Oh no! Abstinence works?

So a new study on the effectiveness of abstinence education came out and it's interesting to look at how it's being covered. First, let's look at a story from the past about a study that showed that there was no difference in the effectiveness of abstinence programs and their counterparts that instruct teens in how to use birth control:

Study Casts Doubt on Abstinence-Only Programs

A long-awaited national study has concluded that abstinence-only sex education, a cornerstone of the Bush administration's social agenda, does not keep teenagers from having sex. Neither does it increase or decrease the likelihood that if they do have sex, they will use a condom.

Two things to note. The first is how a study showing that there is no difference in the effectiveness of these two types of sex education programs becomes an indictment of only one. Why doesn't the study cast doubt on programs that teach kids how to put condoms on penises?

The second point is how, well, "conclusive" the study is made out to be. The four communities studied become a "national study." And while there were people who thought that the study did a poor job of separating out students who received both types of education or controlling for socio-economic factors -- the lede is very cut and dry. The study "concluded" something very bad about all abstinence education.

Compare that with how the Associated Press reported a new study showing abstinence education to be highly effective in reducing and delaying sexual activity among youth compared to programs that teach children how to use birth control and condoms or combine abstinence messages with birth control instruction. The study, which appears in the American Medical Association's latest Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, showed a surprisingly significant one-third decrease in rates of sexual activity compared to non-participants. And the decrease persisted a full two years after they attended the class. Students in the other programs showed no reduction in sexual activity or increase contraceptive use in the short or long term. OK, here's how the AP's Lindsay Tanner began her story:

An experimental abstinence-only program without a moralistic tone can delay teens from having sex, a provocative study found.

Isn't that interesting? Some studies "conclude" while other studies merely suggest that something "can" happen. Why is that? And what in the world is up with that "without a moralistic tone" line? The reporter continues:

Billed as the first rigorous research to show long-term success with an abstinence-only approach, the study differed from traditional programs that have lost federal and state support in recent years. The classes didn't preach saving sex until marriage or disparage condom use.

Instead, it involved assignments to help sixth- and seventh graders see the drawbacks to sexual activity at their age, including having them list the pros and cons themselves. Their cons far outnumbered the pros.

Now, I had to review abstinence curriculum for a story I wrote last year and the fact is that there is no one "abstinence-only approach." Any reporter who has reviewed the curriculum of popular abstinence programs knows that it is improper to describe them as "abstinence-only." That is the term favored by critics of abstinence programs and it's a great term of polemics but that does not describe what the programs aim to do. The abstinence curricula I reviewed actually dealt very little with any discussion of avoiding sexual activity. For the most part, they aimed to teach youth how to set goals and achieve them, how to assess and avoid risky behavior, how to improve one's self esteem. None of the programs I reviewed "preached" anything or even "disparaged" anything.

The fact is that Tanner's opinions aren't appropriate for the lede of a story about a study. These opinions and characterizations of abstinence programs do exist in the sex education thunderdome and it certainly wouldn't be difficult to attribute them to someone from, say, Planned Parenthood. But they shouldn't be in an AP story presented as fact.

I'm still completely uncertain how the abstinence program in this study, which shows such dramatically different outcomes, differs from some of the myriad other abstinence programs out there.

The Washington Post's story on the study, written by Rob Stein, is better. The top of the story lays out the facts without too much editorializing. But then we also get this:

Several critics of an abstinence-only approach said that the curriculum tested did not represent most abstinence programs. It did not take a moralistic tone, as many abstinence programs do. Most notably, the sessions encouraged children to delay sex until they are ready, not necessarily until married; did not portray sex outside marriage as never appropriate; and did not disparage condoms.

It's really weird for me to read a paragraph like this. And not just because both Stein and Tanner use some of the same phrases (I think they may have borrowed from the press release announcing the study).

The curricula I reviewed spent much more time on boosting self-esteem, achieving goals and avoiding risky behavior than discussing -- much less disparaging -- condoms or premarital sex. And I also wonder how we're discussing "most" abstinence programs. I don't know how many abstinence programs there are but has there been a good comprehensive review of the curriculum? Or are these reporters merely summing up their own research? If I hadn't done my own review, I'd be much more accepting of these blanket statements. But something isn't quite right about them. At least Stein's story does note that there are other perspectives:

But abstinence supporters disputed that, saying that the new program is equivalent to many other well-designed abstinence curricula that are thorough, tailor their messages to students' ages and provide detailed information.

"For our critics to use marriage as the thing that sets the program in this study apart from federally funded programs is an exaggeration and smacks of an effort to dismiss abstinence education rather than understanding what it is," said Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association.

When dealing with a beast as complicated as sex education, it behooves a reporter to let the advocates battle it out rather than taking sides in the news pages. Some did better with that than others.

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