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Opponents of comprehensive sexuality education programs use many flawed arguments to suggest that a “just say no” approach will prevent teens from becoming sexually active and protect all teens from sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, and even broken hearts. In order to successfully advocate for a more comprehensive approach to sexuality education, it is important to know those arguments that opponents might use and be prepared to respond. This fact sheet is designed to make you aware of some of the myths you may hear about the abstinence-only-until-marriage approach and help you formulate your responses. The best responses are often in the form of a sound byte—short, catchy phrases that are easy for others to understand and remember. This fact sheet provides you with a number of sound bytes as well as the facts and research you need to debunk myths and get your message out.

ABSTINENCE-ONLY-UNTIL-MARRIAGE: MYTH 1

Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are not new, in fact, they have received considerable amounts of taxpayer money for over 20 years. Still, there are no published studies in the professional, peer-reviewed literature that show that these programs will result in young people delaying sexual intercourse.

Proponents of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs often conduct their own in-house evaluations and cite them as proof that their programs are effective. Outside experts have found, however, that these evaluations are inadequate, methodologically unsound, or inconclusive based on methodological limitations.

What Opponents May Say: “Abstinence-only-until- marriage programs prevent teen sexual activity.”

What You Can Say: After over two decades, there is still no evidence that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs work.

Emerging Answers, a report released by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, states that evidence about abstinence-only-until-marriage programs is not conclusive but that, thus far, the information is “not encouraging.”

Source: Doug Kirby, Emerging Answers, (Washington, DC: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2001).

ABSTINENCE-ONLY-UNTIL-MARRIAGE: MYTH 2

Virginity pledges—promises that young people sign to remain abstinent until marriage—are currently very popular. A 2001 study found that under certain conditions these pledges may help some adolescents delay sexual intercourse. Opponents of comprehensive sexuality education often cite this study as proof that virginity pledges are a successful strategy for all teens.

It is vitally important, however, that parents and educators understand all of the study’s findings. Virginity pledges do not work for all adolescents. When they do work, pledges help adolescents delay the onset of sexual intercourse for an average of 18 months—far short of marriage.

What Opponents May Say: “Teens just need to pledge to stay abstinent.”

What You Can Say: Research shows virginity pledges may actually be harming our young people.

The study also found that those young people who took a pledge were one third less likely to use contraception when they did become sexually active than their peers who had not pledged. These teens are, therefore, more vulnerable to HIV, other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and unintended pregnancy. Further research has confirmed that young people who have taken a pledge are equally as likely to contract an STD as their non-pledging peers. The data also shows that in communities where a significant proportion of adolescents (20%) take a virginity pledge, overall STD rates were significantly higher than in other settings.

Source: Peter Bearman and Hannah Brückner, “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges as they Affect Transition to First Intercourse,” American Journal of Sociology, 106.4 (2001): 859-912; and Peter Bearman and Hannah Brückner, "After the promise: The STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges," Journal of Adolescent Health 36.4 (2005): 859-912.

UNSOUND REASONING: “TEENS NEED DIRECTION”

Opponents of comprehensive sexuality education suggest that teens cannot be trusted to make the “right” decision and that, therefore, they simply need to be told that premarital sexual activity is wrong. However, there is no evidence to suggest that simply telling teens not to engage in sexual intercourse will work.

In addition, it is neither appropriate nor possible for sexuality education courses or teachers to make decisions for teens. Rather, sexuality education needs to equip teens with the knowledge and skills necessary for a lifetime of making healthy decisions consistent with their beliefs and the beliefs of their families and communities.

What You Might Hear: “Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are superior because they are directive and teens need to be told what to do.”

What You Can Say: Telling teens what to do will not work. Giving them the skills they need to make responsible decisions will serve them well throughout their lives.

ABSTINENCE-ONLY-UNTIL-MARRIAGE: MYTH 3

Proponents of an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach often tell students and parents that abstinence is 100% effective in preventing pregnancy and disease. They then compare this with effectiveness rates for other methods of birth control, such as condoms or birth control pills.

It is, in fact, often helpful to look at abstinence as a birth control method. To do this you have to remember that all birth control methods have two effectiveness ratings—one for perfect use and one for typical use. Perfect use refers to how often a method will work when used consistently and correctly every time.

What You Might Hear: “Abstinence is always 100% effective in preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”

What You Can Say: Like any form of birth control, abstinence can fail. It is irresponsible not to give teens alternatives.

Research shows, for example, that under perfect use condoms will prevent pregnancy 98% of the time. Researchers know, however, that people are not perfect. Some will use their contraceptive method incorrectly and some will not use their contraceptive method every time they have intercourse. For this reason typical use rates are often lower. These are calculated by looking at couples who report using a particular method as their primary method of birth control for one year. For example, it is estimated that 14% of couples using condoms as their primary method of contraception will experience an unintended pregnancy during the first year of use. (Condoms can therefore be said to have an 86% typical effectiveness rating.) We must remember that these couples may not have been using a condom at all or may have been using one incorrectly when they became pregnant.

Like any other method of pregnancy- or disease-prevention, abstinence can be used inconsistently or incorrectly. Teens need to know that deciding to be abstinent is not enough to protect them against pregnancy and disease unless they always refrain from all potentially unsafe behaviors including oral, anal, and vaginal intercourse.

Source: Robert Hatcher, Contraceptive Technology, Nineteenth Revised Edition (New York: Ardent Media, Inc., 2007.)

UNSOUND REASONING: “A LITTLE FEAR GOES A LONG WAY.”

Many abstinence-only-until-marriage programs use messages of fear and shame to scare kids from having sex. Opponents of comprehensive sexuality education often suggest that such programs are just what today’s teens need.

While adolescents need to understand the facts about STDs and unintended pregnancy, it is not appropriate to use fear or shame in an attempt to control young people’s sexual behavior. And, it is never appropriate to misrepresent facts or exaggerate statistics in an effort to increase young people’s fears.

It is also important to remember that negative messages about sexuality in fear-based abstinence-only- until-marriage programs can stay with teens forever and may adversely affect their feelings and attitudes about sex even as adults.

What Opponents May Say: “We should put a little fear in our kids, that will stop them from having sex.”

What You Can Say: No matter what you say, many teenagers think they are invincible. Fear and shame may make them feel bad, but it won’t change their behavior. They need skills and information.

ABSTINENCE-ONLY-UNTIL-MARRIAGE: MYTH 4

Between the late 1980s and mid-1990s, the Sub-Saharan African nation of Uganda was able to drastically reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. Proponents of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the United States have tried to attribute Uganda’s success to a strict abstinence-until-marriage message similar to those received in federally funded programs in this country.

What You May Hear: “Abstinence solved the AIDS crisis in Uganda.”

What You Can Say: A comprehensive approach that included abstinence, condoms, and monogamy helped Uganda reduce HIV transmission.

Uganda’s approach has come to be known as “ABC —Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms,” but in truth it was much more comprehensive. Citizens of Uganda got a clear message from their government that HIV prevention was an important national concern and that everyone was responsible for doing their part.

Research shows that Ugandans changed many of their behaviors during the critical time period between 1988 and 1995. For example, condom use rose steeply among unmarried sexually active men and women. Among unmarried women who had engaged in sexual intercourse within the four weeks prior to being surveyed, condom use at last intercourse rose from 1% in 1989 to 14% in 1995. Levels of abstinence among young people and monogamy among both married and unmarried individuals also rose. Although more research needs to be done, it is clear that increases in all three of these prevention behaviors—abstinence, monogamy, and condom use—have contributed to Uganda’s remarkable success in reducing the spread of HIV.

It is important to understand, however, that the success cannot be attributed to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs similar to those that are conducted here in the United States. The Alan Guttmacher Institute explains that “...contrary to the assertions of social conservatives that the case of Uganda proves that an undiluted ‘abstinence-only’ message is what makes the difference, there is no evidence that abstinence-only educational programs were even a significant factor in Uganda between 1988 and 1995.”

Source: Susan Cohen, Beyond Slogans: Lessons From Uganda’s Experience With ABC and HIV/AIDS (New York: Alan Guttmacher Institute, 2003).