The Problem with Abstinence-Only Education

Giggles. Graphic videos of childbirth. Blushes. Condoms stretched onto bright banana peels. Any of that sound familiar? These are the markers of a passable sex-ed course in America —at best students are frightened with rashes and bumps flashed on screen and then handed lists of contraceptives that prevent them; at worst, they are told that homosexuality’s a way to get AIDS.

Sexual education within the American public school system is failing its students due to limited information—especially when relying on the flawed abstinence-only curriculum.

The goal of abstinence-only (AO) education, at its birth, was to decrease teen pregnancy and the spread of sexual transmitted infections, but AO doesn’t even do that. For those who are unfamiliar with the AO education system, it refers to sex-ed courses whose primary goal is to promote abstinence (refraining from sex) outside of marriage as the only true method. Other contraception can only be referenced to share their failure rates (Santelli). This started in the 1980’s because teens were getting pregnant and the HIV/AIDS scare was on the rise (Bass). For many, their sex-ed still sounds strikingly close to this definition of abstinence-only teaching.

However, this curriculum style isn’t even effective. In 2007, the Mathematica Policy Research study found that AO programs produced no change on sexual behavior of adolescents (Trenholm). In several reviews, AO education has been tied to increased rates of teen pregnancy (Haffner, Kirby (2008), Kohler, Stanger-Hall). Plus, AO education isn’t realistic. According to research from the Guttmacher Institute, most adults in the U.S. have intercourse before marriage (Research Division). So, if most people aren’t waiting for marriage, why is that the popularized teaching?

Along with failing to change teenage sexual behavior, this education style has negative repercussions because it imparts a negative perspective towards anything sexual. Last year, in 2018, there were still states mandating negative teaching about homosexuality within public schools. Oklahoma, as of 2018 law, requires that homosexual activity be considered “responsible for contact with the AIDS virus” (“Sex and HIV Education”). Prior to a February 2018 bill from the state’s senate, Alabama’s law on sexual education stipulated that “An emphasis, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state” (Lyman). So, the AO education system doesn’t prepare anyone on how to safely engage in sex and, to some, implies that their sexual desires are wrong.

Currently, there’s some changes happening to improve sexual education, but those changes aren’t widespread yet. Abstinence-only teaching is still heavily used when it shouldn’t be. It doesn’t work and communicates a negative perspective on a normal, human behavior. If you’re still manifesting goals for 2019, add this to the list: no more abstinence-only education.


If you’re at Hamline University, and you’re feeling robbed of the juicy details by an abstinence-only education, reach out to the Women’s Resource Center or myself for our resources.



Bass, Brittany. “The Effect of State Mandated Sex Education on Teenage Sexual Behaviors and Healthy.” ESSPRI Working Paper Series, 20161, 27 November 2016.

Haffner, D. W. “What’s wrong with abstinence-only sexuality education programs?” SIECUS report, 25(4):9–13, 1997.

Kirby, D. B. “The impact of abstinence and comprehensive sex and std/hiv education programs on adolescent sexual behavior.” Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 5(3):18–27, 2008.

Kohler, P. K., Manhart, L. E., and Lafferty, W. E. “Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education and the initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy”. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42(4):344–351, 2008.

Lyman, Brian. “Senate Bill Would Strike Anti-LGBT Language from Sex Ed Law.” The Montgomery Advertiser, Montgomery Advertiser, 14 Feb. 2018.

Research Division, "Trends in premarital sex in the United States, 1954-2003," Public Health Rep. The Guttmacher Institute, 2007.

Santelli, John et al. “Abstinence and abstinence-only education: a review of U.S. policies and programs.” The Journal of adolescent health: official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine 38 (2006) 72-81. Web. 11 Oct. 2018.

"Sex and HIV Education," Guttmacher Institute. Guttmacher Center for Population Research Innovation and Dissemination. 1 October, 2018.

Stanger-Hall, K. F. and Hall, D. W. “Abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates: why we need comprehensive sex education in the us.” PLoS One, 6(10):e24658, 2011.

Trenholm C, Devaney B, Fortson K, Quay L, Wheeler J, et al. “Impacts of four Title V, Section 510 abstinence education programs” (Mathematica Policy Research). Available: 2007.