What Abstinence Education Gets Right
Interview With Chastity Speaker Jason Evert
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SAN DIEGO, California, JULY 12, 2007 (Zenit.org).- A recent study published by a public policy research firm that claims abstinence education programs aren't effective, doesn't tell the whole story, says an expert.
Jason Evert, an international chastity speaker, author and full-time apologist for Catholic Answers, disagrees with the methods and findings of the study by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc .
Evert shared with ZENIT what the study gets wrong, and what good abstinence education programs get right in helping teens save sex for marriage.
Q: A recent study found that abstinence-education programs "don't work." What, specifically, did the study find? What do you think of the study's findings?
Evert: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., tracked 1,209 students in four elementary and middle school abstinence programs to determine if the education they received impacted their sexual behavior. What the researchers found was that the "programs had no effect on the sexual abstinence of youth" two to five years after the program ended.
This study, however, had serious flaws.
First, the students in the study were between the ages of nine and 11, which is hardly the age at which young people understand the relevance of an abstinence message.
Second, the study had no high school component, and the students had no follow-up to the program -- especially when they would have needed it the most, during the teenage years.
In the words of the Mathematica researchers, "The findings provide no information on the effects programs might have if they were implemented for high school youth or began at earlier ages but served youth through high school."
Third, the researchers did not evaluate a comparable sexual education program in order to compare the findings.
Fourth, the majority of the students were poor African American children from broken families. Such youth are considered high risk for early sexual activity. Therefore, their behaviors are not representative of most young people.
Fifth, the sample of four schools studied represents less than 1% of the more than 900 abstinence programs that receive federal funding.
Sixth, the abstinence programs that were studied have already been revised and updated. Therefore, any conclusions drawn from them are outdated.
The Mathematica study was released for one reason: to influence congressional leaders to restrict the amount of funding given to abstinence education.
Since the early 1990s, abstinence education has received millions of dollars in federal grants. Although the government provides $12 worth of sexual education for every $1 given to promote abstinence, any financial support for abstinence means less money available for its opponents.
The good news about this study is that it shows how desperate the opponents of abstinence education have become. If this research -- which cost taxpayers $6 million -- is the best case against the effectiveness of abstinence education, we're in good shape.
The media's frenzy over this study is another effort to distract the public from the fact that sexual education has been a complete failure.
After decades of "safe sex" education in the United States, nearly half of the 19 million new sexually transmitted disease infections each year are among people between the ages of 15 and 24.
In the words of Heritage Foundation researcher Robert Rector, "The number-one determinant of whether a person will catch a sexually transmitted disease is the number of lifetime sexual partners. We seem to go out of our way as a government and a nation to avoid telling people that, but we hand out a lot of free condoms."
Q: Do all sexual education programs have the same goal? Are they simply various methods for approaching the public health issues of venereal disease and out-of-wedlock pregnancies?
Evert: There are hundreds of different sexual education programs, and their goals vary. Some focus on HIV or teen pregnancy prevention, while others peddle contraceptives or promote perverse ideologies.
For example, Allendale Pharmaceuticals -- makers of a contraceptive sponge -- gave grant money to Planned Parenthood to create a sexual education curriculum for teens. In this program, the curriculum discusses the sponge 28 times, and birth control is mentioned more than 10 times more than abstinence.
One lesson in the curriculum even tells the teens to create their own advertisement for birth control. Later in the program, the textbook argues that there would be fewer teen pregnancies in America if there wasn't so much social and political pressure for teens to be abstinent until marriage.
While some sexual education programs have been used to stir up business for birth control companies, others expose children to graphic sexual content.
For example, The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States recommends in their "Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education" that 5- to 8-year-olds should learn about lesbians being in love.
Meanwhile, they propose that 15-year-olds should know that some people choose to watch pornography as a way to enhance sexual fantasies.
Lest you assume that the Centers for Disease Control would control such nonsense, even they funded a transgender beauty pageant in San Francisco.
One thing that all sexual education programs seem to have in common is their relativistic approach to sexual values. Pervading the curricula is the idea that "only you can choose the right time for becoming sexually active."
Because of this mentality, abstinence is looked at as a form of birth control, and is not given great emphasis. When abstinence is discussed, the arguments in favor of such a lifestyle are hardly convincing.
For example, Planned Parenthood's Web site for teens states, "Some people may choose to be sexually abstinent in certain circumstances. A person who just broke up with someone might abstain from dating and sex play because being close to another person might not feel right, yet."
Not surprisingly, sexual education programs spend an average of 4.7% of their content on the topic of abstinence.
Q: Let's assume abstinence education programs in schools "don't work." What next?
Evert: Suppose a school offered an anti-drug and alcohol program to its students, and the curriculum failed to have a positive impact.
Imagine, as a result, that the school board concluded, "We need to take a more comprehensive approach. Let's encourage the students to refuse drugs, and give clean syringes to those who are going to do it anyway. For those who choose to drink and drive, we should encourage the use of seat belts. After all, we need to be realistic."
No one would take such an approach with drugs or drinking because there is unanimous consent that such behaviors are harmful for teens. This is where abstinence and sexual education programs diverge.
Those in the sexual education camp do not believe that unwed sexual activity is inherently harmful. Meanwhile, those in favor of abstinence know what's at stake -- and therefore prefer an approach focused on prevention instead of risk-reduction.
If certain abstinence programs are defective, the weaknesses must be identified and the deficiencies remedied.
For example, if a program failed to have a long-term impact, the educators should build into the curriculum such features as a longer follow-up or greater parental involvement. If the program is still defective, it should be dropped in favor of one that has already been evaluated with positive results.
Q: Would abolition of all sexual education programs in schools, including abstinence-based programs, foster more parental involvement?
Evert: No. The elimination of sexual education in schools will not prompt parents to become more involved in the lives of their children. This would be like thinking that parents would exercise more with their children if schools dropped physical education classes.
Indeed, parents are the primary sex educators of their children. The family is a school of all virtues, including chastity. When parents practice this virtue in their marriage, the children will see why Pope John Paul II called chastity "the sure way to happiness."
In order for parents to learn the value of chastity, the Church must proclaim it with courage from the pulpits. Especially through promotion of Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body, children and adults can discover God's plan for life and love.
Q: Are there any successful abstinence programs with which you are familiar?
Evert: Programs offered by Project Reality, Heritage Keepers, Sex Respect, Teen Aid, Friends First, PEERS, Pure Love Club, Project REACH and many others have been evaluated with very positive results.
More than 30 scientific evaluations have shown that abstinence education reduces sexual activity and has positive effects on teens.
For example, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health demonstrated that girls who take virginity pledges are 40% less likely to have a child out-of-wedlock than young women who do not make such pledges.
Contrary to what you may see in the media, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that teen sexual activity rates have been dropping since 1991, and now the majority of high school students are virgins.
In fact, between 1991 and 2005 the sexual activity rate of high school boys dropped twice as quickly as that of high school girls. The increase in abstinence education has played a major role in this new sexual revolution.
Q: What can Catholic schools learn from the failures of various programs in public schools? What should Catholic schools be doing about sexual education?
Evert: The first lesson to be learned is that one cannot simultaneously deliver a convincing abstinence message while explaining how to practice "safe sex."
Second, Catholic schools should make sure that their materials are age-appropriate, medically accurate and in conformity with the wishes of the parents. When it comes to sexuality education, schools and churches exist to assist the parents, not replace them.
Teenagers are looking for love and searching for meaning in their lives. At a time when they are so vulnerable to the temptations of the world, they deserve to hear the convincing power of the beauty of God's plan for human sexuality.