Research Questions Abstinence Education

A new study of sex education compares comprehensive programs to ones that promote abstinence only, and finds that teaching abstinence doesn't have a profound impact on reducing young people's number of sexual partners or delaying the start of sexual relations.

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

Well, this morning, Benazir Bhutto, are we going to be talking about Pakistan today?

ALISON STEWART, host:

No, I think we're going to talk about the birds and bees.

BURBANK: Oh, really? I'm always…

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

BURBANK: I'm the last one to get the information.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Well, you are the religion correspondent. We're going to talk a little bit of your work, but we want to set it up in the right way.

There was a study released this week that found when compared with comprehensive sex ed programs, abstinence-only programs, they don't have a really profound impact on reducing the number of sexual partners a kid might have or - even though the federal government had invested millions, hundreds of millions of dollars into abstinence-only programs.

But according to these study, these programs they don't delay when kids have sex or convince them to be abstinent in the first place, so the next logical question was who commissioned the study. It was done by the nonpartisan National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Now, Rachel, you've mentioned, you were the religion correspondent for a year at NPR.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

I did.

STEWART: And you covered a church that believed a little bit more in these comprehensive sex ed programs.

MARTIN: Yeah. The deal was, I mean, these are programs that the federal government has created incentives for. Basically, if your state or your district decides that you want to implement these abstinence-only programs in your schools, then you get incentives. You get money, and that's - and so a lot of these schools end up teaching abstinence only. And there are families, there are churches, other organizations that say, that's not really what we want our kids to have. We want them to have something that's so-called comprehensive in nature in which they talk about stuff like condoms and STDs. I visited one church in particular in Washington State and got to visit a little bit with that particular sex ed class. Here's a bit of that story.

The afternoon youth group at the United Church of Christ in Federal Way raises its voice in song. But this isn't really your typical Sunday school class.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Physical, spiritual, sexual bodies. It's physical, spiritual, sexual me. God gave me sexuality, healthy, holy sexuality.

MARTIN: Eight middle-schoolers are sprawled out on worn couches, multi-colored beads hang from the windows, and the room is pulsing with 14-year-old energy. The group gathers here every week for a course on faith and sexuality. Today's lesson, in the form of a jeopardy quiz game, the nitty-gritty on sexually transmitted diseases.

Ms. AMY JOHNSON (Faith and Sexuality Teacher, United Church of Christ): If a person experiences this sensation while urinating, it can be a symptom of an STD.

Mr. ERIC JOHNSON (Faith and Sexuality Teacher, United Church of Christ): Okay, you have five seconds to confer on that.

Unidentified Man #1: Burning. Burning or stinging.

Mr. JOHNSON: Ding, ding, ding.

(Soundbite of buzzer)

Ms. JOHNSON: Yeah.

Mr. JOHNSON: All right.

Ms. JOHNSON: Can you say what is?

MARTIN: Amy Johnson and her husband Eric are longtime members of the church just south of Seattle, and they started the faith and sexuality classes last year. They teach a curriculum developed by the Unitarian Church and the United Church of Christ about five years ago, called Our Whole Lives. It emphasizes the value and importance of abstaining from sex until marriage, but at the same time, these 14 and 15-year-olds learn about contraception in a very hands-on way.

Eric Johnson leads the exercise.

Mr. JOHNSON: Okay.

Unidentified Man #2: Ultra-sensitive, lubricated…

Unidentified Woman #1: What are these for?

Unidentified Man #2: …latex.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right. What's the expiration date?

Unidentified Man #2: I'm looking for it.

Mr. JOHNSON: All right.

Unidentified Man #2: 2009.

Mr. JOHNSON: Okay.

MARTIN: Amy Johnson explains that part of the goal is to demystify sex, while at the same time revering it as a sacred act.

Ms. JOHNSON: I think that we've covered it so thoroughly. I would hope that it's not such a forbidden fruit kind of thing, you know. It's like this is a natural part of your life.

MARTIN: These kinds of sex education classes have become increasingly popular in the Unitarian Church and the United Church of Christ. And the program has trained more than a thousand teachers from other Christian denominations and some Jewish synagogues over the past few years.

Reverend DEBRA HAFFNER (Director, The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing): We have an obligation to help our young people with this most central and spiritual part of their lives. To do anything less is simply immoral.

MARTIN: Debra Haffner heads up The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. She's part of a coalition of religious leaders who sent out thousands of letters to clergy and congressmen earlier this year urging them to support what they call comprehensive sex education for youth.

She says faith-based sex education classes, like the one at the church in Federal Way, are in part a response to the abstinence-only programs in many public schools.

Rev. HAFFNER: The good news about some of those programs is they do talk about things like peer pressure, you know, they do talk about things like body image. What they don't do is give young people information about how to protect themselves if they do have sex.

Mr. JAY FORSYTHE (Youth Minister, High Point Community Church): They need to know the whole truth. God's not against sex, he just says, hey, you know, wait until you're married.

MARTIN: Jay Forsythe is the youth minister at the High Point Community Church, a large Southern Baptist congregation just down the road from Federal Way in nearby Puyallup, Washington.

His youth and sexuality course is focused almost exclusively on abstinence and religious values. He uses metaphors like cars and sports to illustrate his lessons, instead of condom obstacle courses or STD quizzes. Forsythe says he addresses contraception, but when he does, he focuses on failure rates.

Mr. FORSYTHE: I tell them if you make the choice to dive into sex or have - assuming sexual acts that, you know, you may be protected but then God knows that you did that act and that takes away some of the purity in you.

MARTIN: National leaders in the abstinence movement say that for a school or a church to teach contraception and abstinence is contradictory.

Mr. RICHARD LAND (President, Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission): First of all, I think that you're sending a mixed message.

MARTIN: Richard Land is the head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics Commission. He says teaching kids about contraception in schools or in church is like saying, listen, we want you to wait until you're married, but we don't expect you to listen to us, so here's how to use a condom.

Mr. LAND: We wouldn't do it. I can tell you right now there's not a Southern Baptist Church - there might be one somewhere, but there'll be - I can probably count them on the fingers of two hands that would talk about contraception to unmarried children.

MARTIN: Fifteen-year-old Kelsey Peterson(ph) says that more information has helped her make better decisions. She's a member of the faith and sexuality class at the Federal Way United Church of Christ.

Ms. KELSEY PETERSON (Student, Faith and Sexuality Class, United Church of Christ): It's important not to rip the condom when you open the package.

MARTIN: Here she's learned about everything from condoms to chlamydia, but Peterson is the exception here. She's made a personal pledge of abstinence and wears a diamond ring on her slender left hand to symbolize that promise.

Ms. PETERSON: Like even when I take it off before bed and (unintelligible) too, it's just always a reminder to me that, you know, it's my faith and my promise to myself and to God and to my parents and everyone that I am saving myself until I'm married.

MARTIN: And so how does a class like this fit into that decision?

Ms. PETERSON: I guess this just made me realize how much it means to me. Because I've been in compromising situations where I could say, do I really want to take off my ring and go through with this, or do I want to keep my promise. And this class has helped me keep that promise.

MARTIN: Kids get messages about sex everywhere - TV, movies, magazines, school, their friends. Religious leaders remain divided about the balance of contraception versus abstinence. But one thing they agree on is that if young people are going to learn about sex, one way or another, faith communities have got to join the conversation.

STEWART: Rachel Martin reporting.

Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

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