Condoms are Fine, but Don't Teach Kids to Say No to Sex

Telling kids to put off sex until marriage doesn't sit well with mainstream journalists. 

When a recent study came out that undermines abstinence-only education, the media gave it a full ride, but the same media refused to cover research supporting abstinence education, or criticisms of the anti-abstinence study.    

On June 8, The Institute for Research and Evaluation in Salt Lake City released a report that studied federally funded abstinence-only programs and found that the best ones “can reduce teen sexual activity by as much as one half.” IRE's report also questions the methodology of the much-hyped Mathematica study, released in April 2007, which challenges the efficacy of abstinence education.  The Institute's work is frequently peer-reviewed, and preeminent sex researcher Douglas Kirby included some of its findings on abstinence education in his 2001 Emerging Answers survey of notable research in the field.  However, the media has so far kept mum on the Institute's abstinence education report. 

The selective coverage is a pattern. 

In March 2007, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sponsored the “Abstinence Education Evaluation Conference” in Baltimore, MD to present peer-reviewed research on state abstinence-only programs.  Nearly 400 experts and critics from around the nation attended.  The conference assessed 10 empirical, peer-reviewed studies of abstinence-only programs in 10 states; nine of them found such programs to be extremely effective.  The event was a victory for abstinence education, but even the local press decided to go AWOL.    

The National Abstinence Clearinghouse distributed a press release on the event on April 13.  The release cited ten other peer-reviewed studies favorable to abstinence-only education, and stated: “Recent media have reported that abstinence education is ineffective. While these reports cite one study, there are many more substantive reports that show otherwise.”   NAC President Leslee Unruh vented her frustration: "Opponents of abstinence education have refused to recognize the abundance of both general research that supports abstinent behaviors and programmatic research, which demonstrate the effectiveness of abstinence education.”  But the media didn't pay attention. 

Is the media one of the opponents of abstinence education Unruh was referring to?

The same media devoted hours of coverage to a study alleging that abstinence education is a failure.  In April 2007, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. released a study, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, assessing abstinence education programs.  Mathematica released two significant findings: first, that abstinence-only “programs had no effect on the sexual abstinence of youth,” and second, children in abstinence programs “were no more likely to have unprotected sex” than children not in the programs.   

National Public Radio's Larry Abramson, April 13: “Does it make sense for the government to spend $170 million a year on abstinence education?...But abstinence education critics say, in fact, the administration has been pushing this approach almost exclusively at the expense of comprehensive programs that are more effective.”

CNN News's Joe Johns, April 13: “But critics argue, abstinence-only programs are not realistic. They do not provide kids with the facts with things about like condom use, and that could leave the kids naive about protecting themselves if they do have sex.”  Johns did not cite a single study supporting abstinence-only education.

ABC's Dianne Sawyer on Good Morning America, April 16: “A government report finds abstinence-only education programs are not working.”


An AP article in the New York Times, April 15:  “Students who participated in sexual abstinence programs were just as likely to have sex as those who did not, according to a study ordered by Congress.”

Dr. Stan Weed of the Institute for Research and Evaluation has criticized the Mathematica study  for, among other things, sampling youth almost exclusively from single-parent, poor African-American households and analyzing programs that provide no follow-up instruction after middle school. 

National Abstinence Education Association Executive Director Valerie Hube claims the programs analyzed were “still in their infancy” and that abstinence-only programs have improved significantly since 1999 when Mathematica's longitudinal study began.  

But the media has so far ignored the criticism. 

David Niedrauer is an intern at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.