Expert: Abstinence education ineffective

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AUBURN – Sex education programs that teach only abstinence are riddled with misinformation, don’t give students health information they need and don’t work, a national expert said Thursday.

Research shows that students who have been taught abstinence-only engage in pre-martial sex at the same rates as those who haven’t.

And when they do become active, they’re less likely to use protection, said Dr. John Santelli, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist at the School of Public Health at Columbia University.

“A friend of mine says the vows of abstinence break more easily than condoms,” Santelli said.

He was the keynote speaker at a “Lead the Way on Controversy” conference for health-care teachers and school administrators. The daylong conference, sponsored by the Maine Department of Education, was at the Hilton Garden Inn.

Santelli praised Maine as “doing the right thing” in rejecting federal money to teach abstinence-only sex education in schools. Instead, Maine schools teach comprehensive sex education that gives information about both abstinence and contraceptives.

“Abstinence is a good choice. We ought to say that loud and clear,” Santelli said. “We support kids on that.”

The problem with the abstinence-only programs pushed by the Bush administration is that they don’t allow information about condoms and contraceptives, except to offer information on how condoms can break and birth control pills can fail, Santelli said.

The “stupid” program is not based on health science, Santelli said. “We ought to get rid of the whole abstinence-only sex education nonsense and replace it with comprehensive, medically accurate, age-development sexuality education like you guys do in Maine.”

Abstinence-only teachings do work in that most students delay having sex, or have sex with fewer partners, but most have sex before marriage, Santelli said.

The average age of Americans having sex for the first time is about 17½. The national average age when people first marry is about 25. A whopping 95 percent of Americans engage in sex before they marry, Santelli said. Given that, it’s important to offer students information on how to protect themselves if they decide to become active.

‘Big myths’

Nationally, unwanted teen pregnancies, abortions and diseases have been reduced by comprehensive sex education, Santelli said. That progress is threatened by the abstinence-only push prevalent in many states, he said.

Santelli offered these “big myths” promoted by abstinence-only programs:

• Sex education and access to contraceptives causes kids to have sex.

There is no evidence, he said.

• Teaching about abstinence and protection is a mixed message.

“There are lots of mixed messages in society that work, he said. Like, “You shouldn’t drink, but if you drink, don’t drive.”

• Describing the limits of contraceptives will stop teens from having sex.

“So if you tell them that condoms have holes in them, or there’s a failure rate, they’ll stop having sex?” That won’t work, Santelli said.

What does work are facts.

“We need to say sex can be risky, but we also need to tell them sex is normal and natural,” he said. That tension presents opportunities to really talk, and listen, to kids, Santelli said.

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