Adolescents don't appear to understand abstinence in the same way adults do. And that's one reason why abstinence-only programs aren't very effective at preventing teenage sexual activity, according to new University of Washington (UW) research.
"Interventions that have been created to encourage abstinence have treated abstinence and sexual activity as opposites. However, teenagers say they don't think of them as opposites," said UW's Tatiana Masters, the study's lead author. "These interventions are less likely to work than more comprehensive sex-education programs because they are speaking a different language."
Masters' study showed that attitudes and intentions about sex were more powerful than attitudes and intentions about being abstinent. "This paper demonstrates that increasing abstinence intention does not lead to less sex. In fact, when abstinence intention and sex intention interact with each other a teenager is more likely to have sex," noted Masters.
Rather than being an either-or-choice, she explained, a teenager's decision to become sexually active can be likened to getting on an escalator. At first, adolescents don't think about sex very much. Once they step on the escalator the first step is abstinence. Then as they begin to be aware of sex, there are other steps and choices to be made that eventually lead to having intercourse.
The study involved 365 adolescents recruited from community centers, youth programs and after-school programs in Seattle who attended an HIV education program. At the start of the study, 11 percent of the boys and 4 percent of the girls had had sexual intercourse. Those numbers increased to 12 percent of the boys and 8 percent of the girls six months later and 22 percent of the boys and 12 percent of the girls one year later.
"Our findings raise serious concerns about the abstinence-only approach as a risk-reduction method for adolescent sexual behavior," the researchers noted. According to Masters, part of the problem is the way abstinence is taught. "Abstinence-only programs often only look at the negatives of sex, not the positive," she said. "With these programs you often hear 'sex just happens' and adolescents are having less safe sex. This detracts from adolescents having a choice, and this leads to more dangerous sex."
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Source: University of Washington