SIECUS supports teaching young people about abstinence. SIECUS’ Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education; K-12 states that one of the four primary goals of sexuality education is to “help young people exercise responsibility regarding sexual relationships, including abstinence [and] how to resist pressures to become prematurely involved in sexual intercourse.” Abstinence, however, is just one of 39 sexual health topics included in the Guidelines.
Federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage education programs must adhere to a strict eight-point definition. (See the complete definition below.) Many aspects of this definition are in direct opposition to the goals and tenets of comprehensive sexuality education, which seek to help young people become sexually healthy adults. While some aspects of the law’s definition are not objectionable, others run counter to research, public health findings, and the realities that today’s young people face daily.
Federal Requirement B
“…teaches that abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage is the expected standard for all school age children.”
Although some adults may want this to be the standard, it is far from accurate in describing the world of today’s teenagers. The reality is that sexual behavior is almost universal among American adolescents. Eighty-five percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 and 56 percent of adolescents ages 15 to 17 report having “been with someone in an intimate or sexual way (including but not limited to intercourse).”1 In addition, 66 percent of adolescents and young adults ages 15 to 24 report having engaged in oral sex.2
According to data from the 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 48 percent of all high school students and 65 percent of high school seniors report having engaged in sexual intercourse.3 A similar survey of college students found that 80 percent of students 18 to 24 years of age had engaged in sexual intercourse.4 In addition, studies have found that even those young people who remain virgins during their teen years engage in some forms of sexual behavior. For example, in one study 12 percent of adolescents and young adults who reported never having engaged in sexual intercourse reported that they had engaged in oral sex.5
Every day in the United States, teens are engaging in a variety of sexual behaviors that place them at risk for unintended pregnancy and STDs, including HIV. Yet, the federal definition of abstinence-only-until-marriage education prohibits programs from discussing pregnancy- and disease-prevention methods other than abstinence. Such education denies teens, including those teens who are already sexually active, the information they need to make informed responsible decisions.
Federal Requirement C
“…teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems.”
On the surface, it is hard to disagree with this statement. The Guidelines state that “sexual abstinence is the best method to prevent pregnancy and STDs/HIV.” However, as it has been interpreted, this point prohibits funded programs from discussing the effectiveness of condoms and contraception in preventing unintended pregnancy and disease transmission. In fact, many abstinenceonly- until-marriage programs discuss methods of contraception only in terms of their failure rate. After learning that abstinence is the “only certain way” to avoid pregnancy and disease and that condoms and contraceptive methods are not reliable, young people who do become sexually active may be less likely to practice prevention techniques.
Some strict abstinence-only-until-marriage programs actually discourage the use of contraception, especially condoms. These programs give teens exaggerated and outdated information about effectiveness and suggest that correct condom use is difficult.
Programs that teach students that condoms or contraception do not work will not prevent students from having sexual intercourse. Such programs may, however, discourage teens from using protection when they do become sexually active, thereby putting them at risk for STDs and unintended pregnancy.
Condom use among sexually active high school students has been steadily rising in recent years from 46% of sexually active teens using condoms at last intercourse in 1991 to 65% in 2007.6 Unfortunately, if abstinence-only-until-marriage programs continue to give young people negative messages about condoms, this positive trend toward increased condom use may very well come to an end.
Federal Requirement D
“… teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity.”
While some adults might wish this as a standard, it is clearly not true in American culture. The vast majority of Americans begin having sexual relationships in their teens, fewer than seven percent of men and 20 percent of women 18 to 50 years old were virgins when they were married, and only 10 percent of adult men and 22 percent of adult women report their first sexual intercourse was with their spouse.7 It is likely this “standard” was never true in America; a third of all Pilgrim brides were pregnant when they were married.8
The concept of chastity until marriage for all people may be unrealistic in an age when young people are reaching puberty earlier than ever before, when 65 percent of high school seniors have engaged in sexual intercourse, when 80 percent of college students 18 to 24 years of age have engaged in sexual intercourse,9 and when the median age of first marriage is 27.1 for men and 25.3 for women.10
Federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are required to teach young people that all unmarried individuals (both adults and youth) should remain celibate. While this is a value held by some people in America, it is clearly not a universally accepted truth. Today, there are more than 98 million American adults who are classified as single because they have either delayed marriage, decided to remain single, divorced, or entered into gay or lesbian partnerships.11 It is not reasonable to expect these adults to adhere to this “standard,” nor is it accurate to teach young people that all adults do adhere to it.
Federal Requirement E
“…teaches that sexual activity outside of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.”
There is no sound public health data to support this statement. It is true that unprotected sexual activity can lead to unintended pregnancies and STDs/HIV, and that some intimate relationships can be harmful for a variety of reasons, but this is a possibility regardless of marital status. The reality, however, is that the majority of people have had sexual relationships outside of marriage and negative repercussions are far from inevitable.
Federal Requirement F
“…teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society.”
In order to comply with this part of the definition, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs must present one family structure as morally correct and beneficial to society. In reality, any American classroom is likely to have children of never-married or divorced parents as well as children of gay, lesbian, and bisexual parents who can not legally marry.* Telling these students that their families are the cause of societal problems will likely alienate them and could cause negative feelings about themselves and their families.
* NOTE: Recent legislation and court decisions in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine have granted same-sex couples the right to marry in those states. Some legal and legislative challenges remain though and it is therefore unclear whether this right will be permanently guaranteed in these states or other states in the country.
THE FEDERAL DEFINITION FOR ABSTINENCE-ONLY PROGRAMS
Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act, P.L. 104-193
For the purposes of this section, the term “abstinence education” means an educational or motivational program which:
- has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;
- teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school-age children;
- teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;
- teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity;
- teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;
- teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society;
- teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances, and
- teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.
- Tina Hoff, et al., National Survey of Adolescents and Young Adults: Sexual Health Knowledge, Attitudes, and Experiences, (Menlo Park, CA: Henry Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003), 14.
- Danice K. Eaton, et al., "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance- United States, 2007," Surveillance Summaries, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 57.SS-4 (6 June 2008), accessed 8 June 2008, <http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/yrbs/index.htm>.
- “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System—National College Health Risk Behavior Survey, 1995,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 46.SS-6 (14 November 1997).
- Hoff, et al., 14.
- Eaton, et al.
- Edward Laumann, et al., The Social Organization of Sexuality—Sexual Practices in the United States (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994).
- John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).
- “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System— National College Health Risk Behavior Survey, 1995.”
- Jason Fields, Current Population Reports: America’s Families and Living Arrangements: March 2003 (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, November 2004).
- Jason Fields, Current Population Reports: Children’s Living Arrangements and Characteristics: March 2002 (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, June 2003).