Evaluating 'just-say-no' programs

EXPERT OPINION/A Penn professor says abstinence education programs may be more benign than we think.

Evaluating ‘just-say-no’ programs

Since 1995 the Federal Government has plowed millions of dollars into promoting sexual abstinence among American youth—and created its share of controversy in the process.

To be eligible for federal funding, abstinence education programs must promote monogamous relationships in the context of marriage and must not endorse contraceptive use. Almost every state in the nation—with the exception of Maine, Pennsylvania and California—has accepted the funding.

Planned Parenthood has condemned abstinence-only education as “one of the religious right’s greatest challenges to the nation’s sexual health” and a report by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) contended that the programs give false or misleading information, such as that the HIV virus can be spread through tears and sweat.

According to Graduate School of Education Professor Rebecca Maynard, Waxman’s findings are likely to be extreme examples and “not the norm.” Maynard, along with a colleague from Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, is conducting the largest and most rigorous evaluation of federally funded abstinence education programs. The research team is following four programs in Virginia, Florida, Wisconsin and Mississippi, and the initial findings from a one-year follow up of 2,310 students were released last summer.

Maynard says that much of what is taught in abstinence education programs is similar to the curricula of comprehensive sex education classes, with class time devoted to such topics as peer pressure and healthy relationships. “The main difference between these programs and ones that wouldn’t pass muster [for federal funding] is that they don’t promote contraceptive use,” she says. “Most traditional ones do stuff about relationships but have a unit or two at the end that deals with contraceptives.”

A large share of federally funded programs have elected to work with young children, in elementary or middle school, who are not yet seriously contemplating having sex. For that reason, says Maynard, “it seems unlikely that the omission of information on contraception is going to have much of an impact.” Many of the older children in the study were also getting information from other sources, such as health education classes. “There’s nothing in the ab-ed curriculum that would contradict what they would be getting in a solid sex-ed curriculum. The program takes you so far and doesn’t go any further.”

Abstinence education’s emphasis on marriage has offended some, though Maynard says in practice most of the programs “go light” on marriage. The reason for that is twofold: many of the children are living in single parent families and, she says, “program staff know that you have to deliver a message that’s not invalidating to the students’ circumstances.” Also, she says, they tend to talk more about healthy relationships and what makes a good friend or date. “Marriage is implicit, but not front and central.”

The availability of federal dollars, says Maynard, has encouraged and promoted community discussion. “They had to come together to talk about it because funding was on the stump. They had to figure out what they could do that would be useful to their kids, that would follow the spirit of the legislation but didn’t violate local values. They found a way to operate in the zone.”

Maynard and her team will continue to follow the four programs to find out in the longer term if the just-say-no message successfully delayed the onset of sexual activity and reduced the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

Originally published on January 26, 2006