A research professor in the public health school found that abstinence-only sexual education often doesn’t work for teens.
Maureen Lyon, a clinical health psychologist in the Milken Institute School of Public Health, worked on a broad study of research into abstinence-based sexual education for adolescents and found that only teaching students to avoid sex was largely ineffective at preventing teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. The results of her study were published this month in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Lyon said she conducted the study to make sure money spent to educate young people about sex was being used effectively.
“The whole issue of how do we keep our young people safe is one that was really important to me,” she said.
A thorough review of past literature on sex education revealed that abstinence-only training was almost always futile, Lyon said. She added that past data showed no decrease in rates of teen pregnancy or any impact on rates of sexually transmitted infections when abstinence-only training was implemented.
“We’re at tension in the culture between more traditional, socially conservative approaches to sexuality and the realities of life in the 21st century.”
Lyon said she became involved with the position paper through her work with the American Psychological Association as a member of the committee for psychology and AIDS.
She worked with researchers from Columbia University, University of North Carolina, Guttmacher Institute, University Massachusetts Amherst, University of York, Altarum Institute, Indiana University and Planned Parenthood on the project.
Lyon said that in her 12 years of Catholic school in Massachusetts, where “abstinence-only” was the sole message of sex ed classes, she noticed frequent cases of teen pregnancy. The young women were often ostracized and sent to homes for unwed mothers, she said.
“The way I was raised was that sexual relations was procreation, and you should only have sexual activity – even in marriage – if you were going to reproduce,” she said.
Abstinence-only sex ed has become a controversial topic in recent years, and has led researchers to examine the ethical concerns surrounding this type of education.
Lyon said researchers from the organizations involved in the paper were concerned about the amount of funding allocated to the “ABC” approach under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a federal program that promoted abstinence as a means of preventing HIV infection in teens.
Officials from PEPFAR did not immediately return request to comment.
She added that from data in 2016, roughly $85 million went toward funding abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in the U.S. She wanted funding for sex ed programs to be driven by how useful the messages in those programs actually are, she said.
“That’s $85 million that could be used to do demonstrated, evidence-based effective programs,” she said.
When reviewing past literature on abstinence-only education, Lyon said she found that historically, an abstinence-only education made sense when marrying at a young age was common practice.
“We’re at tension in the culture between more traditional, socially conservative approaches to sexuality and the realities of life in the 21st century,” Lyon said. “Because kids don’t get married right after high school like they used to, the way our parents might have.”
Lyon, who focused on the psychological aspects of adolescent sexual initiation, said in this study that she also found differences in how teen males and females were treated and felt once they became sexually active.
“If boys initiate sex at a young age, their self esteem is higher,” Lyon said. “But if girls initiate sex or get involved in sex at a young age, they’re likely to have lower self esteem, and it does appear to be that some of these things are driven by cultural norms.”
Lyon said she hopes this research will ultimately promote sex education that includes multiple pathways to practicing safe sex, not just abstinence.
“It’s an important piece of advocacy,” Lyon said. “That adolescents should have this fundamental human right to health information and life because if you end up with a serious STI, you could end up infertile or, in the very worst case scenario, with HIV.”