Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Abstinence-Only Study That Didn't Promote Abstinence-Only

Once again we see the utter FAIL of the media in reporting science. We have a new study, published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, that nominally has to do with abstinence-only and how it could be a very effective form of sexual education.

Except...not really. The study looked at several different forms of sex education, going from abstinence-only, safer-sex only, and a combination of both (otherwise referred to as comprehensive sex education). They found that the percentage of kids receiving the "abstinence-only" program that had sex after two years was lower than the other groups, with the "safer-sex only" group being the highest. This sounds pretty conclusive! Perhaps!

Unfortunately, there are a lot of specifics to this study that are important to tease out. First, the group of kids that they looked at were 12-14 years old (basically, received education at 12, followed up with a survey at 14). The average age, in the U.S., when people have sex the first time is roughly 16-17. Granted, I don't have the statistics on standard deviation here, but I'm fairly confident that you're looking at a group where the percentage of people who are having sex is going to be...well, I'd be willing to bet outside the first standard deviation. If I'm wrong about this, and if anyone actually does have the full statistics on hand, please, send them my way. So, my first criticism - the age group they're looking at isn't exactly the best for determining long-term effectiveness (also note, 33% of this group had sex anyway. Granted, that's lower than the other two groups, but...we're still talking about a large percentage of the group. Another criticism is that no matter what the sex education, a lot of kids are still going to have sex at a young age. A more important question than whether or not you can prevent them from having sex until they're a few years older may be whether they have the knowledge to do it safely. I wish I could add "smartly" to that, much as I know kids are going to have sex, pretty much no matter what, I don't think it's usually the smart thing to do).

My second, and more important criticism, is that this isn't an abstinence-only program! At least, it's not the sort of A-O program we're used to seeing and that have been funded by the government in previous years. That is to say, this program is abstinence-focused - it suggests that kids hold off on sex until they're "ready," (not necessarily until marriage), it doesn't present the information with any moral overtones, sex is not described as dirty or bad or evil, and while they don't specifically promote contraceptives, they clear up some of the myths associated with them (largely fueled by other A-O programs) and don't disparage them. In short, you have a program that says, "Hey, you know, it's a good idea to wait until you're ready to have sex because it's a big emotional commitment, and there are huge possible consequences. But if you're going to do it, at least be informed about the facts of contraceptives and be safe about it." Hmm...that sounds like a program I could support, and it sure has hell doesn't sound like any A-O program I've ever heard of before.

See, I would actually support this program, but not under the title of "Abstinence-Only." I would totally grant "Abstinence-Focused," but that's a completely different matter. The real problem here is how the study has been reported. Conservatives have been crowing over it since its release (well, to be honest, it's the only study to show any effectiveness for "abstinence-only" education, even if it's just nominally, so I suppose they've been waiting a long time), and, of course, the media is all a buzz, twitterpated, as it were. See, for example, CNN's discussion. Here it's all breathless excitement about a "game-changer," and how abstinence education really works! But as I've already said, no, not really. They mention about halfway through the article that the program doesn't have moral overtones and focuses on abstinence till you're "ready" instead of until marriage, but fails to mention that this kind of program could already receive funding under the current administration's plans and is not disqualified as the disproven A-O claims of other programs.

This isn't difficult, media, really. It takes a little extra effort, a few extra strokes at the keyboard, but...seriously. You're just adding fuel to fire to allow people to call this abstinence only and how it just goes to show that we were right to fund those programs all along (even when they didn't work!). I'm disappointed, but not surprised. Wait, maybe that means I'm not really disappointed, just a bit more jaded. Thanks, Media!

Post-Script Note - My criticisms are primarily directed towards the media reporting of this study, but I will level one major criticism at the study title itself - "Efficacy of a Theory-Based Abstinence-Only Intervention of 24 Months." I don't know if these guys are trying to rebrand abstinence only, which would be okay with me; don't see a problem with playing with the commonly-known conception of the word, which happens a lot in science and is largely forgivable; or are trying to promote other abstinence-only education programs, which don't work, and which I would definitely have a big problem with. I'm going to give them the benefit of a doubt and say that it's potentially one of the first two, but...I guess we'll see. In an extremely positive note, and a bit of good on CNN for including it (though at the very end, of course), the study authors do go on to say that it is not an effective long-term strategy, because the expectation is that eventually, one way or another, people will have sex. Their primary goal seems to be reducing adolescent sexually-transmitted diseases, so, I'm actually rather in favor of these authors...I just really wish they had chosen a different name for the paper. And that the media wouldn't hype it as if all those other A-O programs really worked all along. That's the primary FAIL here.

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