Teens are constantly bombarded with sexually explicit messages in the media. Television shows such as The Real World on MTV and Dawson's Creek regularly feature premarital sex and graphic sexual dialogue, and for the past two years, major networks have aired Victoria Secret's lingerie fashion show during prime time. But surprisingly, despite the media's targeting young audiences with sex-saturated shows, teens prefer the abstinence message.
Public opinion polls show that teens value abstinence highly. Nearly all (93 percent) of teenagers believe that teens should be given a strong message from society to abstain from sex until at least after high school.1 A 2000 poll found that 64 percent of teen girls surveyed said sexual activity is not acceptable for high-school age adolescents, even if precautions are taken to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.2 Moreover, teens who have not abstained often regret being sexually active. In 2000, 63 percent of sexually active teens said they wish they had waited longer to become sexually active.3
Teens need to be taught to save sex for marriage, because premarital sex has many negative consequences, both physical and emotional. One of the most obvious outcomes of engaging in premarital sex is having a child outside marriage; today, one-third of all births are out-of-wedlock.4 Teen birthrates have declined since the early 1990s, but the highest unwed birthrates are among those age 20-24, followed by those 25-29.5 This shows that many young girls abstain from sex while they are in high school, but not afterward.
Teen unwed childbearing has negative consequences for mothers, children, and society. Unwed teen mothers are likely to live in poverty and be dependent on welfare, and only about 50 percent of them are likely to finish high school while they are adolescents or young adults.6 Children born to teen mothers are more likely than other children to have lower grades, to leave high school without graduating, to be abused or neglected, to have a child as an unmarried teenager, and to be delinquent.7 Teen childbearing costs U.S. taxpayers an estimated $7 billion per year in social services and lost tax revenue due to government dependency. The gross annual cost to society of unwed childbearing and its consequences is $29 billion, which includes the administration of welfare and foster care programs, building and maintaining additional prisons, as well as lower education and resultant lost productivity among unwed parents.9
Aside from the risk of pregnancy, teens have a high risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Each year 3 million teens -- 25 percent of sexually active teens -- are infected with an STD.10 About 25 percent of all new cases of STDs occur in teenagers; two-thirds of new cases occur in young people age 15-24.11
Chlamydia and gonorrhea are two of the most common curable STDs among sexually active teens. According the Centers for Disease Control, gonorrhea rates are highest among 15- to 19-year-old females and 20- to 24-year-old males, and more than five to 10 percent of teen females are currently infected with chlamydia.12 If these diseases are untreated, they can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility, and ectopic pregnancy.13 Studies have found that up to 15 percent of sexually active teenage women are infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV), an incurable virus that is present in nearly all cervical cancers.14
In addition to being at risk for STDs, unwed sexually active teens are likely to experience negative emotional consequences and to become both more promiscuous and less interested in marriage. Teens who engage in premarital sex are likely to experience fear about pregnancy and STDs, regret, guilt, lowered self-respect, fear of commitment, and depression.15 Also, adolescents who engage in unwed sex at a younger age are much more likely to have multiple sex partners. Among young people between the ages of 15-24 who have had sex before age 18, 75 percent had two or more partners and 45 percent had four or more partners. Among those who first had sex after age 19, just 20 percent had more than one partner and one percent had four or more partners. Premarital sex can also cause teens to view marriage less favorably. A 1994 study of college freshmen found that non-virgins with multiple sex partners were more likely to view marriage as difficult and involving a loss of personal freedom and happiness. Virgins were more likely to view marriage as "enjoyable."17
What influences teens to have sex? There are many factors, including sexually explicit messages in the media, peer pressure, alcohol, and drugs. However, parents also play a major role in whether or not their teen will have sex. In a 2001 poll, 49 percent of teenagers said their parents influenced their decisions about sex most strongly.18 Parents affect teens' sexual decision-making by their marital status, attitudes, supervision, and involvement in their children's lives. A 2000 study of national data found that adolescents living with both of their parents were less likely to engage in sexual activity than those living with single parents.19 Also, a 1994 study found that teens living in a single-parent home at age 14 were more likely to engage in sexual activity and to have sexual intercourse more frequently.20
Parental attitudes toward sex also greatly affect teen sexual behavior. A 1996 study of black adolescents ages 14 to 17 revealed that those who believed their mothers disapproved of adolescent sexual behavior either abstained from sex or had sexual intercourse less frequently. The authors of the study emphasized that "parents need to be firm in their emphasis on abstinence if they wish to discourage their teenage son or daughter from engaging in sexual intercourse."21 The Adolescent Health Study also confirmed the importance of maternal disapproval of sex. Among 8th-11th graders, "when teens perceive that their mother strongly disapproves of them having sex, they are more likely to delay initial sexual intercourse."22
Parental supervision and emotional connectedness between parents and teens play a big role in whether or not teens engage in sexual activity. A 1994 study found that teens living in neighborhoods where most parents work full time and provide less supervision were more likely to have sex.23 Studies have also confirmed the importance of parent-child connectedness. A 1997 longitudinal health study of 12,000 adolescents found that teens were more likely to delay intercourse when they felt emotionally connected to their parents and when their parents disapproved of their being sexually active or of using contraception.24 The Adolescent Health Study also found that "high levels of mother-child connectedness are independently related to delays in first sexual intercourse among 8th and 9th grade boys and girls and among 10th and 11th grade boys."25
In addition to the influence of their parents, teens are also affected by the messages on sex and abstinence that they receive in school. Unfortunately, the majority of schools teach "safe sex," "comprehensive," or so-called "abstinence plus" programs, believing that it is best for children to have all the information they need about sexuality and to make their own decisions about sex.26 Abstinence is downplayed and sexual activity and condom use are encouraged in these curriculums, because it is assumed that kids are eventually going to have sex. A 2002 report by the Physicians Consortium, which investigated comprehensive sex programs promoted by the Centers for Disease Control, reveals that abstinence is barely mentioned and condom use is clearly advocated in these curriculums. Not only do students learn how to obtain condoms, but they also practice putting them on cucumbers or penile models. Masturbation, body massages, bathing together, and fantasizing are listed as "ways to be close" in one curriculum.27
Under a grant from the CDC, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) developed guidelines for comprehensive sex education, which according to SIECUS, are "the most widely recognized and implemented framework for comprehensive sexuality education across the country." These guidelines call for teaching five- through eight-year-olds about masturbation and accepting cohabitation and homosexuality. Upper elementary and junior high grades have classes on these subjects, as well as lessons on sexual fantasies, contraception, and abortion. For high school students, SIECUS recommends adding discussion on using erotic photographs and literature, body massages, bathing/showering together, and oral, vaginal, and anal intercourse. Nearly all of the fifty-page guidelines are devoted to these topics, while only one-half of a page is dedicated to abstinence.28
Abstinence-until-marriage programs, on the other hand, teach young people to save sex for marriage, and their message has been very effective in changing teens' behavior. According to the Physicians Resource Council, the drop in teen birth rates during the 1990s was due not to increased contraceptive use among teens, but to sexual abstinence.29 This correlates with the decrease in sexual activity among unwed teens. In 1988, 51 percent of unwed girls between the ages of 15 and 19 had engaged in sexual intercourse compared to 49 percent 1995. This decrease also occurred among unwed boys, declining from 60 percent to 55 percent between 1988 and 1995.30
Today, there are over one thousand abstinence-until-marriage programs around the United States, and one-third of public middle and high schools say both that abstinence is "the main message in their sex education" and that abstinence is taught as "the only option for young people."31 Started by non-profit or faith-based groups, these programs teach young people to save sex for marriage. However, abstinence organizations do more than just tell teens to say no to unwed sex: They teach young people the skills they need to practice abstinence. Classes cover many topics including self-esteem building, self-control, decision making, goal setting, character education, and communication skills. Sexually transmitted diseases, the realities of parenthood and anatomy are also discussed.32 The effectiveness of birth control may be discussed, but it is neither provided nor promoted in these programs.
Choosing the Best, an abstinence program based in Marietta, Georgia, and started in 1993, has developed curriculum and materials that are used in over two thousand school districts in 48 states. Students in public or private schools are taught abstinence by their teachers, who have been trained by Choosing the Best's staff. Appropriate for 6th through 12th graders, the curriculum teaches students the consequences of premarital sex, the benefits of abstaining until marriage, how to make a virginity pledge, refusal skills, and character education. Choosing the Best involves parents in their children's lessons and teaches them how to teach abstinence to their children.
Longitudinal studies conducted by Northwestern University Medical School in 1996 and 1999 found many positive results among students who participated in classes using Choosing the Best's curriculum. In 1996, 54 percent of the teens who were recently sexually active before participating in the program were no longer sexually active one year later. The 1999 study revealed positive changes in teens' attitudes toward sex. On the pretest administered before the abstinence classes, 58 percent of the teens agreed with the statement, "A teen who has had sex outside of marriage would be better off to stop having sex and wait until they are married," while 71 percent agreed on the post-test. Also, agreement with the statement "The best way for me to keep from getting AIDS or some sexually transmitted disease is to wait until I am married before having sex" went from 71 percent before the course to 84 percent afterwards.33
This abstinence program has also contributed to lower teen-pregnancy rates in Georgia. In Columbus, Georgia, Choosing the Best's materials were used in all 8th grades for a period of four years. A study requested by the Georgia State Board of Education to examine the effectiveness of this curriculum found a 38-percent reduction in pregnancies among middle-school students in Muscogee County between 1997 and 1999. Other large school districts that did not implement Choosing the Best's program experienced only a 6-percent reduction in teen pregnancies during those same years.
Teen-Aid, Inc., based in Spokane, Washington, has been promoting abstinence until marriage and character education for over twenty years. This program seeks to teach young people the knowledge and skills they need to make good decisions and to achieve goals. Parent-child communication is a key component of the Teen-Aid curriculum, as parents are involved in every lesson. In 1999-2000, over 41,000 families in public schools, churches, and community organizations used these materials.
A 1999 study conducted by Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington found many positive results among teens in Edinburg, Texas who were taught the Teen-Aid curriculum. On the pretest administered to students after the course, 62 percent said "having sex as a teenager would make it harder for them to get a good job or be successful in a career," compared to 71 percent on the post test. When asked if they were likely to have sexual intercourse before they got married, 47 percent responded yes on the pretest, compared to 54 percent after taking the course. The Teen-Aid curriculum was also successful at teaching students when human life begins. Before taking the course, 38 percent believed that "a baby is a person or a human being at conception," compared to 47 percent who agreed with this statement after participating in the program.34
The Art of Loving Well Project, a character education program, has also been very effective in teaching abstinence. Developed at Boston University, The Art of Loving Well is a 340-page anthology of literature selections that is used to teach students how to have good relationships. This curriculum was field tested for over four years and is being used successfully throughout the country.
The Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs, which has partly funded this project, commissioned an evaluation of it that found many positive results. For example, students who used The Art of Loving Well were more likely than the control group to agree with the statements "I intend to say 'no' if I am being pressured to have sex" and "Teens who don't pressure their partner to have sex are showing respect for themselves and their partners." Also, among those who reported being virgins on the pretest, only 8 percent reported having sex on the post test compared to 28 percent in the control group.35
Operation Keepsake, a Cleveland, Ohio-based abstinence program started in 1988, has its "For Keeps" curriculum in 90 public and private schools in the greater Cleveland area. It is presently taught to over 25,000 students, including those in middle and high school, as well as college freshman. Along with a classroom component, this program also includes peer mentoring, guest speakers, opportunities to make an abstinence pledge, and parental involvement.
Case Western Reserve University evaluated Operation Keepsake's program in 2001, finding that it is having a positive impact on adolescents' beliefs and behavior regarding abstinence. Over nine hundred 7th and 8th graders completed the pretests and post tests. According to the study, the program had "a clear and sustainable impact on abstinence beliefs" because students in the program had "higher abstinence-until-marriage values" at the follow-up survey than did those in the control group, who did not attend the abstinence program. Among those students who were sexually experienced, 55 percent of those who participated in Operation Keepsake's program were abstinent at the follow-up survey compared to 43 percent in the control group.36
Virginity pledges are also successful in encouraging sexual abstinence among unwed teens. A 2001 study based on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health demonstrated the effectiveness of the virginity pledge. The study found that teens who take a virginity pledge are 34 percent less likely to have sex before marriage compared to those who do not pledge, even after controlling for factors such as family structure, race, self-esteem, and religiosity.37 Also, the 1997 Adolescent Health Study, a longitudinal survey of over 12,000 adolescents in grades seven through twelve, found that adolescents who made a virginity pledge "were at significantly lower risk of early age of sexual debut."38
These are only some of the many abstinence-until-marriage programs in the United States. Their success in changing young people's views and behavior regarding abstinence is due to their telling the truth about sex to young people: that it is meant to be saved for marriage and that it is possible to live a chaste life. Along with this message, they give kids the encouragement and skills they need to save themselves for marriage.
Most abstinence-until-marriage organizations are small non-profits with shoe-string budgets, relying on donations, the sale of their materials, and government funding for survival. Due to their limited resources, they are often unable to meet the demand for their programs. Several directors of abstinence-until-marriage programs said they cannot accommodate all of the schools requesting implementation of their curriculum because they cannot afford to hire more staff.39 These programs need more funding so that they can expand and teach thousands more young people how to save sex for marriage.
The federal government has provided some abstinence-until-marriage funding in recent years, but comprehensive sex education and contraception programs are vastly over-funded in comparison. In 2002, abstinence-until-marriage programs received $102 million, while teen sex education and contraception programs received at least $427.7 million.40 In his last budget, President Bush proposed an increase of $33 million for abstinence-until-marriage programs, following through on his campaign promise to try to equalize funding between comprehensive sex education and abstinence programs. This is a good first step, but it still doesn't bring true parity. It is time for our government to get serious about fulfilling the president's promise to at least level the playing field with respect to funding of the positive and healthy message of abstinence until marriage versus that of premarital sex and contraception.
7 Ibid, p. 205-229, 257-281, Judith Levine, Harold Pollack and Maureen E. Comfort, "Academic and Behavioral Outcomes Among the Children of Young Mothers," Journal of Marriage and Family 63 (May 2001): 355-369 and Amy Conseur et al., "Maternal and Perinatal Risk Factors for Later Delinquency," Pediatrics 99 (June 1997): 785-790. [Back]
16 Centers for Disease Control, "Current Trends: Premarital Sexual Experience Among Adolescent Women -- United States, 1970-1988 ," Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 39 (January 4, 1991): 929-932. Available at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00001869.htm. [Back]
18 International Communications Research for National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, as cited in "Faithful Nation: What American Adults and Teens Think About Faith, Morals Religion and Teen Pregnancy," National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, September, 2001. [Back]
19 John S. Santelli et al., "The Association of Sexual Behaviors with Socioeconomic Status, Family Structure, and Race/Ethnicity Among U.S. Adolescents," American Journal of Public Health 90 (October 2000): 1582-1588. [Back]
21 James Jaccard, Patricia J. Dittus and Vivian V. Gordon, "Maternal Correlates of Adolescent Sexual and Contraceptive Behavior," Family Planning Perspectives 28 (July/August 1996): 159-165, 185. [Back]
24 Michael D. Resnick et al., "Protecting Adolescents from Harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health," Journal of American Medicine 278 (September 10, 1997): 823-832. [Back]
30 Joyce C. Abma and Freya L. Sonenstein, Sexual Activity and Contraceptive Practices Among Teenagers in the United States, 1988 and 1995, Series 23: Data from the National Survey of Family Growth, National Center for Health Statistics, Washington, D.C., April 2001, Table 1. [Back]
33 John T. Vessey, "Choosing the Best Abstinence-Centered Curriculum," Longitudinal Study 1995-1996, Northwestern University Medical School and Project Reality News Release, "Middle School Students Respond to Pro-abstinence Message: Adolescents Show Desire to Defer Sex Until Marriage," May 17, 1999, Available at http://www.projectreality.org [Back]
38 Michael D. Resnick, "Protecting Adolescents From Harm: Finding From the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health," Journal of the American Medical Association 278 (September 10, 1997): 823-832. [Back]