Abstinence-only sex education

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Abstinence-only sex education is a set of curricula used in many schools that teaches that the best way to avoid unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases is by abstaining from sex before marriage. Most Western countries teach more or less comprehensive sex education, but many political and religious groups in the United States and elsewhere have advocated switching to a curriculum of teaching only abstinence. In the United States, this kind of sex education became increasingly prevalent during the administration of George W. Bush[1].

In May 2009, the Obama Administration removed abstinence-only from its budget.[2]

In the United States

While abstinence-only education may be more common in the United States, it is by no means a national consensus.


An exclusive focus on abstinence is strongly supported by socially conservative and religious groups on moral grounds. They argue that comprehensive sex education, which includes references to methods of birth control, represents an implicit admission that sexual intercourse between (unmarried) teenagers is morally acceptable, a notion they seek to combat.

For example, the Family Research Council's policy is that the standard of sexual behavior is abstinence outside heterosexual marriage, which they contend

would help to reverse many of the destructive aspects of the sexual revolution, including sexually transmitted disease rates of epidemic proportion, high out-of-wedlock birth rates, adultery, and homosexuality. In accordance with this position, the best sexuality education embraces sexual abstinence outside of marriage. The abstinence-until-marriage approach promotes optimal physical and psycho-social outcomes for youth and young adults. FRC maintains that contraceptive-based or comprehensive sex education is destructive, providing mixed risk messaging and an overly narrow focus on physical health alone.[3]

Other groups with similar positions include the American Family Association and Concerned Women for America.


Proponents of comprehensive sex education have criticized abstinence-only programs in public schools for their religious content, which they claim, in the United States, violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution Establishment Clause of separation of church and state. Representative Henry Waxman has criticised the many scientifically flawed arguments and ideas presented in abstinence-only curricula.[1] Critics, backed up by a number of scientific studies, have argued that abstinence-only sex education is ineffective, and there is evidence that those who are taught to abstain from sex rarely do - and when they break their abstinence, they often engage in unsafe sex without contraception. Some critics have also claimed that there is evidence to show that teenagers taught abstinence-based sex education are more likely to engage in anal and oral sex, believing that these don't count as sex.

Abstinence-only teaches "chastity: the most unnatural of the sexual perversions" [4].

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a semi-autonomous division of the pro-choice organization Planned Parenthood, the increase in teen pregnancies and abortions in 2006—reversing a downward trend started in the 1990s—is directly caused by the increase in the use of abstinence-only programs,[5] though there is no clear evidence for the relation between the two phenomena.

Abstinence-only requirements in American foreign aid

In international development programs focused on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, a three-pronged "ABC" approach is advocated: "Abstinence, Be faithful, Condoms". The George W. Bush Administration passed a policy that made it a requirement of any program funded by the United States to teach abstinence only. One of the first acts in office by U.S. President Barack Obama was to reverse this policy. The Institute of Medicine of the National Research Council have stated that the Bush policy interferes with prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.[6]

In the United Kingdom

Since the Learning and Skills Act of 2000, comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education is taught to school pupils across all of the constitutive countries in the UK, although the exact delivery of sex education varies between the four countries and between schools. Most schools accommodate parents who choose to opt-out. Sex education is delivered both through science classes (which teach the biological facts of sex) and PSHEE - Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education - classes, which provide information on use of contraception, sexually transmitted disease, and the laws regarding sex, consent and rape/sexual abuse. Abstinence does not form a significant part of this arrangement. Abstinence does exist in the form of religious bodies who advocate it through churches and parachurch organizations.

The American religious abstinence group Silver Ring Thing which was started by Denny Pattyn in 1996 in Yuma, Arizona, launched in Britain in 2004, and runs "high-energy" abstinence rallies and sell abstinence rings. Lydia Playfoot, a schoolgirl, took a case to the High Court charging that the uniform policy of her school infringed on her Article 9 (freedom of religion) and 14 (freedom from discrimination) rights under the European Convention of Human Rights when they prevented her from wearing the Silver Ring Thing abstinence pledge ring. The Court rejected her claim. It has since been revealed that Playfoot's parents and grandfather are involved in the administration of Silver Ring Thing (UK) Limited, which is based in Horsham, West Sussex, where Playfoot and her family live. The court decided that the abstinence pledge ring is not an essential component of Ms. Playfoot's religious identity (like, say a crucifix might be) and therefore are not protected under Article 9.


  1. 1.0 1.1 United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform Special Investigations Division, The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs, December 2004, prepared for Representative Henry Waxman
  2. "Obama budget cuts funds for 'abstinence-only'", Reuters, 7 May 2009
  3. Abstinence and Sexual Health, Family Research Council
  4. Aldous Huxley, Eyeless in Gaza
  5. Sharon Jayson. Teen pregnancy, abortion rates rise, USA TODAY, January 26, 2010. Retrieved on January 26, 2010.
  6. ‘Abstinence-Only’ Rule Hurts Fight Against AIDS, Research Report Asserts, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, May 2007