The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 40.0°F | A Few Clouds and Breezy

Letters to the Editor

Abstinence Education an Effective Way to Combat STDs


The American Social Health Association maintains that as many as one in four Americans has genital herpes, and 80 percent of women will have contracted human papilloma virus (HPV) by the time they turn 50. It also notes that each year, there are more than 15 million new cases of STDs in the United States. The U.S. has the highest rate of STDs in the industrialized world, and education about contraceptives has done little to slow its spread.

Despite the fact that 85 percent of American parents feel that abstinence should be emphasized at least as much as contraception in sex education, far less attention — and funding — is given to abstinence education. In 2002, the U.S. government spent $144 million on promoting abstinence and $635 million, over four times as much, on contraception services and promotion for teens.

In addition, many people are not aware of the limitations of contraceptives. The National Institutes of Health and Human Services maintain that there is no substantial evidence that condoms prevent the spread of some STDs, including gonorrhea in women, chlamydia infection, genital herpes, and syphilis.

In addition to STDs, being sexually active is also linked to other societal problems. It often results in out-of-wedlock childbearing; in 2000, 240,000 children were born in the U.S. to girls 18 or younger, nearly all of whom were unmarried. Furthermore, those who are sexually active are more likely to be depressed and attempt suicide. According to the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health, 17 percent of Americans aged 14 to 17 who are sexually active were depressed “a lot of the time” or “most of the time” in the past week and ten percent have attempted suicide, while six percent of those who are not sexually active were depressed and three percent have attempted suicide.

Then why do many Americans oppose abstinence education? This is largely because of the prevailing perception that adolescents are incapable of abstinence. However, this notion is challenged by statistical and historical evidence.

Abstinence is certainly a viable option; in fact, it used to be expected among adolescents. Abstinence was the norm for unmarried teenage girls in America up until at least 1982. Only recently has it been dismissed as unrealistic.

However, abstinence is still a popular alternative among today’s youth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six out of ten American teenagers are not sexually active. In one survey, 93 percent of teens said that teens should be given a “strong message” that they should abstain from sex. An Emory University study of 1,000 girls found that of 12 sex education topics, the most popular, chosen by 84 percent of those surveyed, was, “How to say no without hurting the other person’s feelings.”

Many people assume that abstinence education does not teach about STDs or contraception. Despite all the talk about abstinence-only education, many abstinence programs do teach these topics. Indeed, they teach them accurately, explaining the truth about so-called “safe sex” and helping adolescents understand that their choices have consequences. “Safe sex” or misleadingly named “abstinence plus” programs, on the other hand, do little or nothing to encourage teens to abstain from sex and often implicitly encourage sexual activity.

Despite allegations to the contrary, available evidence conclusively shows that abstinence education is effective. There are ten reputable evaluations showing that abstinence education is effective in reducing sexual activity among teens, five of which have been published in peer-reviewed journals. The “Not Me, Not Now” program effected a 32 percent decrease in the sexual activity of 15-year-olds in the county in which it was practiced. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that participating in an abstinence program and taking a chastity pledge were by far the largest contributors to teenagers delaying sexual activity.

The fact is that abstinence education is the most effective and realistic way to stop the epidemic spread of STDs and other societal problems in the United States.

Bill Jacobs
Anscombe Society

Sources are available at http://web.mit.edu/trekkie/www/TechLetter.doc