To confront the apparent failures of these programs is not to give up on teen abstinence as a standard.
It wasn't supposed to turn out this way. The abstinence-only sex-education programs on which the federal government has been spending around $176 million a year have been shown to have zero effect. That's right: zero.
"Abstinence-only" classes in public schools, funded by provisions of the 1996 federal welfare reform law, focus on the message of waiting until marriage. They do not teach about contraception or safe sex.
But a national study that tracked 2,000 young people over several years has found no evidence that such classes as currently taught actually increased rates of sexual abstinence. It found that program participants had similar numbers of sexual partners compared with peers who were not in the specialized abstinence programs.
Among teens who had sex by the end of the period of the study, the average age of their first intercourse was the same for participants as for nonparticipants: 14.9 years.
This is especially disappointing given that earlier research seemed to indicate that abstinence programs were at least changing teen attitudes, if not behavior.
The study, carried out by the nonpartisan firm Mathematica Policy Research Inc., did turn up some interesting threads for further study. It suggests that peer relationships are important predictors for abstinence – in other words, that young people will refrain from sex if their close friends do, too. The study also found no particular increase in unprotected sex.