Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

March 19,  2007  



Sexual abstinence message not working

By Thomas F. Coleman

A recent study of American sexual behavior suggests that the federal government may be wasting millions of tax dollars promoting "abstinence until marriage" among young adults. 

Research by the San Francisco Chronicle shows that more than $1 billion in federal funding has been provided for abstinence-only sex education programs in the past 10 years.  The Bush administration budgeted $241.5 million for such programs during this year alone.

A recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center indicates that only 36 percent of Americans support the abstinence-only sex education method.  More than 80 percent favor a more balanced approach, with educational presentations including birth control methods as well as abstinence.

The Census Bureau reports that Americans are waiting longer than ever to marry, with 25 now being the median age of marriage for women and 27 for men.  But a recent study by the Guttmacher Institute says most adults are not waiting for marriage to have sex.

The Guttmacher Institute is a nonprofit organization that studies reproductive health and sexual behavior.  Its new study focused on the sexual practices of about 40,000 people between the ages of 18 and 44.

The study analyzed data from the National Survey of Family Growth.  Results showed that by the age of 20, 75 percent of young adults had engaged in premarital sex.  More than 90 percent had reported such behavior before the age of 30. 

Guttmacher's whistle blowing on premarital sex may fuel further debate over the wisdom of federal funding for sexual abstinence programs.

According to the Guttmacher report, "Almost all Americans have sex before marrying."  The report argues for sex education programs that provide people with skills and information "to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases once they become sexually active, regardless of marital status."

Until recently, federally funded abstinence-only programs had focused on high school teens.  But a few months ago the Department of Health and Human Services clarified guidelines for its 2007 grants. 

The Department wanted would-be recipients of federal funds to know that money was available for abstinence-only sex education programs to target 19 to 29 year-old adults as well high school teens.

Lawrence Finer, director of domestic research at the Guttmacher Institute, suggested that abstinence programs should be closely scrutinized.  He questioned the effectiveness of telling people in their twenties to wait for marriage to have sex.

Another study released a few months ago by the Barna Research Group, suggests that programs promoting abstinence until marriage will have little, if any, effect on young adults, including young Christians.

Barna is a well respected nonprofit research organization whose clients are primarily Christian ministers and churches.

The Barna study shows that two thirds of Americans in their twenties and thirties believe that unmarried cohabitation is morally acceptable, while more than half find no fault with sex outside of marriage. 

A portion of the Barna study focused on the attitudes of "born-again" Christians in their twenties and thirties.  The attitudes of these young adults raise questions about the effectiveness of government funded programs telling young adults that premarital sex is bad. 

Nearly 60 percent of young adult Christians felt that unmarried cohabitation and premarital sex are morally okay. 

These studies suggest that federal bureaucrats who dish out grant money for abstinence-only sex education programs, and conservative members of Congress who authorize such funding, have their heads in the sand. 

Could it be that these abstinence-only promoters are in a state of denial about the extent to which premarital sex has become the norm in American society?  Could it be that they really don't want to know the truth?

As Mark Twain once quipped, "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle is one politician whose head is not in the sand. 

When he saw that new federal rules would limit how much sex educators would be prohibited from discussing contraception and sexually transmitted diseases, Doyle "just said no" to a $600,000 federal grant for abstinence-based sex education in his state.  Doyle felt the new rules went too far in gagging sex educators.

As many as 12 other states are considering the possibility of following Doyle's lead.

Perhaps there is hope for honesty in education after all.

To read other editions of Column One, click here.

Unmarried America 2007

Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.  Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.