Advocates for abstinence-until-marriage sex education often make the claim that abstinence is the only 100% effective means of avoiding teen pregnancy and STD infection. But is this true?

Sexual Intercourse Prevention

While it is unquestionably true that completely avoiding any activity that would give the spermatozoa a chance to inseminate an ovum will reduce the chance of pregnancy – save the unlikely event of supernatural seduction – the question remains as to how effective abstinence is at achieving this.

Like all forms of contraception, abstinence is not a one-time decision, but a decision that must be made at every opportunity to act otherwise. Therefore, abstinence, as we typically refer to it, should probably be rephrased as “abstinence-intention,” as it is the intention of an individual to remain abstinent, but the actual choice to practice abstinence, like the choice to use a condom, must be made every time the opportunity to engage in sex is available.

Advocates for abstinence are fond of pointing out the difference between the theoretical effectiveness rate of condoms and other forms of birth control, as opposed to the actual, or “real world” rate. Below is a comparison of the theoretical rate and actual use rates for common forms of contraception.

A condom is shown to be effective in laboratory situations 99% of the time, whereas in actual use, around 15 out of every 100 sexually active women who depend only on condoms as birth control will become pregnant in any given year. So why the difference? Higher failure rates are not because condoms fail more in real life than the laboratory, but because of misuse. For a condom, the most likely cause is that it was not put on in a way that would prevent all semen from entering the woman's vagina, such as use in a way which allowed it to slip off during intercourse.

So, if a condom can fail at a higher rate than the theoretical rate suggests, because of user error, can abstinence have a failure rate higher than 0%? Of course it can. A person who is committed to refraining from sexual activity might, when put in a situation where having sex is an available option, choose to have sex. Basic user error.

In a 2007 review of studies on sex education, Dr. Kirby found that “[m]any of the abstinence programs improved teens’ values about abstinence or their intentions to abstain, but these improvements did not always endure and often did not translate into changes in behavior" (Kirby 2007). So, though being taught about abstinence, many teens held a higher opinion of the option to not have sex -- which is great -- but this did not reduce the rate of their engagement in sexual activity to any significant degree.

In a 2008 study that addresses this subject more directly, researchers looked at two groups of teens: one that took a personal pledge to abstain from sex until marriage and one that did not. Among those that did not make the pledge, 55.5% had initiated sexual intercourse within three years. This is pretty typical for the age of the participants. For those that made a commitment to abstain – note this is not those who took part in abstinence education, but made a personal vow to abstain from sex – 33.6% had initiated sexual intercourse within three years (Martino 2008).

This looks promising at first, but these two groups are not equal. One is a typical population of teens, never asked to make a pledge to abstain from sex. The other is a self-selected group that made a promise to themselves to abstain from sex until marriage. Since a certain portion of the population will always choose to abstain from sex, for a myriad of personal reasons, we should expect that those willing to make a commitment to such should show considerably reduced sexual behavior. However, even among this self-selected group, one out of three failed in their abstinence-intention.

It should also not be assumed that two-thirds of this group successfully kept their pledge to remain sexually abstinent. The truth is that some portion of the population in both groups were, during those three years, never in a situation where having sex was an option and so never truly had to exercise their commitment to abstinence. So, at best we can say that abstinence-intention among teens has a 33.6% failure rate over a three year period, but in reality it is likely much higher.

Other studies show similar failure rates of those that make a personal commitment to abstinence.

STD Prevention

Surely, though, teens committed to abstinence have a lower rate of STD infection, since they have a significantly lower rate of sexual activity, right? Turns out, no. “Pledgers are consistently less likely to be exposed to risk factors across a wide range of indicators, but their STD infection rate does not differ from nonpledgers.” Though these teens have made commitments to abstain from sex until marriage, they are engaging in oral sex and even anal sex, instead, increasing their exposure to STDs and bringing them back in line with the general population in rate of infection (Brückner 2005).

Even those making abstinence commitments after going through abstinence-until-marriage education are facing standard levels of infection with STDS. As one former abstinence-until-marriage student states, “No one ever told me you could contract an STD by [having] oral sex. I thought I was being responsible, because I was saving myself for marriage…I come from a very religious background, and that’s what I was taught. Good girls don’t practice safe sex; they don’t have sex until marriage. … We weren’t told about that stuff. Sex Ed was literally a bunch of kids giggling about gross slides and our teacher telling us not to do it. Some of us even signed a paper saying we wouldn’t until we were married. So I only had oral sex, and look where that got me.”

When this student was asked if a more thorough sex education curriculum could have helped, she responded, “Yes, definitely! It’s not like I didn’t listen to or respect my teachers. I just didn’t know. I mean, no one told us to use some kind of barrier with oral sex; they didn’t want us to have sex at all. Why would they tell us how to do it safely?” (Marie 2013)

Conclusions

In the case of both sexual intercourse and exposure to STDs, abstinence has a much higher failure rate than 0%, because abstinence intentions do not always translate into saying no when the time comes.

Hiding the full truth from our teens is not helping them. Full, factual and honest discussions about sex are needed to give them the ability to make their own, informed decisions about how to live their lives. Any less is robbing them of the ability to take responsibility for their own actions.

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