In the past decade, the federal government has spent more than $1 billion on programs that promote abstinence as the only healthy choice to make about sex before marriage. Last week, the government's own long-term evaluation of the initiatives, required by Congress in 1997, showed that these programs seem to accomplish essentially nothing. That's right: Nada. Students in the programs were no more likely to abstain from sex than their peers. And if they did lose their virginity, they tended to do so at the same average age and have the same number of sexual partners as other students did. As Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., put it, "In short, American taxpayers appear to have paid over 1 billion federal dollars for programs that have no impact."
The new study, rigorously conducted by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. on behalf of the government, should be the death knell for abstinence-only programs, which have also drawn criticism for perpetuating gender stereotypes, spreading medical inaccuracies, and ignoring the separation of church and state. While the Bush administration shows few signs of rethinking this pet project, a growing number of states have begun to wise up, rejecting millions in federal funding because they come with abstinence strings attached. The problem is that even larger sums of federal money now bypass state governments and flow directly to community abstinence groups, often in the form of multiyear grants, with little or no oversight. It's up to Congress to stanch this ooze.
The Mathematica study is long-term and has scientific bona fides that are hard to dispute. The researchers focused on four abstinence-only education programs—in Virginia, Florida, Wisconsin, and Mississippi—that received federal money through a program called Title V. Beginning in 1999, the researchers randomly assigned more than 2,000 students either to receive or not to receive abstinence-only instruction, in addition to whatever else they did in school. Then in 2005-06, when the students were on average 16½, the researchers surveyed both groups about their sexual attitudes, knowledge, and behavior. Remarkably, those who'd gotten the abstinence-only ed—some as often as every school day for up to four years—did not behave differently than their peers.