What A Coincidence!

by tristero

On Monday, the odious Ross Douthat published a dreadful piece of typing urging that public school kids in Alabama be taught that there are no health benefits to masturbation, if their parents want that kind of sex education.* I blogged about it here.

Well, this morning I read in WaPo an article that points to a new study that claims that abstinence-only programs might work. Coincidence that Douthat addressed the subject the day before? I don't think so, but that's another subject.

The thing is, the article is so badly written that it is all but impossible to find out what the study actually found. In fact, the article mostly reports the spin on the study, not the study itself, and the spin is predictable, with the typical lunatics insisting that this proves abstinence only is a fucking great idea - well, actually, a not-fucking great idea, but you know what I mean.

But if you read the article carefully as well as the actual study, or rather the abstract because the study is only available to subscribers, that's not quite the case. It's worth going through in a little detail.

There was a randomized controlled trial of 662 African American students from the 6th and 7th grades. They were assigned to different kinds of sexuality education:
An 8-hour abstinence-only intervention targeted reduced sexual intercourse; an 8-hour safer sex–only intervention targeted increased condom use; 8-hour and 12-hour comprehensive interventions targeted sexual intercourse and condom use; and an 8-hour health-promotion control intervention targeted health issues unrelated to sexual behavior. Participants also were randomized to receive or not receive an intervention maintenance program to extend intervention efficacy.
From the article we can glean the following details about the "8 hour abstinence-only intervention" that "targeted reduced sexual intercourse:"
It did not take a moralistic tone, as many abstinence programs do. Most notably, the sessions encouraged children to delay sex until they are ready, not necessarily until married; did not portray sex outside marriage as never appropriate; and did not disparage condoms.

"There is no data in this study to support the 'abstain until marriage' programs, which research proved ineffective during the Bush administration," said James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth.
In other words, what the study found was that when kids were taught scientific facts, not religious or cultural doctrine, ie, when kids were told the simple truth, namely that sex is best delayed until you're emotionally ready and that sex outside of marriage carries no moral stigma, nor does the use of condoms... well, only about 1/3 of the kids in that group had sex over the next two years.

All of this sounds perfectly reasonable to me. I have no problem with teenagers having sex when they're ready. And likewise, I have no problem teaching teenagers to delay having sex until they're ready. But that is not what's normally meant by abstinence-only education. This is:
As Defined By Section 510(b) of Title V of the Social Security Act, P.L. 104-193

For the purposes of this section, the term "abstinence education" means an educational or motivational program which:

has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;

teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage is the expected standard for all school-age children;

teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;

teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity;

teaches that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical side effects;

teaches that bearing children out-of-wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society;

teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increase vulnerability to sexual advances, and

teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.
And in fact:
Jemmott and colleagues [the authors of the study] indicated that the abstinence-only program used in the study was unusual. In fact, it would not have qualified for abstinence-only federal funding because it did not rely on moral principles, nor did it criticize condom usage.
As far as I can tell, nothing in this study points to the effectiveness of teaching much of the accepted definition of "abstinence only sex education:"

They specifically did not discuss abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage.

They did not teach that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to "avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy [what a ridiculous, insulting phrase], sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems."

They did not teach that "a mutually faithful monagamous relationship n the context of marriage is the expected standard of sexual activity;"

They did not teach that "sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical side effects."

Again: All the study did find was that many kids who were taught the facts and urged to delay (or presumably stop) sexual activity until they felt ready did indeed delay having sex at higher rates than kids who were simply taught the facts but not urged to delay sexual activity.

Not only do I find this unsurprising or unobjectionable, I see nothing whatsoever for the abstinence-only fanatics to crow about. It appears that the only reason the researchers called the encouraging to delay sex program "abstinence-only" was for marketing reasons, ie, to sell this kind of curriculum to school districts who want a program called "abstinence-only." (Needless to say, there is enormous potential for this promotional gimmick to get abused, that is for genuine - and genuinely worthless, not to mention unconstitutional - abstinence only programs to sneak in and get funding. )

Of course, we would need to see the actual curriculum to see if the experimenter's characterization of the delayed-sex group as "abstinence-only" is as misleading as it appears to be. And I have some questions about the design of the study, the most obvious and important being whether the kids in the other groups were taught only the mechanics of sex and how to use condoms and left to draw their own conclusions... or whether they were also urged to delay sex until they were ready. If - if - the latter is so, then there just might be a slight suggestion that teaching condom use may work against delaying sex until ready. But far more focused studies would have to be run to see if indeed that were so.**

In any event, this study confirms what we already knew: straight talk about sex works; bullshit doesn't. There is simply nothing for the Douthats of the world to trumpet in this study's results.

*In fact, masturbation has numerous health benefits, according to this little article I found on America's Most Trusted News Source. Yeah, yeah, it's about masturbation, so the tendency is to snicker and snark. Go ahead. But here's the serious point:

Douthat is saying that even if there is scientific evidence that masturbating is good for you, parents have the right to demand that sex education in their school district teach the exact opposite, or at the very least ignore the scientific evidence altogether.

That's nothing to snark at. That's something to be alarmed about.

** There is apparently another possible reading of this study. According to the description of the different curriculums in the MedPage article linked to above (and again here, it seems to me quite reasonable to conclude that the students did as they were encouraged. The ones who were encouraged to delay, delayed. The ones who were encouraged to use condoms, used condoms. Not surprising.