Abstinence vs. "Comprehensive" Sex Ed: Research or Propaganda?
There have been many (often gleeful) media reports this year about the Mathematica review of 4 federally funded abstinence education programs which found that none of them were effective in delaying sexual involvement 2.5 - 5.5 years later among students who were exposed to the abstinence education programs in elementary school or early middle school when compared to students who had not been given the abstinence education.
Dr. Stan Weed at the Institute for Research and Evaluation has written an indepth analysis which discusses whether research of "comprehensive" sex ed would be judged to be effective if the same standards were applied to them. Dr. Weed points out a number of design flaws in the Mathematica review including “cross-contamination” of program effects since the students in the treatment and control groups studied were in the same schools, the nearly six years for a “spillover” effect between the two groups being compared, the unusually long follow-up timeframe of 2.5 to 5.5 years and the inappropriate timing of program dosage (students were given the abstinence education in elementary school as young as 4th and 5th grades and early middle school, not in high school when they are most likely to be sexually active). Weed points out that when studies are held to the same criteria as the Mathematica evaluation (random assignment, a follow-up period of 2 1⁄2 to 5 1⁄2 years, a high level success criteria), there is ample evidence that “comprehensive” sex education interventions also fail to demonstrate effectiveness.
When studies are held to the same criteria as the Mathematica evaluation (random assignment, a follow-up period of 21/2 to 51/2 years, a high level success criteria), there is ample evidence that condom-based sex education interventions do not work. In the past 20 years, studies evaluating abstinence education programs have been limited in number and in rigor, while during the same time period research on comprehensive sex education has abounded. One recent and thorough summary of this research (Kirby, Laris, & Rolleri, 2006) reviewed 50 well-designed evaluation studies of comprehensive sex education programs in the United States, going back to 1990, and included these findings:
A. None of the programs increased the prevalence of consistent condom use (CCU) among
adolescents for a period greater than one year. CCU is the only condom measure that
approaches the stringent standard of the abstinence measure. Only one program produced a
significant increase in the prevalence of CCU that was sustained for a period of one year (DiClemente, Wingood, Harrington, Lang, & Davies, 2004).
B. Thirteen control trials of comprehensive sex education found no increase in teen condom
use for any period of time.
C. Only two comprehensive sex education programs succeeded in improving less stringent
measures of teen condom use (not CCU) for a period longer than two years, and none lasted
beyond three years.
Summary: when the same standards used in the Mathematica evaluation are applied to comprehensive sex ed programs, the conclusion is- they don’t work.
To view the full analysis by Dr. Weed click here.