A report that found some abstinence-only education programs do little to discourage teens from having sex only shows a small part of the picture, a Health and Human Services Department official said on Monday.
Newer sexual education programs are often more comprehensive and HHS is doing more to monitor them and make sure they are working, said Harry Wilson, associate commissioner at the Administration on Children, Youth and Family at HHS.
“We are taking it and managing the program. We are trying to collect as much data as can. We have got a study of 400 curricula going on,” Wilson said in a telephone interview.
For the report issued Friday, Mathematica Policy Research Inc. interviewed 1,200 teenagers in rural and urban communities in Florida, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Virginia who had taken part in abstinence-only education programs four to six years before.
They compared their behaviors to 800 similar students who had not taken part in abstinence-only programs.
They found few differences. About 25 percent in both groups had already had sex with three or more partners and 23 percent of both groups reported having had sex and always using a condom.
Teens in both groups reported they had first had sex at just under the age of 15 on average.
A waste of money?
Advocates of more comprehensive sexual education in school said the report showed that abstinence-only programs, which got mandated federal funding starting in 1998, do not work and are a waste of money.
Wilson, whose department took over the program in 2005, said he disagreed. The study only looked at four programs and they were among the first of their kind.
The programs stopped after middle school, before most of the children were likely to become sexually active.
Wilson said sex education of all types will likely have to continue after children are in high school to be effective.
“The most striking thing to me as parent was that it showed the average age of sexual debut at 14.9,” Wilson said.
“Whether you think abstinence is best or comprehensive is better, we have to start facing as a nation that kids are starting to make these decisions at an (early) age.”
Wilson said he did not understand why so many advocacy groups responded so strongly to the report. The Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Advocates for Youth and California Democratic Rep. Harry Waxman all said the report demonstrated that abstinence-only education programs waste money.
“What people have misunderstood is that it is not like we have kids in a box and we open the top and throw abstinence education in and nothing else gets in,” Wilson said.
“Other grants fund comprehensive sex education, too. As a parent, how I want my kids to be raised is I want them to get all the messages but of course I want to push abstinence as much as I can — especially at the age of 14.”