Sunday, April 15, 2007

Abstinence programs questioned

Study for U.S. finds kids have sex anyway

By Kevin FrekingAssociated Press April 14, 2007WASHINGTON -- Students who participated in sexual abstinence programs were just as likely to have sex a few years later as those who did not, according to a long-awaited study mandated by Congress.
Also, those who attended one of the four abstinence classes reviewed reported having similar numbers of sexual partners as those who did not attend the classes. And, they first had sex at about the same age as their control group counterparts -- 14 years and nine months, according to Mathematica Policy Research Inc.
The federal government now spends about $176 million annually on abstinence-until-marriage education. Critics say the programs aren't working and the study supports their view.
But Bush administration officials cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions from the study. They said the four programs reviewed -- among several hundred across the nation -- were some of the very first established after Congress overhauled the nation's welfare laws in 1996.
Officials said one lesson they learned from the study is that the abstinence message should be reinforced in subsequent years to truly affect behavior.
"This report confirms that these interventions are not like vaccines. You can't expect one dose in middle school, or a small dose, to be protective all throughout the youth's high school career," said Harry Wilson, the commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau at the Administration for Children and Families.
For its study, Mathematica looked at students in four abstinence programs around the country as well as students from the same communities who did not participate in the abstinence programs. The 2,057 youths came from big cities -- Miami and Milwaukee -- and rural towns -- Powhatan, Va., and Clarksdale, Miss.
The students who participated in abstinence education did so for one to three years. Their average age was 11 to 12 when they entered the programs back in 1999.
Mathematica then did a follow up survey in late 2005 and early 2006. By that time, the average age for participants was about 16.5. Mathematica found that about half of the abstinence students and about half from the control group reported that they remained abstinent.
"I really do think it's a two-part story. First, there is no evidence that the programs increased the rate of sexual abstinence," said Chris Trenholm, a researcher at Mathematica who oversaw the study. "However, the second part of the story that I think is equally important is that we find no evidence that the programs increased the rate of unprotected sex."
Trenholm said his second point of emphasis was important because some critics of abstinence programs have contended that they lead to less frequent use of condoms.
The study could have implications as Congress considers renewing this summer the block grant program for abstinence education known as Title V.
The federal government has authorized up to $50 million annually for the program. Participating states then provide $3 for every $4 they get from the federal government. Eight states decline to take part in the grant program.
Some lawmakers and advocacy groups believe the federal government should use that money for comprehensive sex education, which would include abstinence.
"Members of Congress need to listen to what the evidence tells us," said William Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, which promotes comprehensive sex education.
But abstinence educators emphasized that the findings represent less than 1 percent of all Title V abstinence projects.
"The field of abstinence has significantly grown and evolved since that time and the results demonstrated in the Mathematica study are not representative of the abstinence education community as a whole," said Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association.
Greater Memphis Reacts
Christie Petrone, Memphis Regional Planned Parenthood community affairs manager: "Students must be taught about contraception and pregnancy- and disease- prevention methods, in addition to the benefits of abstinence. The Bush administration's increased funding of abstinence-only education programs for fiscal year 2008 is not only fiscally irresponsible, but also endangers the health of our children."
Dr. Carol Rambo, University of Memphis associate professor of sociology: "Abstinence programs will always fail as long as the information distributed about sex is cloaked in reactive, judgmental vocabularies. If educators and parents could talk honestly with children about sex, why it is enjoyable, why it can be dangerous, they might stand a chance. But that would mean that educators and parents themselves had healthy attitudes regarding their own sexuality."
Compiled by Mark Watson

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