Does Teaching Chastity 101 Really Work?

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They still teach kids about the birds and the bees. It's just that these birds wear chastity belts and the bees pretend they have no desire whatsoever to pollinate the local flowers. According to new studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Alan Guttmacher Institute, that's pretty much the script in one third of American public schools. Such abstinence-only programs, which are particularly widespread in the South, keep the lesson simple: Sex before marriage is wrong, and contraception does very little to keep pregnancies or STDs at bay. Critics charge that abstinence programs ignore the realities of teenage sex and, by keeping kids in the dark about safe sex, contribute to America's relatively high incidence of teen STDs and pregnancy.

Supporters of both abstinence-only education and sex education agree that schools are the main source of sex education for most students. It's the next step that divides the camps: Does safe sex education encourage students to become sexually active? Or does it keep already sexually active kids safe? No one knows for sure, but studies in Europe suggest that open discussion about sex and its attendant risks and responsibilities actually raises the age at which kids become sexually active. And, as many sex educators point out, kids know that sex is out there, and they're curious about it. "Many kids who attend abstinence-only schools think their schools' attitude is unrealistic," says TIME writer Jodie Morse. "They feel that condoms should be available to protect the kids who are going to have sex anyway." Given that abstinence curricula just got an infusion of $250 million in federal funding over the next five years, supporters are under considerable pressure to link chastity lessons to the recent decline in teen pregnancy. And so far that evidence is in short supply.