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The Science of Sex Education (VIDEO)

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What is the most effective way to educate young people about sex? What can we do to minimize unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)? Does abstinence-only education work? Some people think so.

"I'm going to tell you from my own personal life, abstinence works."

First and foremost, anecdotal evidence does not scientific data make. Data is plural for datum. A single datum is not enough to establish a pattern or to induce a cause-and-effect relationship. This is why scientists perform repeatable experiments when they are ethically feasible. When it is impossible to perform an experimental investigation, correlational research is done in the most rigorous way possible.

Second, the data clearly show that abstinence-only education does NOT work. Obviously abstinence works. One cannot get pregnant or contract an STI if one is not engaging in sex. But teenagers are engaging in sex, almost half of them, regardless of how they are being taught. United States teens are equally as likely to have sex as teens in other industrialized nations, but they are twice as likely to become pregnant. And if that's not shocking enough, 25% of teen girls in the US have an STI. Let me repeat that. One out of four teenage girls has a sexually transmitted infection.

What is so different about the United States? Federally funded abstinence education programs. They have been around since 1982. Beginning in 1998, between $59 and $179 million has been funneled to the states each year for abstinence education in schools. And although very new legislation provides funding for scientifically rigorous strategies of teaching sex education, Title V (abstinence-only) funding has been extended to the states for another five years. Incredibly, only 13 states currently require that information presented in sex education classes be medically accurate and factual.

There exists no scientific evidence that abstinence-only education delays the initiation of sexual intercourse in teenagers. It also does nothing to reduce teen pregnancies nor STIs. In fact, abstinence-only education is positively correlated with teen pregnancy and birth rates. Who would have thought that the less kids know about their bodies, birth control, and safe sex practices, the more likely they are to accidentally make babies?!

Community-based programs don't seem to help either. In a randomized study published earlier this year, inner-city youth in Syracuse, NY were taught about abstinence outside of the classroom. Regarding premarital sex, there was no statistically significant difference in young people who were involved in the program than those who were not.

Abstinence-only programs also do nothing to meet the needs of individuals who are at an increased risk of contracting HIV, such as youth who are homeless or have run away, youth who were sexually abused, or LGBT youth. In fact, LGBT youth are often negatively impacted by these programs, since they are completely left out of a conversation centered on waiting until heterosexual marriage until one "should" have sex.

So what does work?

We know that the earlier children have positive school-related experiences, the less likely they are to engage in risky sexual behavior as teens, especially when these children live in impoverished conditions. We also know that when scientifically accurate information about pharmacological contraceptives, condoms, abstinence, and STI prevention is provided to young people in a discussion-based environment, and when those young people are engaged in a conversation that is culturally sensitive, respectful, and non-judgmental, teens are more likely to engage in healthy and safe sex practices, if they engage in them at all.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included an incorrect link referencing that "25% of teen girls in the US have an STI." This error has been corrected.

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