Sunday, December 17, 2006

Abstinence is best? How this country’s ignorance to basic social science principles is ultimately endangering sexual health of youth - Melanie Steeves

Swedish teens are having sex. French and English teens are having sex. Canadian teens are having sex and not so far away… American teens are having sex! This is something we know and something we study, but not something, it would seem, that we, as a nation, are willing to accept. Instead of having open and honest discussions with the adolescents in the country around sex and reproductive care, as most other nations do, the policy in the United States has increasingly been to preach abstinence and pretend the phenomena does not exist. In fact, while there are 3 federal programs dedicated to funding abstinence-only education, there is not one program funded federally that promotes comprehensive sex education policies. (Dailard, 2002)
In terms of statistics, the United States performs poorly on all measures of adolescent sexual health when compared to other developed countries around the world. Teens are disproportionately affected by sexually transmitted infections (STIs). While adolescents aged 15-24 account for 25% of the sexually active population in the United States, nearly half of new STIs occur among this same age group. Teen pregnancy and abortion rates in this country are far higher than those in other nations as well. (Alan Guttmacher Institute fact sheet,

Research has shown that teens are having sex regardless of the type of sex education they receive and that they greatly benefit from having the necessary information to negotiate a healthy and safe sexual relationship. (Kirby, 2001) This essay accepts and supports that view, and moreover, intends to review specific social science principles to illustrate why an abstinence-only approach, when combined with adolescence, may be a recipe for disaster.

Rebellion and establishing a sense of self

Adolescence is a period of physical and mental growth. It is a time when teenagers must navigate their way through the mastery of many developmental tasks. According to the Psychological Basis of Psychiatry, these tasks include establishing a defined sense of self, developing peer groups, cultivating autonomy and separation from family, and preparing for intimate relationships. (Thambirajah, 2005) In fact, Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development postulates that the central goal of adolescence is to establish a defined ego identity. (Thambirajah, 2005) Rebellion is a natural part of this development. Teens push against authority and their parents as a way of establishing their autonomy and their own sense of self. Smoking, ignoring curfews and parental rules, and acting out in school are all ways that teenagers assert their independence.

By teaching abstinence-only sex education and discouraging adolescents from having sex, we may be creating an area where teens can rebel against authority and assert their independence. Adolescents may come to see sex as a forbidden fruit and therefore be more likely to engage in sex acts. If instead, we had frank conversations about sex, they may be less likely to see out sex as a form of rebellion. If sex were normalized in the home and in schools, teens would have no means to push against authority in this area. Instead, they would be able to partake in intimate relationship when they were ready, with the tools and self-efficacy needed to engage in a healthy sexual interaction.

Creating cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is simply defined as the inner tension one feels when one holds two conflicting viewpoints, or when one’s behavior does not match one’s inner morals or beliefs. The theory suggests that an individual will alter their beliefs or behavior to relieve this inner tension, sometimes by irrational means. (Thambirarajah, 2005)

As an example, in a Florida study concerning the impacts of cognitive dissonance, adolescents were put into two groups and read preventative, public health messages that either totally opposed consuming an alcohol-like substance or recommended using moderation in consumption. Half of the subjects then tried the product while the other half performed a random task. The two messages had the same effect amongst the teens who had not tried the product. Interestingly though, participants receiving the abstinence message who also tried the product expressed stronger intentions to use the product than did those who had received the message urging moderation, perhaps to alleviate some of their feelings of inner tension over the conflicting message and their subsequent behavior. (Albarracin, 2003)

Keeping this study in mind, students involved in abstinence-only sex education classes who already have sex may forgo barrier methods such as condoms, to help relieve the cognitive dissonance they feel. That is, because they have been taught they should not have sex, they may deny to themselves that what they are engaging in is a sexual act and they may believe that they, therefore, do not need protection. Comprehensive sex education, on the other hand, acknowledges that teens may be having sex and aims to provide the tools necessary to engage in healthy and safe sexual relationships thus alleviating any threat for cognitive dissonance.

Influence of peer groups

Adolescence is a time when young people are forming their self-concepts largely through their peer groups and experiences. They tend to define themselves in relation to the company they keep, their clique, gang, sports team, etc. Peers operate as guides through an individual’s social world; peers provide the information, rules, and emotional support teens need to separate from their families and move toward independence. (Thambirajah, 2005) As we continue to push abstinence on teens we must realize that we may be alienating many groups of teens and hence, countless numbers of the teenagers we are trying to protect.
As we increase the number of programs geared towards abstinence-only sex education, we need to understand that this message essentially excludes a huge number of adolescents and peer groups. Most teenagers will have sex before they leave high school, an estimated 7 in 10 teens to be exact. (Guttmacher, 2006) Those adolescents who have already had sex will not see how an abstinence-only message applies to them. Additionally, those teens who have not had sex, but who belong to a peer group where sexual experience is normalized will most likely tune out the teachings. Also, the gay and lesbian community may not identify with the wait-until-marriage message, as they are not permitted to marry in nearly all states, and therefore believe that the idea to abstain does not apply to them.

By teaching such a black and white form of sexuality education we are alienating an estimated 70% adolescents. The message of abstinence-only sex education competes with the standards and expectations of many peer groups. In disregarding the influence that peer groups have on adolescents, we are ignoring a huge segment of the teen population and thusly not providing them with the appropriate information about their sexual health. Perhaps if we geared our safe sex messages around the standards and goals of peer groups we would have an easier time reaching out to all adolescents. By engaging student groups in their health rather than dictating appropriate forms of behavior, we could better involve all teens in their reproductive well being.


We know from international research that abstinence-only education may not be the best way to equip the adolescents of this country with the tools they need to protect themselves and negotiate intimate relationships. Rarely, however, do we consider why this approach may not succeed in terms of social science theories and principles. This paper was intended to illustrate how and why our reliance on abstinence has failed to improve the reproductive health of out nation’s adolescent population. The author used basic psychological principles-- cognitive dissonance, adolescents’ reliance on peer groups and adolescent development of self concept-- to highlight the potential shortcomings of our current approach and to suggest methods we could employ to work more effectively with adolescents regarding their sexual health.


Dailard C, Abstinence promotion and teen family planning: the misguided drive for equal funding, The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy, 2002, 5(1):1-3.

Guttmacher. Facts on American teens’ sexual and reproductive health. Alan Guttmacher Institute Website, 2006. Retrieved 11/6/06.

Kirby D, Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy, Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 2001.

Thambirajah MS. Psychological Basis of Psychiatry. Elsevier Limited. 2005, 222-224, 305-311.

Albarracin D, Cohen JB, Kumkale GT. When communications collide with recipients’ actions: effects of post-message behavior on intentions to follow the message recommendations. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 2003, 29(7):834-45.


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