Washington Post Says Abstinence Programs 'Might Work' Just Days after Attacking Them

Rob Stein of The Washington Post rehashed a two-year-old study about teen pregnancy rates on Jan. 26 in order to criticize funding for abstinence programs. Little did he know that he'd have to eat his words just a few days later.

On Feb. 2, Stein wrote another abstinence-centered article, but this time with a very different theme. The headline read: “Abstinence only programs might work, study says.”

A “landmark study” released one day earlier found that abstinence-only programs not only work but have considerably better results than their “safe-sex” counterparts, Stein reported.

“Sex education classes that focus on encouraging children to remain abstinent can persuade a significant proportion to delay sexual activity,” Stein said, summarizing the study which found that over 60 percent of sixth- and seventh-graders who completed an abstinence-focused program delayed having sex during the study's two-year span.

The other classes studied (comprehensive sex education, only “safe sex” or wellness classes) all had higher rates of sexual activity. “Nearly half of the students who attended other classes, including ones that combined information about abstinence and contraception, became sexually active,” Stein wrote.

Contradicting the argument that abstinence education denies teens knowledge of how to prevent pregnancy, Stein added that “the abstinence program had no negative effects on condom use, which has been a major criticism of the abstinence approach.”

According to the article, this study led by University of Pennsylvania professor John B. Jemmott III was the first of its kind. It “produces the highest level of scientific evidence.”

Stein did include skeptics in his report and still found a way to attack some abstinence programs. According to his article, these critics argue that “the curriculum tested did not represent most abstinence programs.”

“It did not take a moralistic tone, as many abstinence programs do,” Stein wrote. “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.”

That is how Stein attempted to tear down a positive abstinence-only study. Many critics of abstinence education, including Oprah have criticized the concept of teaching children to wait until marriage for sex. She asked whether or not “that is a realistic goal.”

The news media have been very critical of abstinence education in the past and in some cases barely reported the new study. The New York Times ran only a short blurb from Associated Press which specified that abstinence programs “without a moralistic tone” can delay sexual activity in teens.

This news brief about the study has appeared in newspapers across the nation, from Oregon to Kansas to Florida

ABC's “Good Morning America” also downplayed the study and presented it in the same way as that AP brief, saying that the program was “effective” because “did not urge kids to wait until marriage. It simply emphasized the negatives of having sex early.”

NPR focused on the idea that “there were no lectures.”  “Unlike previous programs,” said NPR's Brenda Wilson, “it did not define abstinence as delaying sex until marriage.”

She concluded her report by saying, “Other studies have shown that abstinence only programs are not effective.”

USA Today ran a much longer article from AP which only included a single sentence from a group praising the pro-abstinence study. The rest of the article picked apart abstinence-only programs and quoted anti-abstinence groups. Monica Rodriguez of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, was quoted saying the study doesn't mean other abstinence-only programs would work.

"It's unfair to compare this abstinence-only intervention to the typical abstinence-only-until-marriage program that young people in this country have been put through," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez told AP the study probably would be less successful with older, more sexually experienced teens.

The media's response to this pro-abstinence study was typical. In 2007, Culture and Media Institute found that more than 200 stories in major newspapers and on cable and broadcast news programs have reported questionable information about the supposed failures of abstinence education programs while ignoring reliable data supporting them.

Like this article? Sign up for "Culture Links," CMI's weekly e-mail newsletter, by clicking here.