New Interim Report Suggests Federal Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Yield Little Return For $1 Billion Taxpayer Investment; Interim Report on Federally Funded Programs Released Today
NEW YORK, June 15 -- Abstinence-only-until- marriage programs funded under the 1996 federal welfare reform law have little positive impact on young people, an interim report released today by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. shows.
“After twenty-five years and more than a billion federal dollars of taxpayer money, we should have more information on our investment than merely a few indications that young people feel positively about the concept of abstinence,” said William Smith, vice president for public policy of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS). “To add insult to injury, many of the curricula used by the evaluated programs were found by a Congressional inquiry to contain false and misleading medical information, promote religion and gender stereotypes, and ignore LGBTQ youth. Today’s interim report should give policymakers pause before any additional money is spent on these programs,” Smith continued.
The researchers were very up front about the limitations of this report; participation in the evaluation was completely voluntary and evaluated programs were hand picked because they met research requirements. They were not, therefore, representative of the more than 900 federally funded programs. More importantly, the evaluation did not look at the programs’ impact on young people’s behavior.
Key findings from the interim report:
-- Some support for the idea of abstinence. Young people in the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs reported views that, on average, were more supportive of abstinence and less supportive of teen sex than did those in the control group. While young people should learn about the benefits of abstinence, there is no research to suggest that a “positive” attitude toward abstinence leads to responsible sexual behavior.
-- Little impact on peer pressure. Young people in the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs reported similar levels of dating and peer pressure to engage in sex as those in the control group.
-- No impact on views of marriage. The evaluation found that “there is no evidence that any of the four programs led youth to develop views more supportive of marriage than those of their control group counterparts.” Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are part of an overall effort to promote marriage, yet they are even failing to do that.
-- No impact on expectation to abstain. Youth in two of the programs were asked whether they now expected to abstain from sexual intercourse and researchers concluded, “none of these sites individually shows evidence of having increased youth’s expectations to remain abstinent.” If these programs cannot impact young people’s expected behavior, it is quite unlikely that they will have an impact on actual behavior as these young people mature.
-- No impact on important decision-making factors. Young people in the program and control group reported no differences in their self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-control, refusal skills, or communication with parents. Open and honest communication between parents and young people has been shown to help youth make responsible sexual decisions, yet these programs fail to help parents and young people connect.
-- Fear may be the only thing getting through. Many of these programs used curricula that rely on fear and shame and this may be the only message young people retain. The abstinence-only-until-marriage programs had a significant impact on young people’s perception of the consequences of teen sexual activity and nonmarital sex. There remains no evidence that messages of fear and shame ultimately lead to responsible sexual behavior.
“This report begs the question - why don’t we fund programs that have been proven to work? Existing research has already shown that comprehensive programs that include messages about both condoms and abstinence have been proven effective, and yet, federal and state governments are funding abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that are not effective, and in fact, have been shown to cause harm,” Smith continued.
Specifically, the report found that youth in these programs were more likely to take virginity pledges. Recent research found that in comparison to their peers who had not pledged, young people who took virginity pledges are less likely to use contraception or condoms when they become sexually active, have the same rate of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and are less likely to seek medical testing and treatment. In addition they are more likely to have engaged in alternative sexual behaviors in order to preserve their virginity; in fact, among those who had not had vaginal intercourse, pledgers were more likely to have engaged in both oral and anal sex than their non-pledging peers.
On the other hand, numerous comprehensive education programs about sexuality that include messages about both abstinence and contraception have been found to be effective in delaying the onset of sex, reducing the number of sexual partners, and increasing contraceptive and condom use.
“The million dollar question remains: What will lawmakers do with this report?” Smith asked. “Are they going to take it to heart, stand up for the health and well-being of our young people, and fund programs that work? Or are they going to ignore the report’s real findings and continue to fund ideologically driven programs that put youth at risk?”
According to SIECUS, almost immediately, the Abstinence Clearinghouse, a recipient of a large abstinence-only-until-marriage grant from the federal government, misstated the findings of this report and wrongly pointed to the new study as proof that these programs work, “Young people deserve honesty in this debate, not smoke and mirrors designed to continue the never-ending stream of money for the abstinence industry,” Smith said.
“SIECUS urges House Appropriations Committee Chair Lewis, Vice Chair Regula, and the other Members of the House of Representatives who are appropriating money for these programs later this week to pay close attention to this latest report as well as the other mounting research, and to stop pouring millions of dollars into these ineffective and harmful programs,” Smith continued.
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- Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S.
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