National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Chastity After the Sexual Revolution

Against the odds, abstinence-only sex education programs struggle to gain a stronger foothold in the culture

BY Mike Mastromatteo

February 08-14, 1998 Issue | Posted 2/8/98 at 1:00 PM


Chastity educators in the United States have noted a few trouble spots in an otherwise favorable response to morality-based sex education.

With the rise in the number of teenage pregnancies, abortion, and out-of-wedlock childbirth, many have looked with renewed interest on chastity and abstinence as a remedy.

It is generally accepted that high teenage pregnancy and out-of-wedlock birth rates exact a rising social cost in North America. The figures also give a clear indication of a declining moral standard and of the distortion of traditional views of human sexuality, marriage, and procreation.

For Catholic educators, the renewed emphasis on chastity and abstinence embodies the central truths of Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life), and Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). Both seek to overcome the contraceptive mentality by emphasizing the Church's teaching on human sexuality and the sanctity of the marriage bond.

Funding for Chastity Message

The push for chastity education received a tremendous boost in 1996 with congressional passage of a welfare reform bill. Included in the legislation was the Title V provision offering states $50 million over five years to promote to teenagers the lesson to abstain from sex until marriage.

The program is bolstered by required state matching funds that could see as much as $437 million spent promoting the abstinence message.

The legislation was hailed as a major victory for pro-life and pro-family elements in the United States who have long lamented the negative consequences of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and '70s. Although the Title V provision does not permit a religious dimension to chastity education, it is seen as a positive alternative to the position of the “safe sex cartel” that, for decades, has held a monopoly on sexual education tax funding.

Nonetheless some pro-life and pro-family organizations are concerned that family planning advocates, such as Planned Parenthood and the Sexual Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), aim to thwart the Title V provision by casting doubt on the effectiveness of abstinence-only sexual education.

“There are vested interests who are working to preserve the sexual revolution's status quo,” says Teresa Notare, head of natural family planning for the U.S. Catholic bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. “There are many family planning groups who have argued that abstinence-only sexual education has no solid research supporting it.”

Is Chastity Enough?

For example, in its public policy statement, What's Wrong with Abstinence-Only Sexuality Education Programs?, SIECUS argues that abstinence education brings a “fear-based” approach to the discussion. The council also suggests that there is no independent research indicating chastity education is effective.

SIECUS and its supporters call for “comprehensive” sexual education, which recognizes the benefits of abstinence, but also includes information about condoms and other contraceptives as means of avoiding pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted disease.

“If Congress and the states are serious about helping young people delay sexual behaviors and grow into healthy, responsible adults, they will support a comprehensive approach to sexuality education that has a proven track record in accomplishing these goals,” say SIECUS officials.

Chastity supporters admit there is a shortage of independent research supporting abstinence-only sexual education.

“In some cases,” Notare says, “the most we can say is that there is no evidence abstinence education does not work.”

A number of chastity educators are now working to bring to light research into chastity education. Early last year, a group of chastity-centered educational organizations banded together to form the National Coalition for Abstinence Education (NCAE). The coalition's aim is to oversee the implementation of the Title V abstinence education program and to monitor each state's Title V program.

NCAE supporters say the sexual revolution has been “a disaster” for American society. Nonetheless, since 1971, an industry promoting contraception, abortion, and safe sex has grown highly resistant to positive change.

According to the NCAE's Title V National Report Card, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and South Carolina are leading the way with chastity education. The majority of states, however, were given a failing grade.

Part of the problem, the NCAE says, is that abstinence educators have received little federal funding for research into the effectiveness of chastity education.

“There are credible studies to prove that abstinence programs work,” the NCAE says. “But true abstinence programs on the whole have received little or no federal funding for research.”

Pam Reed, assistant director of Project Reality, a Glenview, Ill.-based chastity education organization, suggested the limited amount of research into abstinence education is no accident.

“One of the reasons for the lack of published, peer-reviewed research about chastity is the fact that most of those willing to review the material have a stake in promoting the safe sex mentality,” she says.

Reed cited a report, Choosing the Best, sponsored by Project Reality and the Northwestern University Medical School, which showed that 54% of teens who had been sexually active before taking part in an abstinence-centered education program were no longer sexually active one year later.

Other chastity educators point to the mainstream media ignoring a fall 1997 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association that confirmed the lasting benefits of abstinence-only sexual education.

Richard Tompkins, director of education and research at the Austin, Texas-based Medical Institute for Sexual Health (MISH), agrees that there are pockets of resistance to the promotion of traditional views on marriage, sexuality, and chastity. Established in 1992, MISH is described as the pro-family answer to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood's research agency.

Encouraging Signs

“Two things that are typically done to try to stop abstinence education are trying to label abstinence promoters as religious, right-wing extremists and trying to promote the idea that abstinence programs do not work,” Tompkins says. “They will label abstinence as ‘fearbased’ or, in other words, scaring kids into not having sex.”

Tompkins is optimistic that the Title V program will eventually lead to greater national acceptance of the chastity-abstinence message.

“There are varying degrees of resistance [to abstinence education] in many quarters,” Tompkins says. “However, there are many encouraging signs that many wish to return to saner ideas and policies.”

Pam Reed agrees that “cultural resistance” to chastity education still exists, but suggested that North American society can no longer ignore the failures of liberalized sex education. “When a culture bottoms out it always returns to traditional values,” she says.

Mike Mastromatteo writes from Toronto, Canada.