Want kids to hold off on hooking up? Don't preach. Teach them how to negotiate.
Abstinence-only programs have long been controversial - there's little evidence that they prevent sex, and they've been linked to lower condom use.
But for the first time, researchers say, a new scientific study shows that an abstinence-only approach to sex education can stop kids from having sex early on - by dropping religion and morality from the discussion and instead showing youth how to talk their way out of that compromising, pressure-filled moment.
"We took the religion out of it," says Geoffrey Fong, a health psychology professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, who co-authored the study published Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. "[The program]wasn't saying 'you should do this.' It was saying, 'if you don't want to, here's how to avoid it.' "
The study found that Grade 6 and 7 students in inner-city Philadelphia who participated in the eight-hour course were 33 per cent less likely to have had sex in the following two years than students who participated in a control program that taught about health but not about sex. Students in the abstinence-only program were also less likely to have had sex than those who went through a safe-sex-only or a combined program.
Current abstinence programs, Dr. Fong says, typically have a strong religious message, emphasizing morality and using pressure tactics, often to the point of providing inaccurate information. "They are trying to scare kids with information that is dubious from a scientific point of view - for example some of the abstinence programs say that condoms do not work, when in fact condoms do work. They are not perfect, but they are substantially better than nothing."
In the study, the small group sessions focused on communication - teaching kids how to make their own decision about whether to have sex and how to respond to the pressure to have it - without "making a value judgment," Dr. Fong says.
For instance, the participants were asked to brainstorm on the costs, benefits and disadvantages of having sex, to discuss their future goals and then consider how an unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease may affect their future plans. They role-played different scenarios, such as a boyfriend pressuring his girlfriend to have sex. In another exercise, they were asked to choose, by walking to either side of the room, whether they agreed or disagreed with specific statements - such as "it's impossible for a boy to say no to sex" - and then discuss the result.
"Young people want to be empowered to make decisions in the context of their lives," Dr. Fong says. "If they don't want to have sex, they should have the kinds of social skills to talk their partner about not having sex."
For younger teenagers, those skills are especially important, he says, pointing to a U.S. study in which 20 per cent of women between the ages of 18 and 24 reported being forced into sex - for the majority it happened to them before the age of 16 and most often following words or actions without threats.
The study involved 662 African-American students, but Dr. Fong says there's nothing to suggest the results wouldn't be matched among students in Canada or in other ethnic communities. The abstinence-only course didn't stop all the students from having sex, but after two years, only one-third reported doing so compared with one-half of the control group.
And while a comprehensive sex education that combines safe-sex information with abstinence is still a more complete option, John Jemmott, a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania's school of medicine and the study's lead author, says the findings offer a science-based approach for segments of the population in which abstinence "is the only acceptable approach."
The research did make a troubling finding. Although previous studies have shown that safe-sex education increases condom use, this one found no difference in use among any of the programs - students in the abstinence course who had lost their virginity within the two years were no more likely to have practised safe sex.
That's why putting off sex for even two years, says Dr. Jemmott, has a clear health benefit - research shows that the longer younger people wait to have sex, the more likely they are to do it safely.