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Comprehensive vs. Abstinence-Only Sex Education

By Amber Reumont

Sex education is often an awkward part of many students’ school experiences, yet studies show it has a significant and serious effect on their sexual health and decision-making. The impact made by comprehensive sex education is positive and lasting; meanwhile, abstinence-only programs often have negative effects upon the students. Comprehensive sexual education is aimed at providing students with a wealth of accurate and up-to-date information. Such education allows students to gain as much knowledge as possible, so they can make confident, informed decisions about their personal health. On the other hand, statistics indicate abstinence-only programs are ineffective and often dangerous to the health of young people. Sex education is an important facet of a young person’s education, as it may strongly influence their future.

Effective sex education encompasses all aspects of sexual health; the teachings cover disease and infection prevention, pregnancy, contraception, relationships, and much more. Although these programs inform students about safe sex, they stress the benefits of abstinence as well, thereby providing students with a variety of information. Therefore, students have access to many perspectives, and they can choose the path that suits them. According to Advocates for Youth, “Evaluations of comprehensive sex education programs show that these programs can help youth delay onset of sexual activity, reduce the frequency of sexual activity, reduce number of sexual partners, and increase condom and contraceptive use.” Comprehensive programs successfully encourage students to have safe sex.

As a result, comprehensive sex education also reduces the risk of teen pregnancy, which is at a record low. Declining rates of teen pregnancy can be attributed, in part, to increased contraception usage. Guttmacher Institute explains, “researchers have found an increase both in teens’ use of any contraceptive method at all and in their use of highly effective methods or dual methods.” Comprehensive sex education instructs students about the various methods of contraception. Although teen pregnancy rates in the United States have reached an all time low, they remain the highest in the developed world. Whereas teen pregnancy rates are the lowest in states with comprehensive sex education, rates are the highest in Mississippi where sex education is not required; when sex education is provided, Mississippi law requires it to focus on abstinence. Think Progress notes that students of comprehensive sex education are 60 percent less likely to get pregnant or get someone else pregnant.

Contrastingly, abstinence-only education leaves out valuable information, endangering the health of its students. These programs claim that abstaining from sex is the best and only method to avoid pregnancy or disease transmission. However, this approach neglects to acknowledge that many young people will engage in sexual activity despite its teachings, and it fails to prepare them if they choose not to abstain. Furthermore, studies show that abstinence-only education fails to actually increase the rates of abstinence among its students; they are also ineffective at delaying sexual activity. In addition to withholding necessary information, abstinence-only programs often present biased and false information as fact. Advocates for Youth reveals many of the program’s falsehoods: “[a] 43-day-old fetus is a ‘thinking person’; HIV can be spread via sweat and tears; condoms fail to prevent HIV transmission as often as 31 percent of the time in heterosexual intercourse; women who have an abortion ‘are more prone to suicide’; and as many as 10 percent of women who have abortions become sterile.” Rather than providing students with medically accurate and varied lessons about sexual health, abstinence-only programs promote a moral agenda.

Although studies have shown comprehensive sex education is effective at delaying sex and promoting safe sex among its students, federal funding for sex education was solely allowed for abstinence-only education until 2010. According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US, “Funding for these unproven programs grew exponentially from 1996 until 2009, particularly during the years of the George W. Bush Administration, and to date Congress has funneled over one-and-a-half billion tax-payer dollars into abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.” When the Obama administration took over, the focus of sex education began to shift away from abstinence-only programs, and two-thirds of the funding to such programs was dismissed. Additionally, roughly $190 million was allocated for teen pregnancy prevention and comprehensive sex education. President Obama further proved his dedication to protecting the health of young people by creating the Office of Adolescent Health. The changing tides of sex education in American schools will promote health among our adolescents.

Comprehensive sex education is proven to have a greater, more positive impact than dangerous abstinence-only education. Students of comprehensive programs are less likely to engage in risky behaviors because they know the methods with which they can prevent disease and pregnancy. As a result, public health coalitions, medical associations, and most American people support comprehensive education. Still, only 19 states require medically accurate sex education. Though President Obama has prioritized comprehensive sex education, 26 states require abstinence to be the focus of instruction. Teen pregnancy is a far-reaching issue, and it can be limited if the focus on comprehensive sex education can expand nationwide.


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Media Producer/Studio Mechanic born and raised in Baltimore. Hoping to change the representation of women in media. Paying the bills working on film/television.