In theory, abstinence from any and all sexual activity is the best way to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancies. Also, in theory, barricading yourself in the library for all four years of college is your best chance to get good grades. Most likely, however, if someone suggested this strategy for academic excellence to you as your only option to do well in school you would roll your eyes and then look for someone who could provide you with more feasible study tips – like how to form a study group or how to take effective notes.

Like expecting a student to be a library hermit, I have always felt that abstinence-only education was unrealistic and misguided. And Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health agrees. A recent study by John Hopkins researcher Janet Rosenbaum, Ph.D., concludes that teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until their wedding night are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not. Moreover, pledgers in the study were less likely to take precautions against STIs and unwanted pregnancies than a peer control group with similar backgrounds who did not make a pledge. Only 24% of the students who had previously made a virginity pledge reported consistent condom use while the control group’s consistent usage was 10 points higher at 34%.

And frankly, why should we be surprised about these statistics when abstinence-only education curriculum often contains incorrect, limited or misleading information about contraceptives and condoms? For example, one curriculum states “Condoms provide no proven reduction in protection against Chlamydia, the most common bacterial STD.” (Choosing the Best PATH, Leader Guide, pg. 18). This is statement is wrong; barrier methods, such as condoms, are 98% effective in preventing most STIs with perfect use and 85% effective with average use. The risk with Chlamydia is that if it goes undetected in a woman she can get pelvic inflammatory disease that can lead to infertility. But abstinence-only education means just that – that students only receive information about abstaining from sex. Abstinence- only educators assume 100% compliance; that students who pledge to remain virgins until marriage do not need information about how to get tested for STIs because they will never have sex with any one other than their virgin spouse. Yet in fact Rosenbaum’s study found that pledgers and non-pledgers have a similar average of sexual partners. And even if the pledgers were to abstain until marriage, they still might want to have some information about spacing and timing pregnancies through the use of contraceptives.

To date, the federal government has spent over one billion dollars of taxpayers’ money to fund abstinence-only education, a sexual health program that does not work and in fact does a disservice for those who receive it. We need to hold our government responsible for this gross mismanagement of funds and expect that they should re-distribute this funding stream towards best-practice public health programs such as comprehensive sexual education.

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