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Abstinence Education: What Are My Options?

This edition of Skills for Educators assists health educators in selecting the abstinence education approach that is most effective and appropriate for the youth they work with.


Abstinence Education can mean many things. Some of the current terminology being used in abstinence education includes: abstinence-only education, abstinence-based education, abstinence for teens, abstinence-until-marriage. Each of these terms may mean something different, depending on who is describing the program or approach.

Given all these different definitions, how does a local health or family life educator decide what is appropriate for their youth and setting? The following four steps may help health educators wade through all the rhetoric and select the best abstinence program for their youth.

Step #1: Clarify your definition of abstinence.

Step #2: Gather information about abstinence education.

Step #3: Select approach that best meets needs.

Step #4: Explore your own attitudes and beliefs.

This step is followed by an abstinence questionnaire that can help health educators examine their attitudes and beliefs about abstinence education.



Step #1: Clarify your definition of abstinence.

A common definition of abstinence is voluntarily refraining from vaginal, oral or anal intercourse. However, some programs define it as refraining from any genital contact, even if there isn't penetration. Abstinence is a word that adults often use, but this word can be confusing to teens. It may be helpful to involve youth in developing a definition that's meaningful and relevant to them. This month's "Learning Activity" suggests a process for involving youth in this way.


Step #2: Gather information about abstinence education.
  • Collect data on the sexual risk behaviors of teens in your area. You might look at statistics for your state or region on the National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy's website at teenpregnancy.org.
  • Explore different program approaches. Some common approaches include:
    • abstinence-based — abstinence-based programs present abstinence as a valid option for teens whether they have been sexually active or not. Without using scare tactics, they also provide information about contraception skill building and postponing sexual intercourse.

    • abstinence-only for teens — abstinence-only education for teens presents abstinence as the only option for protection against unplanned pregnancy, HIV and STIs. It assumes that teens should postpone sexual intercourse until they are adults.

      Abstinence-only education should be reviewed carefully to be sure it does not:
      • rely on fear or shame to discourage students from engaging in sexual behavior, and

      • omit critical information or provide misinformation.
    • abstinence-until-marriage — abstinence-until-marriage presents abstinence as the only option for protection against unplanned pregnancy, HIV and STIs. It assumes that teens should postpone sexual intercourse until they are married. It does not discuss contraceptive options.
    • Comprehensive sexuality education takes a broader, more long-range approach. It promotes educating adolescents throughout their entire school career around a wide range of topics related to sexuality. It concentrates on preparing youth for a healthy expression of their sexuality instead of focusing only on negative consequences. Abstinence along with other contraceptive options are discussed.

      Comprehensive sexuality education will be discussed in more detail in a future edition of ReCAPP.
    No matter which of the approaches you select, ReCAPP staff believe that educators should teach about abstinence in an accurate, balanced way that supports and encourages youth to choose abstinence without denigrating those who do not.
  • Review critical factors for program effectiveness. A review of the research on pregnancy HIV or STI prevention programs has identified ten characteristics for programs' effectiveness. This evidence provides a framework for developing programs to reduce sexual risk-taking behavior whether they are abstinence-only or comprehensive sexuality.

    When choosing an abstinence education program, educators can use the characteristics as a guideline for determining potential program effectiveness. These ten characteristics for program effectiveness can be found in ReCAPP's "Evidence-Based Programs" section.

    Abstinence educators also should know that to date, six studies of abstinence-only programs have been published and that none has demonstrated effectiveness in delaying the onset of sexual intercourse. (D. Kirby, et al. "School-Based Programs to Reduce Sexual Risk Behaviors: A Review of Effectiveness," Public Health Reports, 109, no. 3 (May/June 1994, p. 25.)

    Several comprehensive programs have demonstrated an impact on postponing sexual activity including Reducing the Risk and Becoming a Responsible Teen. See the fact sheets under ReCAPP's "Evidence-Based Programs."



Step #3: Select an approach that best meets the needs of youth and the setting or community in which you're teaching.

To be effective, abstinence education programs must take into consideration the needs of the youth being taught. Educators are often in a good position to know these needs because they work with teens on a day-to-day basis. This exposure allows them to hear firsthand the issues their group of teens are concerned with.

Educators can also gather data about the risk level of youth in their area from the sources cited above. Knowing the risk level of a specific group of teens can help the educator decide which abstinence approach will be most relevant for their teens. For example, if their youth are likely to be in a high risk group, a comprehensive approach would be more appropriate than an abstinence-only approach.

In addition to meeting the needs of the youth, the educator should also be aware of how a selected program fits within the sexuality education policies and guidelines of their school/agency and state. For example, some states have guidelines regarding what topics can be taught and may have requirements regarding parent permission.

Also, some states might be receiving abstinence-only education money from the Welfare Reform Program. These monies may limit or define what type of abstinence programs may be taught. See the Topic in Brief on abstinence for more information about the Welfare Reform Program and/or check with your state department of health or education for specific guidelines in your area.


Step #4: Explore your own attitudes and beliefs.

As stated above, abstinence education is most effective if it is presented in an accurate, balanced way. This may be difficult for educators if they have strong feelings for OR against abstinence education. Unknowingly, they may be communicating their feelings verbally or non-verbally to youth.

Take a few minutes to respond to the abstinence questionnaire below to explore your attitudes about abstinence education.


Abstinence Questionnaire

1. I believe that junior high and high school students should be sexually abstinent.

Agree _____ Disagree _____ Don't Know _____

2. It is not appropriate to provide information about contraception and condom use to teens.

Agree _____ Disagree _____ Don't Know _____

3. Abstinence until marriage is the best choice for teens.

Agree _____ Disagree _____ Don't Know _____

4. I believe teens are too immature to have sexual intercourse.

Agree _____ Disagree _____ Don't Know _____

5. Birth control should not be readily available to teens without parents' consent.

Agree _____ Disagree _____ Don't Know _____

6. Teens should avoid petting or messing around because they will end up having sex.

Agree _____ Disagree _____ Don't Know _____

How Do You Score?

If you have answered 3 or more questions "Agree," you are probably a strong supporter of abstinence-only education. It may be helpful to remember that abstinence-only messages exclude a lot of youth including those who have been sexually active, those who may be gay, lesbian or questioning youth, and those who may be sexually abused. In your teaching, you will want to be sure to communicate support for students who choose to be sexually active.

If you have answered 3 or more questions "Disagree," you may question the validity of abstinence education. Your challenge will be to present abstinence as an option when providing sexuality education. It may be helpful to remember that abstinence is always an option whether a teen has been sexually active or not.

If you have answered 3 or more questions "Don't Know," you need to gather more information about abstinence and comprehensive sexuality education. Some useful resources include this website, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SEICUS), Focus On the Family, and Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA).