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Marginally Successful Results of Abstinence-Only Program Erased by Dangerous Errors in Curriculum

Description: 

The purpose of the study was to evaluate the impact of an abstinence-only-until-marriage program funded by the Virginia Department of Health’s Virginia Abstinence Education Initiative (VAEI).  Specifically, researchers looked at the initiation of sexual intercourse for virgin teens and what factors influenced any delay by the teens.  Researchers followed 550 seventh grade students from Northern Virginia middle schools, 357 of whom received VAEI’s “Reasons of the Heart (ROH)” abstinence-only-until-marriage program and 193 of whom received an alternative program.  Students completed surveys before and after the program as well as survey one year later.  Initial data were collected during the 1999–2000 school year.

The ROH program, which uses an abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum titled Reasonable Reasons to Wait: Keys to Character, was presented over 20 class periods.  Health teachers administering the program received 8 hours of training specific to ROH.  In contrast, the alternative program consisted of three videos on HIV/STD prevention and abstinence, and was administered by regular classroom teachers.  Classroom hours for this program were about one third of the “Reasons of the Heart” program.

The study team was led by Stan Weed, director of the Institute for Research and Evaluation.  Weed has also conducted research for Heritage Keepers abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and presented at Abstinence Clearinghouse conferences.

Source:

Stan E. Weed, PhD, et al., “An Abstinence Program’s Impact on Cognitive Mediators and Sexual Initiation,” American Journal of Health Behavior, 32:1 (2008): 60-73.

Key Findings:

 

  • One year after the program, 32 of the 347 students (9.2%) who had received ROH had initiated sexual intercourse compared to 31 of the 189 students (16.4%) who had received the alternative program.
  • Students in the ROH program were 46% as likely to initiate sexual intercourse as students in the alternative program.
  • How students thought sex would impact their future was more significantly associated with abstinence than participation in the ROH program.
  • Whether students thought they would have an opportunity to have sex in the next year was significantly associated with abstinence.
  • Students who received the ROH program were significantly less likely to answer that they would have an opportunity to have sex in the next year.

SIECUS Analysis:
This study comes at the tail end of a barrage of research that overwhelmingly shows that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs do not change students’ behaviors.  Over the past year and a half, a Government Accountability Office report revealed that federally funded abstinence-only programs receive little oversight and have few mechanisms to measure effectiveness, a federally funded evaluation of the programs reported that they have no impact on the sexual behavior of their students, and the number of governors refusing federal dollars for the programs has jumped to 16.  In this context, this study should be viewed as the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry’s desperate attempt at finding some science that supports their cause.  Unfortunately, Weed and his fellow researchers had to lower the bar for success to such a drastic extent, that their results mean very little.  

To begin with, the “quasi-experimental” design the researchers use is weighted heavily in favor of ROH.  Students in the ROH program received 20 classroom hours of instruction from teachers who were trained in the program.  In contrast, students in the alternative program received two videos on HIV/STD prevention and one 30-minute video on abstinence.  Weed estimated that these students only received a third of the classroom hours of instruction that the ROH students received.  In addition, classroom teachers providing the alternative program were given no training.  Recent research has also suggested that video-based sexuality education instruction has little impact on behavior and research has consistently shown that teacher training is vital to the success of any program.   Using this collection of videos for the control program tells us very little about the ROH program in comparison.  The researchers failed to compare the ROH program to either a complete comprehensive sexuality education program or to nothing at all, leaving us instead, with a control group set up to fail. 

The researchers also lowered the bar by testing their program on very young teens.  The authors of the study conclude that “abstinence programs can achieve significant reductions in teen sexual initiation.”  This does sound like an important achievement, until we remember that the students in the study were 7th graders, (12-13 years old) and the success of the ROH program was based on whether these students remained abstinent for one year.  In 2005, only 6.2% of high school students reported having sexual intercourse for the first time before the age of 13.   Given that the average age of first sexual intercourse is 16.9 for men and 17.4 for women, keeping 12 or 13 year-olds abstinent for one year is admirable, but no great feat.

Weed and his colleagues also performed linear regression on their data to distinguish factors that would predict abstinence among students.  According to the results, participation in the ROH program was predictive, as were two other factors.  Those other factors included students’ ideas about how sex might affect their future and whether students thought they would have the opportunity to have sex in the next year.  Students who agreed with the statement “Having sex as a teen could really mess up my future” as opposed to the statement “Having sex now would not affect my future goals,” were more likely to remain abstinent over the course of the next year.  In fact, this attitudinal measure was more predictive of students’ sexual behavior than their participation in the program.  The wording of these statements fit into the general fear-based message of most abstinence-only programs, but Weed’s results are essentially the same as other studies that show students who have aspirations for college and career goals are less likely to engage in teen sex.  

The other predictive factor for whether students would have sex in the next year was their perceived opportunity for sex.  Students were asked “During the next year, how likely it is that someone might try to get you to have sex with them?”  A comparison of the attitudes of both groups before the program showed that students in the ROH program were more likely to hold the belief that they had little opportunity for sex.  The researchers note that the sexual attitudes of the two groups were balanced in all other measures, but failed to comment on this discrepancy.  Moreover, they did not include any post-program results for this question in their article.   

Regardless of the doubts and complications raised here, some advocates may still argue that any program that delays sex, for any amount of time, is worthwhile.  Unfortunately, the abstinence-only-until-marriage program in question contains such gross misrepresentations and inaccuracies that its potential to cause harm far outweighs any benefits.  The ROH program used the Reasonable Reasons to Wait: Keys to Character curriculum as the core of its programming. Reasonable Reasons to Wait is not subtle about its judgment of people who have sex before marriage, stating “Some actions are inappropriate, or wrong.  Examples of inappropriate actions are: stealing, lying, cheating, abusing drugs, and engaging in premarital sexual activity.”

The program also makes use of guilt and shame to convince students to stay abstinent.  Examples include:

  1. “The decision to choose premarital sexual activity can jeopardize or destroy hopes and dreams for the future.” Unit 2, pg 30
  2. “Guilt, painful memories, rejection or depression, suspicions, and jealousy” and possessiveness are listed as the consequences of sexual activity, also described as the “emotional consequences of acting unethically.” Unit 4, pg 11

Reasonable Reasons to Wait contains some of the most egregious medical inaccuracies SIECUS has ever found in abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula.

  1. “AIDS can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact.” Unit 5, pg 19
  2. “Scientists, however, cannot absolutely rule out the possibility of [HIV] transmission during prolonged, deep kissing.” Unit 5, pg 36
  3. “Condoms sometimes have holes in them or break during use.” Unit 5, pg 30

The curriculum also contains gender bias and stigmatizes LGBTQ people:

  1. “Tight jeans, low cut dresses, skimpy swimming trunks or other attire can give the wrong impression.” Unit 3, pg 10
  2. “Reputations can be jeopardized by flirtation.” Unit 3, pg 10
  3. “STDs are usually contracted by those who participate in premarital sex, extramarital sex or homosexual acts.” Unit 5, pg 10

These quotes show the Reasonable Reasons to Wait curriculum and the ROH program based on it, to be entirely unacceptable for any audience.  The program makes blatant moral judgments of students who have had sex and uses fear, shame, and guilt to convince others to remain abstinent.  It indulges in despicable stereotypes of young women as scantily clad temptresses and gay men as carriers of disease.  The statements about HIV transmission are outrageous and can only contribute to the further stigmatization of people with HIV/AIDS.   And, while many of these 13 year olds weren’t having sex when they participated in the program, we can only hope that in the years since someone has told them that condoms are rigorously tested, do not have holes, and provide the best STD protection available if one is going to engage in sex. 

Even if abstinence-only-until-marriage programs like this one can be shown to temporarily delay sex for some students, they end up causing irreparable harm through the falsehoods and misinformation they feed young people.  Trading the rights and well-being of youth for marginally successful results is deplorable and unethical.

References

  1. Douglas Kirby, Ph.D., “Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases,” The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, (November, 2007), accessed 8 January 2007, <www.thenationalcampaign.org/EA2007/EA2007_full.pdf>.
  2. Danice K. Eaton, et. al., “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2005,” Surveillance Summaries, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 55, no. SS-5 (9 June 2006): 1-108, accessed 26 January 2007, <http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/yrbs/index.htm>.
  3. The Guttmacher Institute, In Their Own Right: Addressing the Sexual and Reproductive Health Needs of American Men, New York: AGI, 2002.
  4. Kirby, “Emerging Answers 2007.”
  5. SIECUS reviewed the 2002-2003 edition of Reasonable Reasons to Wait, data for the study was collected in the 1999-2000 school year, so students in the program would have been exposed to an earlier edition of the curricula. 
  6. Maureen Gallagher Duran, Reasonable Reasons to Wait: The Keys to Character (Chantilly, VA: A Choice in Education, 2002).

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