Well, the irony fairy is hauling out the big anvils for this one, isn't she?
Abstinence-only programs -- the hallmark of the Bush administration's federal sex education policy -- seem to have little impact on the behavior of Texas teenagers. The first evaluation of programs used throughout the state has found that students in almost all high school grades were more sexually active after abstinence education. Researchers don't believe the programs encouraged teenagers to have sex, only that the abstinence messages did not interfere with the usual trends among adolescents growing up.
"We didn't find what many would like for us to find," said researcher Buzz Pruitt of Texas A&M University. He and his colleagues discussed their data this week with state health authorities in Austin, who sponsored the research.
The study has its flaws, and Dr. Pruitt and others cautioned against overarching conclusions. But scientists welcome the fact that Texas is contributing to a field lacking in solid data. The federal government will spend $131 million this year on a smorgasbord of abstinence-only education programs. Many public health experts are concerned that no one really knows what the government is buying.
Among the findings in the Texas study: About 23 percent of the ninth-grade girls in the study already had sexual intercourse before they received any abstinence education, a figure below the national average. After taking an abstinence course, the number among those same girls rose to 28 percent, a level closer to that of their peers across the state. Among ninth-grade boys, the percentage who reported sexual intercourse before and after abstinence education remained relatively unchanged. In 10th grade, however, the percentage of boys who had ever had sexual intercourse jumped from 24 percent to 39 percent after participating in an abstinence program.
The researchers bemoan the lack of a control group, but you have to wonder: what exactly would a control group under these circumstances be? Kids who got no information at all? (The pregnancy rate in that group would likely be appalling?) Kids who got accurate and useful health information about sex and sexuality and birth control and all that fun stuff? (In TEXAS? HA! ... although, to be fair, an adolescent's chances of getting useful and accurate health information about sex and sexuality in this country's schools are practically non-existant these days.)
The doctors in the article note that we should get over our fear of research. Of course, research is not exactly the point, is it?
Unfortunately, discovering that abstinence programs don't work, or give out active misinformation, isn't likely to stop the advocates of these programs. Again, accuracy and effectiveness are entirely irrelevant to their longterm goals. These types of programs seem to have two goals. First, they constitute another way to try to shoehorn conservative religious values into the classroom. Second, they're an attempt to put sexuality back in a box, so that it can -- in theory -- be more easily controlled. Unfortunately, this isn't likely to work terribly well; partly because, despite their fears, people at large really don't want things back in a socially constrained box, and partially because the country really isn't -- yet -- quite as theocratically and conservatively religious as they might like.
But, as these people would likely say, just give them time. Given current trends, we'll probably get there eventually.Posted by iain at January 31, 2005 11:27 AM