sign-ups on the assumption that that behavioural patterns identified by Bearman and Brueckner will automatically hold valid. So the evaluation method used by the US government tells them nothing of value whatsoever about the actual performance of these programmes.

However, there are a couple of other important problems with the Bearman and Brueckner study and how it has been used by the US government and, particularly, by supporters of abstinence-only education.

Taking the study first, the big problem with it is its conclusion that there is a causal relationship between virginity pledges and the delay in first sexual activity. There is certainly evidence of a correlation between the two but a correlation alone does not imply causation, and Bearman and Brueckner’s assertion of causation is actually based on a post hoc fallacy*, not least because their efforts to apply a statistical adjustment to the data the cancel out the effects of self-selection in the pledge group have been shown to be both logically and statistically invalid.

*post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”)

To explain what all that means, one has to understand when and how one can validly assert causality based on non-experimental correlation data, for which one must turn to John Stuart Mill.

Mill asserted that at least three criteria must be invoked in justifying causal claims:

(1) association (or correlation-the cause is related to the effect),

(2) temporality (the cause comes before the effect), and

(3) elimination of plausible alternative explanations (i.e. other plausible explanations for an effect must be considered and ruled out).

To assert causality, all three are necessary, and yet the Bearman and Brueckner study neglects to consider a number of plausible alternative explanations for the correlation between pledging and delay in first sexual activity, not least that of a pre-existing disinclination to become sexually active. This is where self-selection become problematic as those who take these pledges do so by choice, i.e. they are already likely to predisposed towards delaying their first sexual activity before choosing to take the pledge and this attitude can be accounted for by a number of factors relating to parental and other influences on the behaviour of the adolescent none of which need necessarily stem from or be supported either the taking of a virginity pledge or abstinence-only sex education.

The causal link claimed by Bearman and Brueckner does not stand up to scrutiny.

Moreover, supporters of abstinence-only education have used the data from the Bearman and Brueckner study in, not surprisingly, a highly selective manner that disregards importance evidence about the sexual behaviour within the pledge group that doesn’t fit in with the moral views of the pro-abstinence lobby.

As noted previously, this study shows only up to a two-year delay in first sexual activity, which falls some considerable way short of abstinence until marriage and a recently published study by Mathematica, which was commissioned by the US Congress and followed 2,000 students from age 11/12 in 1999 to age 16, including students who participated in one the four main abstinence programmes and a control group of students who had not received this type of sex education found that around half of all students in both groups abstained for sexual activity through the full period of the study and that those the abstinence-only programme group reported having around the same number of sexual partners as those in the control group, started their sexual activity at about the same age and were just as likely to use contraception as those in the control group, i.e. the abstinence programmes had no effect on sexual activity and behaviour whatsoever.

The response of the pro-abstinence lobby was to claim that the Mathematica study was ‘too narrow’, began when the abstinence-only curricula were in their infancy and ignored other studies that supported their position – i.e. give us more time and money and we’ll come up with better brainwashing techniques.

The STD data, while showing a lower level of STDs in the pledge group still showed that 4/6% of that group contracted an STD despite taking a virginity pledge. The study also showed that not only did taking a virginity pledge only delay first sexual activity for a couple of years, rather than prevent it until marriage, but that virginity pledge group showed marked differences in sexual behaviour compared to the non-pledge group. Only 2% of the non-pledge group indicated that they had consented to oral and/anal intercourse during the period in which the data used in the study had been collected, while amongst those who took a virginity pledge, the number who consented to either oral or anal intercourse rose to 13%.

If you’ll forgive the crudity of the next remark, which is necessary to drive the point home, the Bearman and Brueckner study showed that putting your daughter through abstinence-only education makes them more than six times more likely to give head or take it up the arse than other young women of the same age, leading Bearman to conclude that:

“An abstinence movement that encourages no vaginal sex inadvertently encourages other forms of alternative sex that carry a higher risk of sexually transmitted disease,”

Yes, its the good old law of unintended consequences yet again.

A 2002 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation also found that 55% of girls who had taken a virginity pledge admitted taking part in oral sex while 50% of those in the 15-17 age group considered that giving head did not compromise their pledge of abstinence – suddenly the reasoning behind Clinton’s ‘I did not have sexual relations…’ remark becomes crystal clear.

Oh, and unlike the Mathematica study, the Bearman and Brueckner study did show that those in the pledge group who did fall off the virginity wagon were less likely to use [conventional] contraception – rather than alternative orifices – than those who received sex education that included accurate advice on contraceptive methods other than abstinence.

And finally, to cap it all, a 2004 report issued by California Congressman, Henry Waxman, provided several examples of where Federally funded abstinence-only sex education programmes were providing students with manifestly inaccurate information, including:

  • · misrepresenting the failure rates of contraceptives
  • · misrepresenting the effectiveness of condoms in preventing HIV transmission, including the citation of a discredited 1993 study by Dr. Susan Weller, which the federal government had acknowledged , in 1997, was inaccurate false claims that abortion increases the risk of infertility, premature birth for subsequent pregnancies, and ectopic pregnancy
  • · treating stereotypes about gender roles as scientific fact
  • · other scientific errors, e.g. stating that “twenty-four chromosomes from the mother and twenty-four chromosomes from the father join to create this new individual” (the actual number is 23)

Little wonder, in light of all this information, that the now Democrat controlled Congress has indicated that it will terminate the Title V programme when it expires this year, after several States indicated that they would no longer accept the funding.

That’s the reality of abstinence programmes, not a silly little girl with her holier-than-thou parents and their crappy jewellery franchise, but a taxpayer-funded billion dollar ignorance economy.

Should sex/relationships education in the UK cite abstinence as an option for young people?

Of course it should, it’s their body, their life and their choice after all. But if you are going to include it, then give young people the facts and the evidence to make informed decisions, which is an altogether alien concept to the pro-abstinence lobby.

  • I’m still boggling at the ‘oral or anal’ question – they seem very different, um, approaches to me. But there is some weird thinking about sex in the US. It seems to be seen very much in terms of a penis going in (a) the right place or (b) the wrong place; there are (or were fairly recently) states in which ‘sodomy’ is defined to include fellatio. Hence Clinton’s famous line, of course, not to mention Monica’s (“then I’ve had sex with a lot more people”).

    On the other hand, it sounds as if abstinence education – and hence the SRT – is ultimately promoting sex: sex within marriage, normal healthy decent sex and no funny stuff, but still sex. Which puts Denise ‘asexual’ Pfeiffer in an even more difficult position. (Fnarr fnarr.)

  • It definite raise some interesting behavioural questions. There’s certain precedents for anal intercourse in animal behaviour but I’ve never seen anything regarding oral sex in animals.

    I guess even Attenborough has his limits, although a quick check on the net suggests it has been observed in a small number of species (goats, sheep, hyenas and primates) so it does appear as though there may be some evolutionary foundations rather than it being a purely human/cultural phenomenon.

    A point I’ve made in discussing abortion is that over the last 150 years or so, the age at which puberty takes place has fallen considerably, which means that adolescents are increasing becoming sexually mature, in the physical sense, much earlier than the age at which society deems them to be intellectually and emotionally mature enough to engage in sexual activity.

    Nature, I find, has this way of overriding other considerations, which to me suggests that we have to look at whether our social/cultural assumptions and, therefore, views on the age of consent, around sexuality aren’t becoming increasingly outdated.

    Something more akin to the legal position taken in Germany may serve us better in the long run – over there the age of consent is officially 17 but consensual sexual activity is tolerated from 14 provided there is only a modest age gap between participants, to which is added provisions for prosecution where it can be shown that an under-age relationship was predicated on exploitation, so there’s a balance of toleration and legal protection based on competence and informed consent in dealing with adolescent sexual behaviour that seems eminently more sensible than a fixed age of consent.

  • Ian

    Causation vs correlation, summed up most succinctly by the “gateway drug” argument. i.e. “90% of heroin users started on cannabis”. Yeah well, 100% of heroin users started on milk.

    Another good piece on the ring thing theme btw.

  • over there the age of consent is officially 17 but consensual sexual activity is tolerated from 14 provided there is only a modest age gap between participants

    I think this is the way to go, personally. It removes any potential age-related exploitative power dynamic.

  • Freeborn Englishman

    Unity, you huff and puff about “pushing an agenda derived from a very conservative brand of Christianity and using it as a means of social engineering”.

    Well, this country has had your variety of “pushing an agenda” and “social engineering” for the last 35 years, and look what kind of society that has led to!

    * Six million human beings murdered in the womb since 1967. (Now that is something for a Holy God to get really angry about – but I digress.)

    * The deliberate, sustained attack on the institution of marriage and the family, and the promotion of a sexual free-for-all, especially “alternative lifestyles”.

    * A disastrous policy of benefits and social housing that encourages lone parenthood as a career option to poor girls, rewards fecklessness and promotes dependency, while sending to the back of the queue those who seek to stand on their own two feet before becoming parents.

    * Thousands of children begetting children without the financial, moral or emotional capacity to parent them properly, thus creating a lost generation of emotionally damaged children who then go on to become inadequate parents, and so on.

    * Opinion-formers who for the last 20 years have themselves lived lives of utter selfishness, often going from one relationship to another with no thought for the emotional damage to the wives and children who are discarded as being no more important than last year’s fashions.

    * The media luvvies who have promoted sexual promiscuity through soap operas, etc, giving the impression that this behaviour is “normal” and “healthy”.

    *Women who, having been promiscuous from the age of 16, on reaching their 30’s and now finally having settled down with a mate discovering that they are infertile due to chlamydia.

    Need I go on.

    As to “acknowledgment [by which you mean promotion] of same-sex relationships”, the blunt truth is biological: if the human anus had been designed to have an erect penis thrust into it, we would all be hermaphrodites and give birth through it! Ask any surgeon who has had to perform reconstructive surgery of the bowel on active homosexuals.

  • Allegra

    I found this excellent opportunity for those whose education is being so fiercely debated to speak for themselves. ISIS-Inc and RH Reality Check have launched a contest called Fresh Focus Sex Ed Video Contest. I thought your readers might be interested. Film makers must be 15-30 years old and make an original video about sex education that follows one of two themes: 1. Share your sex ed experience so far. Show us how and why it sucked or rocked. OR 2. Redesign how sex ed could be delivered. Imagine that anything is possible. You can find out more at dogooder.tv/freshfocusvideocontest.” The results could be really enlightening.