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Does “Abstinence-Only” Sex Ed Work?

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Kate Fogarty, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

This post is honor of Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month.

Parents often find it uncomfortable to think about their teenagers dating or possibly becoming sexually active. Fortunately, research shows that communication and education can help teens make responsible choices.

However, there’s no denying that irresponsible sexual behavior and teenage pregnancy are still major problems in the US. In recent years, US policy has often been focused on promoting and funding “abstinence-only” sex education–but some question its efficacy.

Data on Abstinence-Only vs. More Comprehensive Programs

With this in mind, researchers writing in the journal PLOS ONE recently compared teen pregnancy and teen birth rates in states where school sex ed is “abstinence-only” to rates in states where sex ed programs also include information on contraceptive use and STD prevention. Their results, based on data from 2005, were clear-cut. The 21 states with the most restrictive abstinence-only curricula also had the highest rates of teen pregnancies and teen births. This was the case even when factors like statewide personal income, education, race, and ethnicity were taken into account.

Combined Programs: The Best Choice

Importantly, many of the more effective sexual education programs did discuss and promote abstinence as an option; however, they also discussed other methods of pregnancy prevention.

In light of these findings, the authors suggest that comprehensive sex-education programs that cover both abstinence and contraceptive options would be best.

Parent Input is Crucial

While schools play a role in sex education, parents are also vitally important. Open and honest conversation with your teen about sex and relationships can help him or her make wise decisions. If you need help figuring out how to talk about these subjects with your teen, you’re not alone. Visit the websites in Further Reading for resources that will help you approach the topic.

Further Reading:

Office of Adolescent Health, Reproductive Health: Tips for Parents

Talking with Teens: Get Started

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy: Parents

Stay Teen


Stanger-Hall, K., & Hall, D. W. (2011). Abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy rates: Why we need comprehensive sex education in the U.S. PLOS ONE, 6(1), e24658.

Photo Credits: Rohappy/iStock/Thinkstock

(Originally published in a slightly different form as: Church, C. (2012). States with abstinence-only sex ed programs have more teen pregnancies. [Radio broadcast episode]. Family Album Radio. Gainesville, FL:  University of Florida.)