For the husband-and-wife research team of John and Loretta Jemmott, abstinence education is not a political or moral issue.
“We saw abstinence as one of two general strategies that could be used to reduce unprotected sexual intercourse,” says John Jemmott III, professor in Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication and professor of communication in psychiatry in the School of Medicine. “If you want to reduce STDs, you want to reduce the number of times people have sex without condoms. You can do that in two ways: You can have them use a condom on more occasions, or you can have them abstain from sex. From looking at the literature, we saw most of the emphasis had been on the condom-use side as opposed to abstinence.”
The Jemmotts recently published a study in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine showing that an abstinence-only intervention presented to a group of inner-city pre-teens was more successful in delaying the onset of sexual activity than a program that taught general health.
“This is the first time an abstinence-only intervention has been found to be effective in a randomized controlled trial,” says John Jemmott, the study’s lead researcher.
Funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, the study involved 662 African-American Philadelphia public school students in grades six and seven. The children, whose average age was 12, were randomly assigned to attend one of four eight-hour Saturday programs: an abstinence-only program, a safer sex-only program, an abstinence and safer sex combination, or a health promotion control program.
“We picked an age group where an abstinence intervention would be most likely to show an effect,” Jemmott says. “Not only the age, but African Americans begin having sex at an earlier age as opposed to other groups.”
The abstinence education curriculum was developed by Loretta Sweet Jemmott, professor in psychiatric mental health nursing in Penn’s School of Nursing, in collaboration with a researcher from the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research. It did not advocate waiting until after marriage to have sex or disparage sexually active people, she says. Rather, it emphasized the “benefits of abstinence” in terms of helping pre-teens reach their goals.
“[The students] discussed their plans for the future, their hopes and dreams, and they saw how the potential consequences of HIV might interfere with their ability to reach their goals,” John Jemmott says.
After the classes were complete, the researchers followed the students over the course of the next two years, checking in with them periodically to find out about their sexual behavior. The students submitted their answers through written questionnaires.
“There’s always a problem with socially desirable responses, and we were certainly aware of that,” John Jemmott says. “We tried to set conditions where they were most likely to give honest responses.”
Those results were staggering: The study showed a 33 percent reduction in self-reported sexual intercourse among the abstinence-only group, compared to the control group.
This was big news. Media outlets from National Public Radio to ABC World News to The New York Times carried stories about it, and the study became fodder for those on the ideological extremes of the issue.
But the Jemmotts, who have worked together for two decades, continue to tout the study based only on its scientific findings. John Jemmott would like to conduct another, larger study in order to compare abstinence-only education intervention to a program that teaches both abstinence and safe sex, and Loretta Jemmott continues to work on an abstinence-only curriculum.
“This is important work to do,” Loretta Jemmott says. “We want to come up with strategies to reduce HIV infections, STDs and pregnancy rates for young people.”
Originally published on December 2, 2010