Sexual Intercourse Prevention

Advocates for abstinence-until-marriage sex education often make the claim that abstinence is the only 100% effective means of avoiding teen pregnancy and STD infection. But is this true?

While it is unquestionably true that completely avoiding any activity that would give the spermatozoa a chance to inseminate an ovum will reduce the chance of pregnancy – save the unlikely event of supernatural seduction – the question remains as to how effective abstinence is at achieving this. Like all forms of contraception, abstinence is not a one-time decision, but a decision that must be made at every opportunity to act otherwise. Abstinence, as we typically refer to it, should probably be rephrased as “abstinence-intention,” as it is the intention of an individual to remain abstinent, but the actual choice to practice abstinence must be made every time the opportunity to engage in sex is available.

Advocates for abstinence are fond of pointing out the difference between the theoretical effectiveness rates of condoms and other forms of birth control, as opposed to the actual, or “real world” rate. But as we have discussed before, the difference in those rates is due to misuse. So, if a condom can fail at a higher rate than the theoretical rate suggests, because of user error, surely abstinence can have a failure rate higher than 0%. A person who is committed to refraining from sexual activity might, when put in a situation where having sex is an available option, choose to have sex. Basic user error.

In a 2007 review of studies on sex education, Dr. Kirby found that “[m]any of the abstinence programs improved teens’ values about abstinence or their intentions to abstain, but these improvements did not always endure and often did not translate into changes in behavior" (Kirby 2007). So, though being taught about abstinence, many teens held a higher opinion of the option to not have sex -- which is great -- but this did not reduce the rate of their engagement in sexual activity to any significant degree.

In a 2008 study that addresses this subject more directly, researchers looked at two groups of teens: one that took a personal pledge to abstain from sex until marriage and one that did not. Among those that did not make the pledge, 55.5% had initiated sexual intercourse within three years. This is pretty typical for the age of the participants. For those that made a commitment to abstain – note this is not those who took part in abstinence education, but made a personal vow to abstain from sex – 33.6% had initiated sexual intercourse within three years (Martino 2008).

This looks promising at first, right? That's a 66% success rate! But, not exactly.

First, these two groups are not equal. One is a typical population of teens, never asked to make a pledge to abstain from sex. The other is a self-selected group that made a promise to themselves to abstain from sex until marriage. Since a certain portion of the population will always choose to abstain from sex, for a myriad of personal reasons, we should expect that those willing to make a personal commitment to such should show considerably reduced sexual behavior. However, even among this self-selected group, one out of three failed in their abstinence-intention.

It should also not be assumed that two-thirds of this group successfully kept their pledge to remain sexually abstinent. The truth is that some portion of the population in both groups were, during those three years, never in a situation where having sex was an option and so never truly had to exercise their commitment to abstinence. So, at best we can say that abstinence-intention among teens has a 33.6% failure rate over a three year period, but in reality it is likely much higher.

So it would seem that abstinence can and does fail. Yet here in Texas, we are offering our teens no education about how to practice safe sex when it does.

Visit Secular Texas to learn more about sex education in Texas and what you can do to bring about change.