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What are the federal guidelines for abstinence only education?


Updated February 03, 2014

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What are the federal guidelines for abstinence only education?
Question: What are the federal guidelines for abstinence only education?
In 2010, a study came out that claimed a new type of theory-based abstinence education might actually have some positive benefits for delaying teenager's sexual activity. People immediately pounced on the results as implying that comprehensive sex education isn't necessary and that current abstinence only education funding should continue. However, as the people who performed the study stated quite clearly in their results, the program that they tested wouldn't qualify as abstinence-only under current government rules. So what are those rules?
Answer: According to the Department of Health and Human Services Fact Sheet on Abstinence Education, an abstinence-only education program is defined as one that
  1. Has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;
  2. Teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children;
  3. Teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;
  4. Teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;
  5. Teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;
  6. Teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society;
  7. Teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances; and
  8. Teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.

In contrast, the program that the study found might be able to effectively delay the onset of intercourse:

  1. Taught that students should wait for sex until they were ready.
  2. Helped students build the skills they needed to say "no" to sex, and negotiate abstinence, until that time.
  3. Taught that abstinence not only helps to prevent STDs and pregnancy, but may also help in achieving future goals.
  4. Made no moralistic assumptions about sex, and did not discuss sex in a negative light.
  5. Gave scientifically accurate information about HIV and STD prevention.
  6. Targeted vaginal, oral, and anal sex.
  7. Discussed how well contraceptives work, if the topic came up during a class session. Facilitators were specifically instructed not to disparage condoms and to correct any misconception that condoms were not effective at preventing STDs and pregnancy.

Teaching students how to build the skills they need to only have sex when they are ready is a critical component of effective sex education. If you think about it, it's not surprising that combining that with a non-moralistic view of sexual timing and accurate information about HIV and other STDs could have a positive effect on young people's sexual activity, but those aren't the standards for abstinence-only education.

When looking at the results of studies that examine the effectiveness of different types of sex education, it's extremely important for people to understand that the quality and content of these types of programs can vary strongly... as can the quality of the research.

Jemmott et al 2010 "Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention Over 24 Months"> Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 164(2):152-159
Quotation is from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children & Families Document. "Fact Sheet: Section 510 State Abstinence Education Program." Accessed Online 2/10/10 at http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/fysb/content/abstinence/factsheet.htm

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