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Naked City

Say No – or Yes – or Maybe?

By Rachel Proctor May, February 4, 2005, News

Most researchers agree that the jury is still out on whether abstinence-only programs can play a role in reducing teen pregnancy and STDs, and a new study by Texas A&M researchers isn't going to help settle the issue. The state-sponsored study found that teenagers at two dozen high schools became sexually active at a higher rate after participating in abstinence-only programs. Before participating, 23% of the ninth-grade girls in the study were sexually active, a number that jumped to 29% after participating. For 10th-grade boys, the percentages increased from 24% to 39%. However, before fans of comprehensive sex-ed immediately load the study into their policy-battle arsenal, let it first be noted that the study included no control group of students who didn't participate in the abstinence-only programs. That renders the study meaningless for anything other than proving the five ab-only programs studied were not 100% effective. In other words, perhaps without the program, the numbers of sexually active teens may have jumped even higher – nobody knows.

This is an important point because even the most successful "comprehensive" sex education programs – the ones that include contraceptive and STD information – show only modest impact on teens' behavior, and many have themselves been proven ineffective. A 2001 study of comprehensive sex-ed programs by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found only eight curricula that were proven to either delay sexual activity, decrease pregnancy rates, decrease STD infection rates, or some combination of the three. What is important, says Bill Albert of the campaign, is that we not get bogged down in arguments for or against broad categories of "abstinence-only" or "comprehensive" education, but to find and disseminate the programs and curricula that have been proven to work – all of which, for the time being, include solid information about contraception.

"We do have a small but growing list of programs that seem to work," said Albert. "Generally people want to spend money on things that are proven to be effective." But that doesn't apply to the Bush administration: This year the federal government will spend around $130 million on abstinence-only programs.

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