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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 3

Response / “Abstinence, No Buts” Is Simplistic

Only comprehensive sex education can begin to meet the developmental needs of young people and address the reality of their lives.

There are no easy answers to the sexual health crisis afflicting our society, including those advocated by Thomas Lickona. The “Abstinence, No Buts” approach does not adequately address the developmental needs of children and adolescents, the reality of their lives, or the societal forces that condition their view of the world.
First, Lickona undermines rational dialogue by dividing educators into artificial, polar camps: “values-free-intercourse promoters,” who push for contraception-based “comprehensive” sex education (the bad guys), and “values-based-intercourse preventers,” who espouse chastity-based “character” education (the good guys). It is neither accurate nor helpful for him to imply that one particular interest group has a corner on instilling character, core values, and ethical thought; on wanting young people to grow up emotionally, socially, physically, and spiritually healthy; on working toward a day when developmental and social problems—such as premature sexual activity, teenage pregnancy, abortion, STD, HIV, sexism, and sexual harassment/abuse/exploitation—no longer threaten our children.
Second, Lickona's definition of “comprehensive” sex education bears little resemblance to the actual approach. Comprehensive sexuality education encompasses not only the complexities of sex and reproduction, but the enormously complicated subjects of human growth and development, gender roles, intimacy, and social and cultural forces that influence our development as males and females (Roffman 1992). Such an approach seeks to help young people understand sexuality as integral to their identity and enables them to make responsible lifelong decisions (SIECUS 1991).
More than 60 mainstream organizations support this approach through membership in the National Coalition to Support Sexuality Education. These include the American Medical Association, American School Health Association, American Association of School Administrators, National School Boards Association, and the Society for Adolescent Medicine. The majority of American adults support such a strategy as well. For example, recent surveys in New Jersey and North Carolina found that at least 85 percent of those surveyed approved of comprehensive sexuality education (Firestone 1993, North Carolina Coalition on Adolescent Pregnancy 1993).
A truly comprehensive approach is ongoing and begins during the preschool and elementary years (Montfort 1993). Curriculums of this type educate, rather than propagandize, children about sexuality. Youngsters learn to ask questions, predict consequences, examine values, and plan for the future. They confront real-life dilemmas: What would happen if? What would you do if? By the middle grades, students learn to take action on issues such as: What can we do to reduce teen pregnancies in this school? To educate students about HIV/AIDS? (See Reis 1989, Kirby et al. 1991, Center for Population Options 1992, O'Neill and Roffman 1992, SIECUS 1993.) Ideally, this approach to sexuality education will be integrated throughout the entire curriculum (Brick 1991).

Why Directive Approaches Fail

  1. It is hypocritical and futile to expect efforts directed at adolescents to solve the nation's myriad sexual problems. Powerful social forces contribute to the early development of unhealthy sexual scripts—about who we are as males or females, how we should act, and issues of right and wrong.For example, the early learning of male gender roles, often linked with violence and the need to dominate, is fundamentally related to problems of rape and harassment (Miedzian 1991). The manipulation of the sexuality of both males and females from an early age, and the stimulation of sexual desires by advertising and other media, are fundamental to the operation of our economic system (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988). Adolescent child-bearing, sexually transmitted diseases, and the spread of HIV are highly correlated with poverty and lack of hope for the future (National Research Council 1987). Further, many problems attributed to teens are not just teen problems: the majority of all pregnancies in this country are unplanned (Heller 1993). Seventy percent of adolescent pregnancies are fathered by adult men (Males 1993).
  2. Directive approaches require a delay of intercourse 10 or more years beyond biological maturity, which is contrary to practice in virtually all societies—unless there is a strict tradition segregating unmarried males and females and chaperoning women (Francoeur 1991).
  3. The success of these proposals requires an immediate, fundamental change in the sexual attitudes and behaviors of a society through mere educational intervention. Such a radical change has never been accomplished. Traditionally, the majority of American males have accepted premarital intercourse, and as early as 1973, a study showed 95 percent of males and 85 percent of females approved of it (DeLamater and MacCorquodale 1979).
  4. Advocates of the directive approach do not prepare youth to make decisions in a highly complex world. They permit no choice but their choice and deliberately deny potentially life-saving information to those who do not conform to their viewpoint.
  5. The curriculums espoused are fear-based, characterized by devastating descriptions of the dangers of all nonmarital intercourse and medical misinformation about abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS, and the effectiveness of condoms. For example, the major cause of condom failure is incorrect usage. Knowledge of proper condom use, of the variations in quality among brands, and of the substantial increase in effectiveness when condoms are used in combination with spermicides greatly reduces the risk for those who choose to have sexual intercourse (Kestelman and Trussell 1991). These sex-negative, emotionally overwhelming, and potentially guilt-producing strategies may well induce problems rather than ameliorate them by leading to unhealthy sexual attitudes, irrational decision making, denial, or rebellion (Fisher 1989).
Moreover, these curriculums are promoted by groups such as Concerned Women for America, the Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family, and the American Life League, which are lobbying heavily to impose Fundamentalist Christian doctrine on public schools (Kantor 1993, Hart 1993).

Distorted and Misrepresented Data

Given these concerns, claims about the success of abstinence-only programs must be examined with extreme caution. Take, for example, the claim that a program in San Marcos, California, greatly reduced teen pregnancies in the mid-80s. In fact, this claim was not based on a scientific study but on the observation of the high school principal reporting the number of students who told the school counselor they were pregnant. After a much-publicized program condemning premarital intercourse, far fewer students reported their pregnancies to school staff; actual census figures for San Marcos indicated that from 1980–1990, the birth rate for mothers aged 14–17 more than doubled (Reynolds 1991). Many other evaluators have challenged the integrity of research documenting these extraordinary claims in support of abstinence-only curriculums (Trudell and Whatley 1991, Kirby et al. 1991, Alan Guttmacher Institute 1993). Such programs may change attitudes temporarily (at least as reported to a teacher), but they do not change behavior in any significant way.
Similar statistical distortions have been used to discredit programs that are not abstinence-only in approach. Seriously flawed is the conclusion, based on data collected in a 1986 Lou Harris Poll, that “teens who took a comprehensive sex education course (defined as one including contraceptive education) were subsequently 53 percent more likely to initiate intercourse than teens whose sex education courses did not discuss contraceptives.”
First, the survey not did ask when intercourse was initiated in relation to the timing of the program; therefore, the word “subsequently” (implying causation) is patently misleading. Second, the analysis ignored the crucial variable of chronological age. Sexual intercourse among teenagers increases with age, as does the experience of having had a “comprehensive” program. Therefore, causation was implied, when in reality, correlation was the appropriate interpretation.
Besides the use of distorted data, groups demanding an abstinence-only approach dismiss people whose values regarding sexual behaviors differ from their own, asserting that these people are “without values.” In fact, comprehensive sex education is based upon core human values that form the foundation of all ethical behavior, such as personal responsibility, integrity, caring for others, and mutual respect in relationships.
Moreover, comprehensive sex education is based on values appropriate to our democratic and pluralistic society—including respect for people's diverse viewpoints about controversial issues.

A Wake-Up Call for Society

Our entire society, not just sex education, has failed to provide children and youth with the educational, social, and economic conditions necessary to grow toward sexual health. In fact, truly comprehensive K–12 sexuality education, which at most exists in only 10 percent of schools nationwide, has hardly been tried (Donovan 1989). Sexuality education—of whatever kind—is neither the cause, nor the cure, for our nation's sexual malaise.
In a society where children's consciousness is permeated by virulent images of sex—where their sexuality is manipulated by advertising and the media, where few adults provide helpful role models—we cannot expect sex education to perform a miracle. Curriculums that provide as their primary or sole strategy admonitions against nonmarital intercourse are destined to be ineffective and, in fact, insult the real-life needs of children and youth. In a society that conveys complex, confusing messages about sexuality, only comprehensive sexuality education can begin to address the diverse needs of youth and promote healthy sexual development.

Alan Guttmacher Institute. (1993). Washington Memo, p. 4

Brick, P. (1991). “Fostering Positive Sexuality.” Educational Leadership 45, 1: 51–53.

Center for Population Options. (1992). When I'm Grown: Vol. II. Grades 3 and 4; Vol. III, Grades 5 and 6. Washington, D.C.: CPO.

DeLamater, J. D., and P. MacCorquodale. (1979). Premarital Sexuality: Attitudes, Relationships, Behavior. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

D'Emilio, J., and E. B. Freedman. (1988). Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. New York: Harper & Row.

Donovan, P. (1989). Risk and Responsibility: Teach Sex Education in America's Schools Today. New York: Alan Guttmacher Institute.

Firestone, W. A. (1993). “Support of Sex Education Grows.” Family Life Matters 18: 1.

Fisher, W. A. (1989). “Understanding and Preventing Adolescent Pregnancy and Sexually Transmissible Disease/AIDS.” In Applying Social Influence Processes in Preventing Social Problems, edited by J. Edwards et al. New York: Plenum Press.

Francoeur, R. T. (1991). Becoming a Sexual Person. New York: Macmillan.

Harris, L. (1986). American Teens Speak: Sex, Myths, TV, and Birth Control. New York: Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Hart, J. (August 28, 1993). “Battle Lines Drawn on Classroom Sex Education,” The Boston Globe.

Heller, K. (February 21, 1993). “Out of Control.” Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine: 18, 20–22.

Kantor, L. M. (1993). “Scared Chaste? Fear-Based Educational Curricula.” SIECUS Report 21, 2: 1–15.

Kestelman, P., and J. Trussell. (1991). “Efficacy of the Simultaneous Use of Condoms and Spermicides.” Family Planning Perspectives 23: 226–232.

Kirby, D., R. P. Barth, N. Leland, and J. V. Fetro. (1991). “Reducing the Risk: Impact of a New Curriculum on Sexual Risk-Taking.” Family Planning Perspectives 23: 253–263.

Males, M. (August 9, 1993). “ Infantile Arguments.” In These Times: 18–20.

Miedzian, M. (1991). Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence. New York: Doubleday.

Montfort, S., P. Brick, and N. Blume. (1993). Healthy Foundations: Developing Positive Policies and Programs Regarding Children's Learning about Sexuality. Hackensack: Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey.

North Carolina Coalition on Adolescent Pregnancy. (Spring 1993). “New Stateside Poll Shows Overwhelming Support for Sex Education in Schools, for Adolescent Health Care Centers, and Access to Contraceptive Services for Teens.” The Network: 1.

National Research Council. (1987). Risking the Future: Adolescent Sexuality, Pregnancy, and Childbearing. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

O'Neill, C., and D. Roffman, eds. (1992). “Sexuality Education in an Age of AIDS.” Independent School 51, 3: 11–42.

Reis, B. (1989). F.L.A.S.H.: Family Life and Sexual Health, 9/10. (1986). F.L.A.S.H. 7/8. (1985). F.L.A.S.H. 5/6. Seattle: Seattle-King County Department of Public Health.

Reynolds, N. (December 19, 1991). “So-Called San Marcos Miracle Actually May Be Just a Myth.” San Diego Union.

Roffman, D. (1992). “Teaching About Sexuality in Independent Schools.” Independent School 51, 3: 11–18.

SIECUS. (1991). Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education. New York: Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S.

SIECUS. (1993). “Comprehensive Sexuality Education: A SIECUS Resource Guide of Recommended Curricula and Text Books.” SIECUS Report 21, 6: 20–23.

Trudell, B., and M. Whatley. (1991). “Sex Respect: A Problematic Public School Sexuality Curriculum.” Journal of Sex Education and Therapy 17, 2:125–140.

Peggy Brick has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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