Abstinence programs: Do they work?

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Megan and Thomas
High School and College Student
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; 1:00 PM

Sex education classes that focus on encouraging children to remain abstinent can persuade a significant proportion to delay sexual activity, researchers reported Monday in a landmark study that could have major implications for U.S. efforts to protect young people against unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

The research, published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, comes amid intense debate over how to reduce sexual activity, pregnancies, births and sexually transmitted diseases among children and teenagers. After falling for more than a decade, the numbers of births, pregnancies and STDs among U.S. teens have begun increasing.

Megan, a 17-year-old high school student who has been involved with the Aspire abstinence program, and Thomas, a 19-year-old from Arkansas and a graduate of an abstinence program who served also as a peer presenter for the program, were online Wednesday, Feb. 3, at 1:30 p.m. ET to discuss abstinence, their personal beliefs and those of their peers, and their comments on the new study.

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Thomas: Im Thomas Askew and I am 19 years old. Well, actually I just had a birthday. I am in my second year at the University. I look forward to your questions and comments.

Megan: I am Megan Phelps and I am a 17 year old senior and John Hersey High School. I am very familiar with the Aspire program and I look forward to answering any questions that come my way.

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Pinellas Park, Fla.: For Megan AND Thomas, what would you say to people who argue that abstinence education does not work, that it is ineffective, and that teenagers are just going to have sex anyway, so we should just focus on teaching them how to be safe while being sexually active?

Thomas: Abstinence is effective every time, and for teens who are having sex anyway, they need to be made aware that there are options out there for them. This should in no way remove the encouragement and expectation of abstinence education as the highest, best, and most responsible choice. For me, abstinence education helped me to get through my high schools years without the social and emotional drama that I witnessed some of my friends going through. Abstinence was promoted as a choice for me, and im glad I had the opportunity and support of an abstinence program in my school.

Megan: Abstinence Education is the most positive and effective means of "sex education." Most kids want to know how to resist the pressures all around them. The media and everyone around us is telling us to do it. We need help standing up to this pressure - that's what the Aspire program does. It teaches students, like myself, to resist temptations and live for the future.

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Leesburg, Fla.: Do you think many of your peers made the choice to become or stay abstinent after taking the abstinence education classes?

Thomas: Yes. Some made the choice to start over, some became stronger in their decision to wait, and for those who wanted to start over the program offered a place for support and guidence through the tough times.

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Littleton, Colo.: Since going through abstinence program, have your general relationships changed and if so how?

Thomas: Yes my relationships have changed. Alot of my intrest and goals in life changed and now my friends look to me for advice more then they did in the past.

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Dallas, Tex.: How much do your school abstinence-only programs talk about religion? Isn't that their emphasis?

Thomas: Religion is never discussed. The program is based on peer support, self improvement, and overall health.

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Chattanooga, Tenn.: Megan and Thomas,

How has abstinence education helped you prepare for your future?

Megan: Being involved in the Aspire program has helped me make decisions for the future and not live in the moment. I have and continue to resist peer pressure. This has given me hope for my future, knowing that one day I will be able to look back and know that the decisions I made in my high school years have benefitted my marriage.

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Fairfax, Va.: For Megan and Thomas. Did your religious beliefs affect your decision to participate in the programs?

Thomas: No. The program was located through one of my classes, and I was not even in a church.

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Longmont, Colo.: Is abstinence education just about learning to "say no"? Do you spend time learning about anything else?

Megan: Its about much more. It teaches students how to "say no" as well has how to to have healthy relationships and make good choices. It is about making plans for the future, such as making commitments and being faithful to them. Aspire gives us lots of ways to focus on our dreams.

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Cleveland, Ohio: How has the abstinence message affected your life personally?

Thomas: Before I became apart of the program I was going down a path in life that was leading straight to teen father hood and drugs. The program caused me to reconsider my choices and friends. Because of the program as a black male I have been given support to break the expected mold as a product as a single parent. Also, the support kept me out of jail, and some of my previous friends are doing jail time right now.

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Bushnell, Fla.: Did they teach you that condoms never or rarely prevent disease or pregnancy in these abstinence classes?

Thomas: No. They showed condoms had a measure of protection and if you were involved sexually they provided resources. They did let us know that condoms did not protect 100%

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Basking Ridge, N.J.: Do you think Bristol Palin should be a spokesperson for abstinence since it failed her?

Megan: Yes, teens need to know that it is never too late to start over. One mistake will not ruin their future. Anyone can choose abstinence. It's never too late.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: Have you found parents to be against or supportive of abstinence education?

Did the abstinence program help you to facilitate discussion with your parents around your sexual choices?

Thomas: Parents in this area seem to be very supportive.

The program provided homework to prompt discussions with parents about sexual choices.

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Annandale, Va.: Did your parents encourage you to participate or did they require that you enroll?

Thomas: It was my choice.

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Washington, D.C.: How is the instruction handled? How is the urge to have sex controlled? Is this a natural thing? How many kids drop out?

Thomas: The instruction is handled by teachers, trained presenters, peers, nurses, and phycians.

Control through extracurricular activities, group gatherings, and self control. Yes, it is natural because the urge to have sex is real. It is like anything else you learn control.

Im sure some just move on for what ever reasons, but in any case they haved recieved valuable information to help start over or to use later in life.

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Falls Church, Va.: To Megan. And why did you make this choice? What singled you out to not follow the pack? Where do your beliefs come from? Did you have a personal experience that made you take this stance?

Megan: I have made the choice to stay abstinent because I aspire to have a happy and healthy marriage. I constantly remind myself that I don't need to do things that are going to hinder me in the future to feel loved. I have my family and my friends who are all supporting me. My older sister, in college, is also waiting. It is not just sex that I abstain from. The Aspire program has taught me to abstain for sex as well as drugs, alcohol, and other negative influences.

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Alexandria, Va.: Thomas, when you were going down that path, what convinced you to get involved in the program? Did you seek a counselor? How did you know that was the way you wanted to go?

Thomas: It was apart of a regular class room presentation, but the program also offered a summer component that i chose to attend cause I had nothing else better to do and I wanted to better myself.

I wasnt 100% sure at first, but the more I hung around and got the support from other fellas who kept it real I realized this was what I wanted. These guys never held anything back from me, they spoke about their struggles, their failures, and was real about how they over came all of it. They became MY support.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Do you think that the abstinence program has reduced teen pregnancies in your area? What evidence do you have, if this is the case?

Thomas: Yes. The number of pregnancy in our local high school has dropped over the years.

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College Park, Md.: To Megan. Can you expand on how the program helps with drugs and alcohol and other problems?

Megan: By teaching teens to stand up for themselves, it stresses them to fill their need for love and attention with more constructive activities. When teens get into sex, they are often also drinking. It helps you understand that if you're doing one thing it can lead to other things.

Its the same with sex. If your drinking, but you wanted to wait - it's probably going to be harder to do that.

Same is true with drugs. If your on drugs you may not be able to resist the pressures at a party.

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Buffalo, N.Y.: Were you required to complete surveys at the end of your course? If so, did you find the questions offensive or intrusive?

Megan: No, there is no survey

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Washington, D.C.: Did you take the abstinence courses as part of your regular high school curriculum or were they in addition to? Did you get academic credit for it?

Thomas: They were included as apart of the high school curriculum through health, career orientation, and volunteer small groups at lunch and before school. Some credit was giving for parental homework sheets.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you recommend it to your peers? Are you encouraged to do that in the program? Is there "converting" going on?

Megan: Absolutely, the Aspire program is a very positive program. It's main objective is to give every teen the opportunity to hear a clear and positive message of abstinence. The program does not demean anyone and it does not tell the students what to do, it merely paints a picture of the path of abstinence.

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Sterling, Va.: What about your classmates that have taken the class...have they also been able to remain abstinent? Do you have any friends who did not take the abstinence class? What choices are they making (or have made)?

Thomas: We all had the option to participate or not and the majority chose to stay and participate, because the presentations were interesting and kept everyone involved. I have some who took the classes and still made their own choices. A large number of my friends have gone on to become peer presenters, mentors, graduates of the program, and summer camp leaders.

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Odenton, Md.: So do you strongly believe that abstinence is the way to go for most young people? How do you square with those who say abstinence is too hard and unrealistic and that safe sex is better?

Thomas: I do believe its the way to go. Its a choice that needs to be elevated and given a place for young people to know it is obtainable. For those who say it is unrealistic. It is only unrealistic as you make it. When you say SAFE sex is better. You have to clarify what SAFE means, because abstinence is the only safe way to avoid the consequences involved in sexual activity. It works every time.

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Megan: I would like to thank you all for your questions. It is questions like these that remind me of the choice I have chosen, to wait until marriage. I really liked the program. I have seen what sex before marriage can do to young men and women, and I am convinced that waiting is the very best choice.

Everything in the media and the peer pressures of high school try to tell students, "It's okay, everyone is doing it, you will feel loved," but they don't give you the whole picture. The Aspire curriculum does by giving you the other side. I know that most of my friends have goals for their future as well, and I know that a program like this would be very helpful for them.

Thank you all for letting my share my thoughts on this issue.

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Thomas: I would to close this out by saying, abstinence needs to remain in the place where students can recieve correct information and ongoing support. Abstinence education allows young people to focus more on relationships without unecessary regrets and drama. Young people need to know that abstinence is a CHOICE that provides for a much brighter future. And I have never felt that the message of contraception should not be taught, but not at the expense of getting rid of abstinence education. I think having a clear abstinence message is what is needed.

Thanks for your comments and interest.

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