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The Impact of Abstinence-only Programs

Original article by: Douglas Kirby

This article provides a clear and concise summary of the state of research on abstinence-only programs – that is, programs that promote sexual abstinence as the only appropriate choice for young people.

The author begins by pointing out that abstinence-only programs are diverse, ranging from curriculum-based programs to those that include a variety of youth development activities. The programs may be as short as one or two sessions, or as long as 20 sessions. Some are religion-based, whereas others are more secular. Some use didactic approaches, and others are activity-based.

Despite this variety in philosophical foundations and pedagogical approaches, these programs share one commonality – an emphasis on avoiding sexual activity.

Several studies have shown that abstinence-only programs can have a positive impact on students' knowledge, attitudes and values related to delaying sexual activity, which is an important first step. However, we know from prior research that such changes do not necessarily translate into changes in sexual behavior.

Unfortunately, only five published studies have tried to measure the impact of abstinence-only programs on delays in the initiation of sex, and only one of those studies used a design that was rigorous enough to provide a fair test of the program. (The other studies had limitations that could hide the effects of programs. For example, the sample size in one study was too small, and two other studies measured sexual behaviors before the programs had enough time to demonstrate an impact.)

The one study that used a strong design found that the program did not delay adolescents' sexual activity. [Reviewer's note: among the variety of abstinence programs available, this study lasted only five hours, and thus may have not have been long enough to counteract the powerful factors that lead to early sexual activity.]

The author concludes that too little research evidence is available to determine whether some abstinence-only programs delay the initiation of sex or have other positive impacts on behavior. To determine such impacts, rigorous research studies of abstinence-only programs are needed that include random assignment of youth to program and control groups, large sample sizes, and long-term measurement of behavior.

Kirby, D. "The impact of abstinence-only programs." PPFY Network, 1999, 2(2): 2-3.