Via AmSpec, a new report by the research firm Mathematica finds that, in a way, both sides in the war over abstinence education have gotten it wrong: Abstinence programs don’t leave the kids who do become sexually active more likely to have unprotected sex, but neither do they make any difference in whether and when the kids begin having sex. In fact, the only difference the programs seem to make is that they leave kids very marginally more informed about various STDs, and very marginally less informed about the efficacy of condoms.
On reflection, this ought to have come as a surprise to exactly nobody. It’s just that the debate has been framed by people who have an inflated sense of educators’ power to shape behavior. (People like, well, educators.) But think back to your own adolescence: Do you feel as though your decisions about whether or at what age to have sex or try drugs were particularly affected by whatever lectures on these topics you received in school? Did it seem like your classmates’ choices were affected? I’m betting against it.
To be honest, I don’t even remember whether our high school sex-ed classes were abstinence-focused or more comprehensive. I used condoms when I did start having sex because I was aware that sex sometimes resulted in babies or diseases, and that wrapping one’s business in a bit of latex made this less likely. I suspect I would have somehow managed to master these complex concepts even without the benefit of hours upon hours of classroom instruction. In other words, my choices—as, I’m guessing yours and those of most kids—were conditioned by the attitudes of my peers and parents, probably some mash of books I’d read and movies I’d seen, and an assessment of the risks and rewards based on the kind of information that’s just floating around in the culture. Lectures from teachers didn’t really figure in.
This seems like it ought to be so obvious that one suspects that, as with so many other culture war issues, the effect on children is (at least for many of the disputants) secondary, because children are being used as a proxy for an expressive conflict between adults. It is, mercifully, not especially socially acceptable anymore to say you want a TV show or film or song banned simply because you find it repulsive, so we talk about content that’s “harmful” to minors, and don’t fuss all that much about actually demonstrating the harms. Similarly, it’s considered a bit boorish to just announce that you find your neighbor’s views about sexuality stupid or misguided or immoral, so we have at it in the guise of a curricular dispute. That the actual content of the curriculum doesn’t seem to make much difference is neither here nor there if the dispute is an end in itself.