Although federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are no longer required to provide instruction on all of the eight points of “abstinence education” laid out in Title V, Section 510 of the Social Security Act, they must exclusively teach abstinence and may not contradict any of the eight points. (See What Programs Must Teach for more information and the full definition.) Many aspects of the definition and guidelines are in direct opposition to the goals and tenets of comprehensive sexuality education, which seek to help young people navigate adolescence and become healthy adults. Though they are often presented to communities and school boards as programs designed to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs consistently ignore many youth who are most in need of information, education, and skills training.
Although abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula vary, they share a number of common characteristics: they promote marriage as the only acceptable family structure, ostracize lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth, stigmatize youth who have been sexually abused, and deny information to sexually active youth.
 
Promoting Heterosexual Marriage as the Only Acceptable Family Structure
 
The definition that guides federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs suggests to young people that all unmarried individuals (both adults and youth) should, and actually do, remain celibate. This is unrealistic in a time when:
  • The median age of first marriage is 28.4 for men and 26.5 for women.[1]
  • Fewer than nine percent of men ages 20–44 and 16 percent of women ages 18–44 were virgins when they were married.[2]
  • Only 10 percent of adult men and 22 percent of adult women report their first sexual intercourse was with their spouse.[3]
Today, there are almost 110 million American adults who are classified as single because they have either delayed marriage, decided to remain single, divorced, or entered into gay or lesbian partnerships.[4] It is not reasonable to expect these adults to adhere to this “standard,” nor is it accurate to teach young people that this is reality.
 
Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, and the federal definition that guides them, present one family structure as morally correct and beneficial to society. Programs go beyond prescribing marriage and suggest that only married people have happy, successful lives. By focusing on the importance of raising children in a two-parent, heterosexual marriage, the guidelines may alienate young people who have single, divorced, widowed, or gay and lesbian parents.
 
Ostracizing LGBTQ Young People
 
By their very nature, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs exclude gay and lesbian youth who cannot legally marry in this country.[5] Unlike their heterosexual peers who may marry, gay and lesbian teens are essentially told that their sexual feelings will always conflict with society’s standards and that they should never engage in sexual activity. While current guidelines for Title V abstinence-only funding suggest that programs “consider the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth and how their programs will be inclusive of and nonstigmatizing toward such participants,” there is no requirement that they do so.[6] 
 
Programs often ignore sexual orientation completely except in discussions of STDs, in which case they often insinuate that gay and lesbian individuals are simply vectors of disease. While it is true that gay and bisexual males in particular are at increased risk for STDs, including HIV, due to several factors including a high prevalence of infection and increased likelihood of engaging in risky sexual behaviors as a result of homophobia or stigma, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs fail to provide these students with any realistic strategies for protecting themselves from these risks.  This is particularly troubling given that men who have sex with men are the only sector of the population with an increasing rate of HIV infection.[7] (See Pride or Prejudice for more information.)
 
Stigmatizing Sexually Abused Youth
 
An alarming number of young people in this country have been the victim of sexual abuse during their young lives. There are over 70,000 of reported cases of child sexual abuse each year.[8] Unfortunately, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs fail to provide this vulnerable group of youth with information or skills that could help them cope with the issue of sexual abuse.
 
In fact, these programs most often portray abstinence from sexual activity as a conscious choice over which a young person has total control. In reality, many young people do not have the choice to remain abstinent due to sexual abuse, rape, and/or molestation. For years, federal guidelines for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs associate sexual abstinence with all things virtuous and sexual activity with a life doomed to failure and many abstinence-only-until-marriage programs take this tact. Not only is this untrue, but it serves to inflict greater harm upon those who have had survived coerced sexual behavior. Such messages are likely to cause further feelings of hurt, shame, anger, and embarrassment in these already victimized young people. (See Scared Chaste for more information.)
 
Denying Information to Sexually Active Youth
 
While it is true that unprotected sexual activity can lead to unintended pregnancies, STDs, or HIV, and that some intimate relationships can be harmful for a variety of reasons, these consequences are possible regardless of marital status. The reality, however, is that the majority of people have had sexual relationships outside of marriage and negative repercussions are far from inevitable. Today, sexual behavior is almost universal among American adolescents and the vast majority of adults did not wait until they were married to become sexually active:
  • 85 percent of young adults ages 18–24 and 56 percent of adolescents ages 15–17 report having “been with someone in an intimate or sexual way (including but not limited to intercourse).”[9]
  • 46 percent of all high school students and 65 percent of high school seniors report having engaged in sexual intercourse.[10]
  • 69 percent of adolescents and young adults ages 15–24 report having engaged in oral sex with a member of the opposite sex, and 55 percent of adolescents ages 15–19 report having engaged in oral sex with a member of the opposite sex.[11]
  • 80 percent of college students ages 18–24 years report having engaged in sexual intercourse.[12]
Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs dismiss the majority of today’s high school students who are sexually active by suggesting that they are less worthy than their abstinent peers and should feel ashamed of their sexual behavior.  In the past, federal guidelines went so far as to suggest that abstinent teens should avoid those who are sexually active.
 
Abstinence certainly is a good choice for young people and is the most effective way to prevent unintended pregnancy and the transmission of STDs, including HIV. However, it is unconscionable to provide young people with information solely about abstinence. Unfortunately, as it has been interpreted by Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services, the federal definition of “abstinence education” prohibits federally funded programs from providing a complete discussion on condoms and contraception in preventing unintended pregnancy and disease transmission. Some programs actually discourage the use of contraception, especially condoms, and many programs have given teens medically inaccurate information and exaggerated failure rates.
 
Programs that teach students that condoms or contraception do not work will not dissuade them from having sexual intercourse. Such programs may, however, discourage teens from using protection when they do become sexually active, thereby putting them at risk for STDs, including HIV, and unintended pregnancy. Students require accurate information on contraception to avoid the negative health outcomes they currently face if they choose to become sexually active. Research shows that almost 15% of sexually active young women ages 15–17, and over 16% of their peers ages 18 and 19, will experience an unintended pregnancy.[13] Estimates place the HIV infection rate among young people ages 13–29 at 34%.[14] Finally, almost one half of adolescents and young adults ages 15–24 contract an STD each year, despite comprising only one quarter of the sexually active population.[15] While condom use among adolescents increased steadily for over a decade, it has decreased since 2003, and in that time over $1 billion was poured into abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.[16] If abstinence-only-until-marriage programs continue to give young people negative messages about condoms, this trend may very well continue, to the detriment of our nation and our youth.
 
Updated November 2010
 


[1] 2009 American Community Survey Table R1204—Median Age at First Marriage for Men (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010), accessed 28 September 2010, <http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/GRTTable?_bm=y&-_box_head_nbr=R1204&-ds_name=ACS_2009_1YR_G00_&-_lang=en&-format=US-30&-CONTEXT=grt>; 2009 American Community Survey Table R1205—Median Age at First Marriage for Women (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010), accessed 28 September 2010, <http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/GRTTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=01000US&-_box_head_nbr=R1205
[2] “Key Statistics from the National Survey of Family Growth: P Listing,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2 July 2010), accessed 20 August 2010, <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nsfg/abc_list_p.htm#premarital>.
[3] Edward Laumann, et. al., The Social Organization of Sexuality?Sexual Practices in the United States (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994).
[4] “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2009,” U.S. Census Bureau, accessed 13 August 2010, <http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/hh-fam/cps2009.html>, Table A1. 
[5] Currently, five states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont) and the District of Columbia permit same-sex couples to marry. A United States District Court judge in California declared Proposition 8, which amended the state’s Constitution to declare that marriage must be between one man and one woman, ending the right of same-sex couples to marry that had been granted by the California Supreme Court, to be unconstitutional on August 4, 2010. That decision has been appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. 
[6] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, “Title V State Abstinence Education Grant Program,” Funding Opportunity Announcement released 2 August 2010, accessed 30 August 2010, <http://www.acf.hhs.gov/grants/open/foa/view/HHS-2010-ACF-ACYF-AEGP-0123/pdf>, 9. 
[7] U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “HIV and AIDS among Gay and Bisexual Men,” Fact Sheet published June 2010, accessed 30 August 2010, <http://www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom/docs/FastFacts-MSM-FINAL508COMP.pdf>, 1. 
[8] “ACF Questions and Answers Support: How many children are abused and neglected each year?” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families (5 April 2010), accessed 20 August 2010, <http://faq.acf.hhs.gov/cgi-bin/acfrightnow.cfg/php/enduser/std_adp.php?p_faqid=68&p_
[9] Tina Hoff et al., National Survey of Adolescents and Young Adults: Sexual Health Knowledge, Attitudes, and Experiences, (Menlo Park, CA: Henry Kaiser Family Foundation, 2003), 14.
[10] Danice K. Eaton, et. al., “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2009,” Surveillance Summaries, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 59, no. SS-5 (4 June 2010):Table 61, accessed 20 August 2010, <http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/ss/ss5905.pdf>.
[11] William D. Mosher et al., “ Sexual Behavior and Selected Health Measures: Men and Women 15–44 Years of Age, United States, 2002,” Advance Data from Vital Health and Statistics number 362 (Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 15 September 2005), accessed 22 October 2010, <http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/ad/ad362.pdf>; Laura Duberstein Lindberg et al., “Non-coital sexual activities among adolescents,” Guttmacher Institute (December 2007), accessed 22 October 2010, <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/JAH_Lindberg.pdf>.
[12] “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System—National College Health Risk Behavior Survey, 1995,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 46.SS-6 (14 November 1997).
[13] Lawrence B. Finer, Unintended pregnancy among U.S. adolescents: accounting for sexual activity (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2010), figure 2, accessed 17 May 2010, <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/JAH-Unintended-pregnancy.pdf>.
[14] H. Irene Hall et al., “Estimation of HIV incidence in the United States,” Journal of the American Medical Association 300.5 (August 2008): 525, accessed 30 August 2010, <http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/reprint/300/5/520.pdf >.
[15] Hillard Weinstock et al., “Sexually Transmitted Diseases Among American Youth: Incidence and Prevalence Estimates, 2000,” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 36.1 (January/February 2004), accessed 30 August 2010, <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1363/3600604/pdf>.
[16] “Trends in the Prevalence of Sexual Risk Behaviors—National YRBS: 1991–2009,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed 20 August 2010, <http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/yrbs/pdf/us_sexual_trend_yrbs.pdf>.