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Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Ignore Those Most in Need

Although they are often presented to communities and school boards as having been designed to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs consistently ignore many of the young people who are most in need of information, education, and skills. AOUM programs…

…Exclude LGBTQIA Youth
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, intersex, and asexual (GBTQIA) students, particularly young men who have sex with men, and young transgender women who have sex with men, are at increased risk for HIV and other STDs, yet AOUM programs fail to provide these students with any realistic strategies for protecting themselves from these risks.

Until just recently, there were many parts of the country in which same-sex couples could not legally marry. Even as marriage equality has become the law of the land in the U.S., the implementation of this definition in AOUM program materials is still focused on marriage between a man and a woman. Additionally, many of these programs teach stereotypical gender roles that have the effect of shaming and alienating transgender and gender fluid youth.

…Discount Sexually Abused Teens
An alarming number of teens in this country are survivors of sexual abuse. According to the CDC’s 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBS), 11% of female high school students and 4% of male high school students report having been forced to have sexual intercourse.[1]

Unfortunately, AOUM programs fail to provide this vulnerable group of teens with information or skills that could help them cope with the issue of sexual abuse. Instead, students are simply told that all sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong and that individuals who engage in sexual activity before marriage face dire consequences such as the inability to bond emotionally with a partner. Such messages are likely to cause further feelings of hurt, shame, anger, and embarrassment in these already victimized young people.

…Stigmatize Pregnant and Parenting Teens
One aspect of the eight-point definition of “abstinence education” states that “bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society.”

AOUM programs that spread this message often fail to acknowledge that some students will already be pregnant or parenting a child. According to a 2014 summary report of U.S. teen pregnancy, birth, and abortion data, roughly 625,000 women under the age of 20 became pregnant in 2010. Of these teen pregnancies, 11,000 were among girls age 14 and younger. The vast majority of these pregnancies occurred outside of marriage.[2],[3]

According to the U.S. Office of Adolescent Health, in 2013, almost one in six births to teens age 15 to 19 were to girls who already had one or more babies, indicating that already-pregnant and parenting students are also in need of realistic prevention programs.[4]

Informing these students that they have caused irrevocable harm to themselves, their children, and society as a whole is not the answer. This will likely only further alienate them from their peers, the program, and the program’s messages. These at-risk young people would be better served by programs that acknowledge the potential challenges of teen pregnancy, don’t stigmatize teen parents, and, most importantly, provide support to young parents and their families.


[1] U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Youth Online: 2013 High School YRBS, accessed December 22, 2014 at http://nccd.cdc.gov/youthonline/App/Default.aspx.

[2] Kathryn Kost and Stanley Henshaw, U.S. Teenage Pregnancies, Births and Abortions, 2010: National and State Trends by Age, Race and Ethnicity (New York: Guttmacher Institute, May 2014), accessed December 22, 2014 at www.guttmacher.org/pubs/USTPtrends10.pdf.

[3] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Adolescent Health, Trends in Teen Pregnancy and Childbearing, accessed December 22, 2014 at www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/adolescent-health-topics/reproductive-health/teen-pregnancy/trends.html.

[4] Ibid.