The Latest American Export: Abstinence-Only

The American political climate has been decidedly less friendly to abstinence-only sex-ed over the last several years. As Democrats came to power in 2006 and 2008, they mostly heeded the well-established cache of social science showing that abstinence messaging is less effective in preventing pregnancy and STIs than comprehensive sex-ed. Federal abstinence-only funding didn't disappear, but it dried up significantly.

Yet Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based evangelical Christian group founded by James Dobson, has found another government willing to bankroll abstinence-only education–China's. In a must-read Washington Post article, William Wan reports that thanks to a partnership between the Communist Party and Focus, teenage girls in Yunnan province are being fed many of the same discredited and sexist messages that form the core of American abstinence-only: that it is a girl or woman's sole responsibility to delay sex, and that a boy or man's role in a relationship is to demonstrate chivalry.

The key difference between Focus' work in China and its work in the United States is that in China, in order to satisfy the government, it must not talk about God, Christianity, or ask students enrolled in the program to take a virginity pledge. Wan reports, "government officials quickly stepped in, insisting that the kids pledge to no one but the Communist Party."

This story is discouraging for several reasons. First, one of the few positive outgrowths of China's coercive one-child policy is that birth control has been readily available to poor women. According to the UNFPA (PDF) 84 percent of sexually active Chinese people are using some form of contraception, with many provincial governments providing free condoms to married couples and sex workers.

But China's family planning policies have long been matched by a strong pro-marriage ideology and ideal of pre-marital virginity. The 1980 Marriage Law established minimum ages for marriage of 20 for women and 22 for men. And in a nation with a growing HIV/AIDS epidemic, there remains a strong stigma against unmarried women accessing contraceptive services.

The Post talks to a researcher who estimates that despite these barriers, more than half of all Chinese people are now having pre-marital sex. Responding to this reality with abstinence-only, instead of with greater access to contraception for single people, is the same head-in-the-sand mentality that dominates the American right, and only leads to more unwanted pregnancies and higher rates of sexually-transmitted infections.

One thought on “The Latest American Export: Abstinence-Only

  1. Charles

    You might want to check back in with established social science because the recent studies have shown “abstinence-only” and “comprehensive” sex education graduates use contraception at the same rate. Granted “abstinence-only” graduates are more critical and less trusting of the actual protections of contraception, sometimes to their benefit where they were better able to answer which contraceptive methods prevented which diseases.

    The only other difference may be that “abstinence-only” may show a slight but largely insignificant delay in sexual activity.

    The argument isn’t which one is better, but why are they both so poor at addressing the still high rates of unplanned pregnancies, abortions, STDs, spousal abuse and suicide among our college-aged youth?


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