Abstinence Is Foolproof? Think Again!
Originally Published: March 18, 2004
Revised: July 25, 2014
Sixteen-year-old Sabrina, of Edison, NJ, grew up believing that she’d be abstinent until marriage.
“My parents always spoke openly about sex, but it was under the assumption that I wouldn’t do it until I’m married. They’ve always made it clear that they want me to wait,” she says.
But last spring, Sabrina found her first love.
“My boyfriend and I were just so compatible, on so many levels. We got to be so close, so fast,” she says.
Eventually, things started moving fast in a physical direction.
“After a while, sex became a reality. It’s a lot harder to abstain when you’re actually in the moment, faced with that decision,” she says.
Sabrina’s story illustrates one rarely publicized fact—abstinence can fail. Even though teens are taught that abstinence is a “100-percent effective” method of preventing unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STD), abstinence can fail when teens try to practice it every day.
This fact is largely ignored by the powers that dictate the content of abstinence-only sex education, but it’s just common sense to many teens.
How can abstinence fail? The method can be complicated and difficult to use, and hard to maintain for an extended period of time, explains Clara S. Haignere, Ph.D, an associate professor of public health at Temple University, in Philadelphia, who has published research on teens and abstinence failure in the journal Health Education & Behavior.
As a method of pregnancy and STI prevention, abstinence from oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse can be 100-percent effective, but only if it’s used correctly and consistently. If a user (for example, a teen) uses a method incorrectly or inconsistently—whether it’s condoms or abstinence—then the effectiveness rate goes down.
By studying research on teens who abstained for a period of time, Haignere found that abstinence has a user-failure rate between 26 and 86 percent. This rate is higher than the condom user-failure rate, which is between 12 and 70 percent.
“Are teens being given all the accurate information about abstinence if they’re told that it’s ’completely safe’ and ’easy to use’? Abstinence is complicated to use. It requires negotiation skills. Teens have to talk to their partners about it, and use it all the time—every time they’re intimate,” says Haignere.
Abstinence failure can be dangerous for teens if they don’t know how to protect themselves
Katie, 19, of Memphis, TN, understands how difficult it is to be abstinent. She and her boyfriend, who share the same values and religious beliefs, decided to abstain from sex. But, she says, “For the past three years, we really struggled with abstinence. We did pretty much everything except intercourse. Occasionally we’d stop and say, ’No more,’ but then our hormones put us back into the same routines.”
“One night, things went too far,” says Katie. “We still didn’t have intercourse, but later on, I learned there was a possibility I could be pregnant without having intercourse, because his semen came extremely close.”
Like Katie, some teens consider themselves abstinent, even when they participate in other sexual behaviors, like oral or anal intercourse. Even though they think they’ve used abstinence properly—by avoiding vaginal intercourse—they’re still engaging in high-risk sexual behaviors.
This is another case of abstinence failure, since, in order to be 100-percent protected from pregnancy and/or STDs, you have to abstain from oral, anal, and vaginal intercourse—all the time.
Abstinence failure can be dangerous for teens if they don’t know how to protect themselves. A recent study of teens who took virginity pledges finds that while pledgers delayed having intercourse, the ones who eventually did have intercourse were less likely to use contraception—leaving them at risk for unplanned pregnancy and/or STDs.
But most abstinence-only sex educators don’t consider that abstinence can fail, so they don’t prepare teens to use contraception just in case. They continue to inform teens that abstinence is the only, 100-percent foolproof way to avoid unplanned pregnancy and STDs.
For the past three years of high school, Lauren Maurer, 17, of Boca Raton, FL, received abstinence-only sex ed.
“Now that I’ve been in a relationship for over a year and we’re considering becoming sexually active, I realize that my sex ed experiences made me terrified of sex. My teachers made it seem like everyone had an STD, and that contraceptives are expected to fail. If it weren’t for my own reading, I wouldn’t know what kinds of contraceptives are available,” says Maurer.
Haignere thinks that schools should prepare teens for abstinence failure by giving them medically accurate information about contraception. And she thinks the “just say no to sex” approach isn’t realistic, given that nearly half of all 9th–12th graders have already had sexual intercourse, according to the 2001 Youth Risk Behavior survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Look at the public health information given on skin cancer,” says Haignere. “The only 100-percent effective method of preventing skin cancer is to stay out of the sun, but no one in the public health community promotes that as the only alternative, since it’s almost impossible to avoid.”
Given the risks of abstinence failure, many teens are speaking up for comprehensive sex education, which teaches the benefits of abstinence plus accurate information about contraception and STDs.
“Teach teens how to have safer sex. Using condoms and birth control will help a majority of young people,” says Amber, 15, of Torrington, CT. “If teens are taught that no sex is safe sex, they’ll have sex anyway without knowing the right thing to do.”
Editors’ Note: If you would like to make sure that your school gets all the facts about sexual health, learn how you can improve sex ed at your school.
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