Promoting Abstinence Won’t Help Prevent Teen Pregnancy, But Funding More Youth Programs Will

Although teen birth rates are dropping, the United States still has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the developed world. Particularly since American teens are often shamed about their sexual choices, rather than receiving the actual resources they need, the country has a long way to go when it comes to the way it approaches teen sexuality. The results from a new study underline the point that although abstinence education programs don’t work, a different focus on youth services can effectively lower the rate of teen pregnancies.

Researchers from University of Minnesota found that teenage girls at high risk for unintended pregnancy were more likely to take steps to lower their risk of becoming pregnant, like regularly using condoms and birth control pills, after receiving additional support from a youth-focused program. Over the course of their study, over 250 sexually active girls between the ages of 13 and 17 were split into two groups — about half were placed in a “Prime Time program” designed to help mitigate risky sexual behaviors by providing personal case management and youth leadership opportunities, while the rest of the teens didn’t receive any special counseling or support. Significant differences emerged in the teens’ sexual behavior:

All of the participants completed a survey two years after enrolling in the study. This was six months after the girls in the Prime Time intervention completed the program.

The girls in the Prime Time program reported “significantly more consistent” use of condoms, birth control pills or a combination of both types of contraception than those in the control group, the researchers found.

The girls in the Prime Time program also reported increases in family connectedness and self-confidence to refuse unwanted sex, as well as reductions in the perceived importance of having sex, the study authors noted in a journal news release.

Ultimately, as the study’s authors concluded, “health services grounded in a youth development framework can lead to long-term reductions in sexual risk among vulnerable youth.” But those health services may not be widely available across the country — particularly in rural areas that tend to have conservative attitudes about sex, where teens may not feel comfortable seeking out the resources they need.

In particular, the 26 states that require health classes to push ineffective abstinence-only curricula — a misguided approach to sexual education that teaches adolescents to be ashamed of their bodies, rather than equipping young people with the tools they need to safeguard their health — would actually be better served by investing money in support programs for at-risk youth. If the U.S. reoriented its approach to teen sexuality, including acknowledging the fact that young men also have a role to play in preventing unintended pregnancies, the country could continue taking steps toward improving its relatively poor sexual health.