Does Abstinence-only Education Work?

GSE Professor Rebecca Maynard discusses abstinence-only sex education on NPR.  Click here to listen.

New research by Penn GSE Professor Rebecca Maynard has shown that abstinence-only sex education has no effect on the onset of sexual activity among children or on the likelihood that, if they do engage in sex, they will use a condom.

A foundation stone of the Bush Administration's social agenda, these programs receive $176 million a year in federal funding annually, with millions more coming from state and local matching grants.

Dr. Maynard's research was designed to gather scientifically valid evidence about whether these programs make a difference in the lives of children. Her project incorporated four studies looking at different programs at four different sites - two urban, two rural. A randomized trial, the study looked at statistically comparable groups of children, some in abstinence-only programs and others who experienced "business as usual."

While short-term findings showed some shift in attitudes about delaying sex, findings over the longer term indicated no difference between the abstinence-only groups and the control groups.

Says Dr. Maynard, "There were some indications that you would change knowledge and values that would delay onset of sexual activity. You could change what kids would tell you about their values and their expectations - that they would wait until they were older or married until they had sex."

An early analysis by his organization showed some attitude shifts toward delaying sex among students in the abstinence programs, but those differences disappeared as students got older. One thing they also learned, Trenholm said, was that kids receiving abstinence instruction did not use condoms less often than other kids, a possibility that critics occasionally raise. They also showed slightly better knowledge about the prevention of sexually transmitted disease.

But when the research team looked at the long-term findings, they found that, as students got older, these impacts disappeared - that is, students receiving abstinence-only instruction displayed the same attitudes and behaviors as those who did not.

"We can conclude that the programs did not delay sexual onset," says Dr. Maynard. "But they also didn't reduce the likelihood that kids were going to use contraception when they did engage in sex."

Penn GSE Professor Rebecca Maynard recently appeared on WHYY's Radio Times program to discuss the evidence on abstinence-only education programs. To listen to the full interview, click here.