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A New Year's Resolution for a New Sex Ed Policy

Brigitte Amiri,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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January 5, 2009

A new year is exciting because it provides an opportunity for reflection and holds the possibility of change and a fresh start for the coming year. We are at this exciting crossroads with many important civil liberties issues, and sexuality education is one of them. A recent study released in Pediatrics provides yet another opportunity to reflect on the abysmal failure of federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. The study looks specifically at virginity pledges, which are often a part of federally funded abstinence-only programs. These pledges are just what they sound like: teens pledge to refrain from sexual activity until marriage. Guess what? These pledges don’t work, and can actually lead teens to make bad decisions.

The study, conducted by Janet Elise Rosenbaum, Ph.D., a researcher at Harvard and Johns Hopkins Universities compared virginity pledgers to nonpledgers with similar demographic characteristics and similar attitudes about sex and contraception. The study found that pledgers are not less sexually active than nonpledgers with similar characteristics. Moreover, the study found that five years after taking a pledge, 82 percent of pledgers deny having ever taken a virginity pledge. Though the pledgers may have forgotten they took a pledge to remain virgins, they did not forgot the message in abstinence-only programs that tell students that contraceptives and condoms don’t work: the study found — quite frighteningly — that the pledgers were less likely to use condoms and birth control than their nonpledging peers. Rosenbaum suggests that this may be true because pledgers have been subjected to abstinence-only programs, and as a result have developed negative attitudes about the effectiveness of condoms and contraceptives. Indeed, federally funded abstinence-only programs cannot mention contraceptives except to discuss their failure rates, and many programs use shame and fear to communicate this information.

This new study, while interesting and important, is simply one more in a long line of studies that show that our government’s abstinence-only policy is a failure. The federal government has wasted more than $1.5 billion on these programs, despite study after study showing that these programs don’t work. For years our government has allowed politics and religion to trump science. But this is a new year and a new federal government. As the new administration and Congress settle in we should insist that they put an end to the abstinence-only-until-marriage debacle, and instead focus on giving our teens what they need: tools to help them make healthy and responsible decisions.

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