Abstinence-Based Sex Ed Only Hurts Our Kids

Religious extremists believe sex education of the young, if it exists at all, should consist of telling teens over and over, "Don't do it!" For these ideologically driven parents, giving young people actual information about sexuality would create a tsunami of teen lust that would leave our society awash in, well, teen sex.

But then there's the evidence.

In a recent New York Times article, Indiana University Pediatrics Professor Aaron E. Carroll describes how a few years ago, “Congress began to shift funding for sex education to focus on evidence-based outcomes, letting effectiveness determine which programs would get money.”

He then provides an overview of the outcomes of abstinence-based vs. comprehensive (teaching beyond an abstinence-focused approach) sex ed programs. The outcomes of these curriculums can be measured along a series of metrics, including: amount of sexual activity, number of sex partners, frequency of unprotected sexual activity and rate of sexually transmitted infections.

In study after study, abstinence programs failed to provide the desired outcomes in comparison to comprehensive programs. According to Carroll: “This year, researchers published a systematic review of systematic reviews (there have been so many), summarizing 224 randomized controlled trials. They found that comprehensive sex education improved knowledge, attitudes, behaviors and outcomes. Abstinence-only programs did not.”

In other words, if you want your teens to have more sexual partners, more unprotected sex, more risk of sexually transmitted infections, then abstinence programs are the right choice.

Now Carroll never really explains why telling young people, "Don't do it" doesn't work. But there is a very easily understandable reason why abstinence-oriented teaching doesn't work that I’ve consistently witnessed in my decades as a marriage and family therapist: It is based on repression of sexuality rather than intelligent management of sexuality. No matter what we believe about the morality of having sex in a given situation or at a given stage of life, we are going to have more success in achieving our goals employing intelligent management practices than we are with taking a ball peen hammer to our heads and repeating, "Don't, don't, don't."

Intelligent management of our human needs and desires works better than repression when we're trying to eat healthier, to lose weight, to handle our finances — anything, really. Why wouldn't this approach work better for dealing with our sexuality? Well, it does. The reason for this: That which is merely repressed will inevitably become expressed inappropriately.

Our children have a right to age-appropriate sexual information that helps them to manage their sexuality intelligently. Our children were born of sexual activity, they were conceived as sexual beings, they always have and always will have sexual identities. The notion that they won't "do it" because they're ignorant about sexuality would fail to explain the last million years of doing it.

Yet despite the preponderance of evidence, the current administration recently canceled funding for 81 evidence-based programs without consulting Congress. The federal government’s pendulum shift in thinking — away from an ideological approach and toward an evidence-based one — is now swinging back to the opposite extreme.

There's an old rabbinical saying that, "He who fails to teach his son a trade, teaches him to steal." Ideologues who put their beliefs ahead of their own child's need to learn about how to manage their sexuality intelligently are teaching their children the worst of all sexual lessons.

Author and speaker Steven Ing believes in a novel approach to sex education: Let’s teach our kids how to intelligently manage their sexuality, then watch them thrive. Go figure. Email asking@stevening.com or tweet @steveningMFT with ideas for future columns.

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