On February 1, 2010, a study was published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine that demonstrated success in postponing teen sexual involvement through the use of a theory-based abstinence-only curriculum.[i] The study, led by University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. John B. Jemmott III, focused on a group of 662 12-year-old, African American students in the sixth and seventh grades. The students received one of five interventions: an abstinence-only intervention, a safer-sex-only intervention, an eight-hour comprehensive (abstinence and contraception) intervention, a twelve-hour comprehensive intervention, or a healthy behavior class that served as the control group. Classes were taught on weekends, and the participants agreed to follow up at regular intervals.[ii] The effectiveness of each program was measured over a period of 24 months with follow-up questions asked of each participant.
The results of the study showed that after 24 months, 33.5 percent of the students that had participated in the abstinence-only intervention were sexually active, as compared to 48.5 percent of those students in the control group. It also found that the two programs that included “comprehensive interventions significantly reduced the incidence of multiple sexual partners compared with the health control group.”[iii]
Unlike traditional abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, the intent of the abstinence-only program was not to teach students to remain abstinent until marriage but instead to delay sexual intercourse “until a time later in life when the adolescent is more prepared to handle the consequences of sex.”[iv] Likewise, the study states “[t]he curriculum did not contain inaccurate information, portray sex in a negative light, or use a moralistic tone,” which sets it apart from typical abstinence-only-until-marriage instruction. Program facilitators were explicitly instructed not to criticize the benefits of condom use or allow the view that condoms are ineffective to go uncorrected. Monica Rodriguez, vice president for education and training for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), emphasized this point: “It’s unfair to compare this abstinence-only intervention to the typical abstinence-only-until-marriage program that young people in this country have been put through.”[v] This was clearly pointed out in the study itself, where the authors stated that “the results of this trial should not be taken to mean that all abstinence-only interventions are efficacious.”[vi]
Ignoring these clear statements from the authors of the study, abstinence-only-until-marriage advocates have touted the study as proof that more money should be spent on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the United States. Valerie Huber, of the National Abstinence Education Program, praised the study and expressed hope that Congress would “reinstate abstinence education” in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget.[vii] The study’s authors, however, freely admit that the curriculum they used “was not designed to meet federal criteria for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.”[viii] In fact, this curriculum would not have qualified for federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding allocated during the Bush administration which required grantees to a strict A-H definition of “abstinence education.”
“This study adds some new data to the conversation about what type of sexuality education delays sex among young teens; however, it does not validate previously discredited abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and in no way suggests that these programs should receive a reinvestment of funding,” said Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy for SIECUS. “While it is important to stress abstinence, particularly with pre-teens and younger teens, we need to implement comprehensive approaches that also teach young people about contraception, including condoms, before they become sexually active,” said Heitel Yakush, adding that, “Nearly one-quarter of the 12 year-old students had already engaged in sexual intercourse at the start of the intervention and an additional third had done so two years after the study was completed. We cannot leave these young people at risk and need to use limited resources to provide young people with the skills to make safe and healthy decisions.”
For more information on the Jemmott study, please refer to SIECUS’ most recent research update: New Abstinence Program Shows Some Results, Shortcomings.
[i] John B. Jemmott III, Loretta S. Jemmott, & Geoffrey T. Fong, “Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention over 24 Months,” Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine 164.2 (2010): 152.
[ii] Lindsey Tanner, “Success Seen with Experimental Abstinence Progam,” Yahoo! News, 1 Feb 2010, accessed 16 February 2010 <http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100201/ap_on_he_me/us_med_abstinence_education>.
[iii] Jemmott, et.al., “Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention,” 157.
[iv] Jemmott, et.al., “Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention,” 153.
v] Tanner, “Success Seen with Experimental Abstinence Program”
[vi] Jemmot, et. al., “Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention,” 158.
[vii] Tamar Lewin, “Abstinence Education is Found to Delay Sex,” The New York Times, 3 February 2009, A18.
[viii] Jemmot, et al., “Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention,” 153.