Challenging Dogma - Spring 2009

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

How Failure to Acknowledge Teenage Culture Has Made Abstinence-Only Programs Obsolete – Allison O’Donnell


Abstinence-only education in high schools become exceedingly popular over the last quarter of a century, with the federal and state governments funding $1.5 billion dollars in a sexual education system that is driven by ideology rather than statistics (1). The abstinence-only education program must meet certain tenets to receive funding, including emphasizing that monogamous relationships in the form of marriage are the appropriate place for sexual activity to occur and highlighting the damage pre-marital sex can have on the adolescent and the greater community (2). These programs frequently use inaccurate facts and promote gender stereotypes to promote abstinent behavior (3).

By only providing one option for teenagers regarding sexual behavior, these abstinence-only programs fail to enable contraceptive self-efficacy in their students. Adolescence is one of the first opportunities for teenagers to make their own decisions and feel a sense of empowerment in their actions, which is necessary for later sexual decision-making (4, 5). By not providing them with options and a sense of control, abstinence-only programs fail to convince participants to stick with abstinence – instead, students who receive abstinent-only education had sex at the same age as those without the educational program (6). This lack of difference shows how the abstinence-only programs are failing to resonate with teens, many of whom are exploring their freedom for the first time.

The abstinent education programs also fail to consider the role that the social environment, through peers and mainstream media, would play on the students. The program emphasizes the negative impact that sexual activity would have on the students’ family (2). However, adolescents frequently turn to peers for decisions about their everyday life, even engaging in risky behaviors if influenced by their peer group (7). Therefore, the influence of friends must be considered to a greater extent in order to understand the perspective of the students – threats of embarrassing parents or communities cannot stand up to the proven power of peers. The power of the media can also not be ignored; many movies, music videos, and television shows feature sexual activity as the norm and teenagers are heavily influenced by such images (8). Abstinence programs’ focus on family and greater community instead of on friends and entertainment programs may influence some students, but most adolescents will fail to relate to such a program.

Abstinence programs also have a clear cultural bias – they insist on marriage as the only correct place for sexual intercourse and warn of disappointing parents if a teen has sex or becomes pregnant. However, these ideas are obvious tenets of a specific type of upper-middle class American family with two parents. Children of single parents and gay or lesbian couples would not be able to relate to the emphasis on marriage as the only choice, since their parents either chose not to get married or could not marry legally. Also, statistics have shown that sexual experiences vary by urban vs. rural settings and by ethnicity, so blanket statements of waiting till marriage and negatively influencing the community may not apply to many students (9, 12). This emphasis on shame and fear may also not apply to those who have previously had sexual experience. Abstinence is a choice that can be made after someone has had sexual activity. However, by putting such a negative emphasis on sexual experience, abstinence programs would succeed only in marginalizing a sexually experienced teenager. This marginalization would leave them with a poor self-image and still no knowledge of how to protect themselves or make safer decisions.

Failure to Enable Teen’s Self-Efficacy

Rather than working to give teenagers a greater sense of responsibility and making them feel that they have control over their sexual decisions, abstinence only education promotes only one option and warns of consequences if students don’t comply (2). This black and white presentation of sexual decision-making fails to utilize teenager’s increasing need for a sense of control over their life. Adolescence is teenagers’ first opportunity to feel control over some of life’s major decisions – from deciding on a career path to deciding whether to be sexually active, these decisions have long-lasting consequences. Coupled with this greater control over important life choices is a need to rebel and explore new situations and ideas. This sense of rebellion and need for control is at odds with the narrow path suggested by abstinence-only education.

Abstinence programs promote the choice of waiting to have sexual activity till marriage, an option that invokes marriage as the ultimate goal. Threats of harmful consequences serve to keep teenagers on the strict path towards no sex till marriage. This approach does not consider teenagers’ need to make their own decisions and have options to consider. In addition, the only way federally funded abstinence-only programs can mention contraception is to state its failings (10). Some abstinence programs have even taught false information, such as incorrectly discussing the efficacy of condoms and the pregnancy risks associated with contraception (3). Such fear-mongering, rather than terrifying teenagers, could urge them to rebel and take control of their sexual lives by exploring other options besides abstinence.

This exploration of other options is where abstinence programs again fail their students, by not providing them with the self-efficacy to feel in control of their sexual decisions. Contraceptive self-efficacy is a strong predictor of adolescent’s behavior regarding contraception (5). Without a strong sense of contraceptive self-efficacy, teenagers who wish to rebel from the strict path of abstinence could find themselves adrift with little confidence in their ability to control a sexual situation. Clearly the goal of abstinence-only education is to encourage students not to go down this exploratory path at all. However, by not giving them the confidence to handle potentially dangerous sexual situations if they choose to stray, abstinence-only programs let their students down.

The Social Environment’s Influence

While federal funding for abstinence-only education stipulates that the programs must emphasize the negative ramifications of sexual activity on family and community, it fails to encourage education on peer pressure and greater media influence (2). Adolescents are enormously influenced by media sources, including television, movies, and music, all of which emphasize a sexual culture in which casual sex is not only accepted but encouraged (8). With the advent of television shows such as ‘Gossip Girl’ and the re-emergence of ‘90210’, sex in high school is now primetime television. When Gossip Girl premiered, it was the top-rated new show among the 12-17 age demographic (11). This popularity demonstrates the huge influence the sexually charged shows have among middle and high school students, who would be many of the students in the abstinence-only programs. Music videos and songs also promote sexual activities and the use of alcohol, which abstinence programs caution can lead to poor decision-making (2). Under this constant media barrage of sexual activity, adolescents are unlikely to follow abstinence-only programs’ rules of waiting for sex in order to respect themselves and their community.

Peer groups also have an enormous influence on teens’ ideas about sex and marriage, but are given little consideration in abstinence-only education. The reference to community in the abstinence-only education federal law could be referring friend groups; however, according to the law, the program must emphasize that sexual activity could have negative consequences in the community(2). Unless an adolescent’s friends are all abstinent as well, its exceedingly unlikely that a teen’s sexual activity could negatively impact their friends. In reality, sexual activity could be seen as necessary to befriend certain people or remain in certain cliques. Media can also heavily influence peer groups – teens who strive to be like the cliques seen on television shows may discuss sex frankly or even engage in sexual activity to emulate those they admire. Overall, peer groups, combined with media images of sex as a part of everyday life, have an enormous influence on teens and must be considered in abstinence education if it is to be successful.

Abstinence Program’s Cultural Biases

In addition to ignoring the social environment that surrounds the adolescent, the abstinence-only education system doesn’t account for the culture that influenced the teen’s development. This is a major flaw in the abstinence program, since teen’s cultural background could have enormous influences on their views towards marriage and sex. Adolescents from rural backgrounds and those from minority groups report different sexual behavior than those from rural backgrounds or an ethnic majority (9, 12). This difference could have enormous implications on the student’s attitude towards abstinence, since some teens may have already had sex before receiving the education, making many of the program’s messages irrelevant.

Family culture can also play an enormous role in sexual considerations. If a teen is from a background where religion is unimportant or they were raised by a single parent, marriage may not be a serious consideration for them. Such adolescents would not respond positively to abstinence programs’ stress on waiting till marriage for sexual activity. These teens would also be unmoved by the programs’ warnings of negatively consequences for their parents or community if they participate in sexual activity. If a teen has been raised by parents who never got married, or a single parent, they would be unlikely to see what negative consequences could result from them following in the footsteps of their parents.

Gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual teens, or those from a GLBT background, would also be unaffected by the stress placed on marriage in the abstinence curriculum. Only four states in the United States currently allow gay marriage, three of which are located in New England (13). As a result, many GLBT teens, or those raised in a GLBT home, may never expect to get married. They may also be less influenced by warnings of disappointing their community or family – coming out as a GLBT teen would potentially be far more influential on those relationships, so warnings of sexual activity shocking their parents would have less effect. The abstinence program overall appears to be written for teens with two married parents and little cultural diversity – the programs’ inability to work for adolescents from different backgrounds is a major flaw.


Abstinence-only sexual education programs have received huge amounts of federal funding and support, but they have failed to live up to expectations. Their inability to appeal to teen’s need to feel a sense of control over their lives makes them unappealing to adolescents who are exploring their freedom for the first time. Abstinence programs also fail to consider the most important influences in teens’ lives – the media and friends. Without focusing on the message that peers or media outlets are providing to teens, it is impossible for abstinence education to convince adolescents that no sex before marriage is the right choice. Finally, teen’s cultural background has an enormous impact on their worldview and their choices; abstinence only education does not consider any cultural influences and as such the abstinence message is lost on these teens. Overall, abstinence education programs need to get in touch with teen culture and what is most important to adolescents in order for such programs to be successful.

Counter-Proposal for an Alternative Sex Education Program

Abstinence-only education’s lack of emphasis on student’s self-efficacy, media influences, or cultural background makes this form of sex education ineffective (2). A more appropriate sex education program would have several components, including options that would address the student’s need for greater control of their lives and discussions of the cultural and media influences that have an effect on high-school students (4,5,8,9). Such a program could be tailored to fit different classes, but would include three main components: 1) a clear, non-judgmental explanation of different options of contraception, including abstinence, condoms, birth control pills, and other forms, 2) a discussion of how different cultures view sexual activity, including a conversation of how mainstream American media addresses sex, and 3) an opportunity for teenagers to consider their personal feelings about sexual activity and make a decision about whether they will participate in sexual activity.

The review of different forms of contraception should include all proven effective forms of contraception, including abstinence, barrier methods of protection such as condoms, and hormonal methods of contraception such as birth control pills (14). Abstinence-only education programs’ only mention of forms of contraception other than abstinence was to state the potentially devastating effects of the failure of contraceptive devices (1). Many abstinence-only programs took this denigration of contraceptive devices a step further, providing incorrect statistics on the efficacy of contraceptive devices (3). In contrast, a multi-contraceptive approach would present major contraceptive options, including abstinence, barrier methods of protection, and hormonal methods of contraception. Risks and benefits of each method should be discussed; for example, abstinence would be the only completely effective way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

The next component of this sexual education plan would be a discussion of cultural and community views on sexual activity, including modern American culture’s view. This could be tailored to fit specific classes of students, with specific focus on that class’ cultural backgrounds and the sexual activity expectations for adolescents in those communities (9). This part of the sexual education course should also focus on the teen’s more intimate community, including their peer culture and family unit (7). One area of focus for this section would be on how media in that community portrays sexual activity and how parents and family in that culture view teen sex (8). Double standards between boys and girls and other cultural concerns that influence adolescents’ view of sexual activity could also be discussed in this cultural and community awareness portion of the curriculum.

Finally, the last section of the sex education program would be encouraging teens to consider their own values and concerns to determine their personal feelings on sexual activity. Students would be encouraged to consider the contraceptive facts and cultural discussions from the class, along with their own values and views of sexual activity, to come up with a decision on whether they will choose to have sex and if so, what protection they will use. This section would allow teenagers to make this important decision in a thoughtful manner, rather than deciding in the moment without proper facts or consideration of consequences. Ideally, this component of the class would be the culmination of the curriculum, with the facts and discussion facilitating the student’s decision and aiding them in making a conscientious choice about sex.

Addressing the Failure to Enable Teen’s Self-Efficacy

Abstinence-only education failed to enable teen’s self-efficacy by providing them with only one option for sexual activity and threatening them with consequences if they decide not to choose that option (2). Instead of only suggesting one form of contraception, a more broad-based approach to sex education could discuss several evidence-supported methods of contraception, including abstinence, barrier methods of protection, and hormonal methods of contraception (14). Such a discussion should include the pros and cons of each type of contraception, along with proven statistics about the efficacy of the contraceptive efficacy. This immediately gives teenagers a greater sense of self-efficacy by presenting them with more than one option and providing them with facts to aid in their decision rather than warnings to scare them into staying abstinent.

Having teenagers take the time to consider their options, values, and the information provided in class in order to make a decision about sexual activity ensures that teens have a feeling of control over their sexual decision-making (4). This step builds self-efficacy into the curriculum by encouraging them to consider their options without pushing them in any direction or threatening them with consequences if they choose to be sexually active. Instead, by arming them with knowledge about barrier and hormonal methods of contraception, this form of sexual education would hopefully provide teenagers with a sense of confidence that they can make an informed decision that is best for their lives.

Addressing The Social Environment’s Influence

The abstinence-only programs failed to address the roles that media and peers can play in teen’s sexual decision-making (2). The community and cultural awareness component of the alternative sexual education program would help adolescents consider and discuss the influence that media and their peer group can have on their view of sexual activity. Media sources in American culture glamorize sexual activity, so it is imperative such glamorization be discussed by teens in order to understand the image being presented by the media and how it fits in with the teen’s thoughts on sexual activity (15). The discussion of other cultures would also tie in with dialogue about media influences, since different races respond in varied ways to media’s messages (8).

Discussion of peer groups is also a valuable part of the alternative sexual education program that is lacking in abstinence-only education. Peers can influence teen’s decision-making in drastic ways, from decisions about drug use to decisions about sexual activity (16). By facilitating a discussion on their community, including their peer group, the alternative sex education program would allow teenagers to analyze the influence their peers have on them. This analysis could in turn affect the teenager’s decision about sexual activity in the third component of the sex education program – a teen may decide that their peer group’s ideas are in line with their own views on sex or they may conclude that their peers’ ideas on sexual activity don’t fit their own values. Either way, the discussion of peer groups and mass media allows teens to step back and consider their friends’ and greater media outlets’ views of sex, which could influence their decision on partaking in sexual activity.

Addressing Abstinence Program’s Cultural Biases

Abstinence programs’ emphasis on no sex till marriage and warnings that sexual activity could bring shame on a teen’s community failed to consider the diverse cultural and community backgrounds that exist in America (2). By providing teens with information and a dialogue on how different cultures and communities view adolescent sexual activity, the alternative sex education program allows teens the opportunity to consider their own culture’s view of sex and therefore make a decision about sexual activity that is best for their own lifestyle. This open discussion allows teens from different religions and cultural backgrounds to both share their culture’s views on sexual activity and consider how those views affect their decisions about sexual activity (9, 12). This could be especially advantageous for teens from nontraditional homes, such as homes with a single parent or gay/lesbian parents who were unable to get married in their state. Rather than telling these teens that marriage is the only option, which reflects poorly upon their parents, a discussion of community background would provide them with an opportunity to consider how their upbringing affects their view of sexual activity. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transsexual teens would also have the opportunity to consider how their sexual preference, and the views of the GLBT community, could affect their sexual activity, instead of being marginalized by the abstinence-only education’s focus on marriage.


The alternative sex education program proposed allows for teens to learn about contraceptive options and engage in an open dialogue about how their culture, peer group, and media influence their views of sexual activity. These contraceptive facts and discussions can then be used by adolescents in the third part of the curriculum, to make an informed decision about sexual activity. This method would allow all teens to make a thoughtful decision about sexual activity, without feeling marginalized or forced into the decision. Ideally, this broad-based approach to sexual education could help adolescents make more informed decisions about their sexual activity, and feel in greater control of their sexual lives.


  1. No More Money. A Brief History: Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Funding. Washington, DC: Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
  2. Legal Information Institute. U.S. Code Title 42, Chapter 7, Subchapter V, § 710, Separate program for abstinence education. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Law School.
  3. United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform – Minority Staff Special Investigations Division. The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs. Washington, DC: United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform – Minority Staff Special Investigations Division, 2004.
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  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs Final Report. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., 2007.
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  8. Brown, J., L’Engle, K., Pardun, C., Guo, G., Kenneavy, K., and Jackson, C. Sexy Media Matter: Exposure to Sexual Content in Music, Movies, Television and Magazines Predicts Black and White Adolescents’ Sexual Behavior. Pediatrics 2006; 117(4):1018-1027.
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report – Trends in HIV- and STD-Related Risk Behaviors Among High School Students --- United States, 1991-2007. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2008.
  10. Advocates for Youth. The History of Federal Abstinence-Only Funding. Washington, DC: Advocates for Youth.
  11. Fitzgerald, Toni. With teens at least, ‘Gossip Girl’ is hot. Media Life Magazine 2007.
  12. Crosby, R. A., et al. Rural and non-rural adolescents’ HIV/STD sexual risk behaviors: Comparsion from a national sample. The Health Education Monograph Series 2000; 18(1): 45-50.
  13. Alberta, Timothy. Vermont Becomes Fourth State to Allow Gay Marriage. Washington Wire 2009.
  14. Planned Parenthood. Birth Control. New York City, NY: Planned Parenthood.
  15. Stockwell, Michael. More Evidence on Sex, Violence, Media, and Children. Progressive Policy Institute 2006.
  16. Evans, W., Oates, W., and Schwab, R. Measuring Peer Group Effects: A Study of Teenage Behavior. The Journal of Political Economy 1992; 100(5):966-991.

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