Abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education and the initiation of sexual activity and teen pregnancy

J Adolesc Health. 2008 Apr;42(4):344-51. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.08.026. Epub 2008 Jan 31.


Purpose: The role that sex education plays in the initiation of sexual activity and risk of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease (STD) is controversial in the United States. Despite several systematic reviews, few epidemiologic evaluations of the effectiveness of these programs on a population level have been conducted.

Methods: Among never-married heterosexual adolescents, aged 15-19 years, who participated in Cycle 6 (2002) of the National Survey of Family Growth and reported on formal sex education received before their first sexual intercourse (n = 1719), we compared the sexual health risks of adolescents who received abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education to those of adolescents who received no formal sex education. Weighted multivariate logistic regression generated population-based estimates.

Results: Adolescents who received comprehensive sex education were significantly less likely to report teen pregnancy (OR(adj) = .4, 95% CI = .22- .69, p = .001) than those who received no formal sex education, whereas there was no significant effect of abstinence-only education (OR(adj) = .7, 95% CI = .38-1.45, p = .38). Abstinence-only education did not reduce the likelihood of engaging in vaginal intercourse (OR(adj) = .8, 95% CI = .51-1.31, p = .40), but comprehensive sex education was marginally associated with a lower likelihood of reporting having engaged in vaginal intercourse (OR(adj) = .7, 95% CI = .49-1.02, p = .06). Neither abstinence-only nor comprehensive sex education significantly reduced the likelihood of reported STD diagnoses (OR(adj) = 1.7, 95% CI = .57-34.76, p = .36 and OR(adj) = 1.8, 95% CI = .67-5.00, p = .24 respectively).

Conclusions: Teaching about contraception was not associated with increased risk of adolescent sexual activity or STD. Adolescents who received comprehensive sex education had a lower risk of pregnancy than adolescents who received abstinence-only or no sex education.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Female
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy in Adolescence / prevention & control*
  • Pregnancy in Adolescence / statistics & numerical data
  • Program Evaluation
  • Risk Reduction Behavior
  • Sex Education / methods*
  • Sexual Abstinence*
  • Sexual Behavior* / statistics & numerical data
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / epidemiology
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases / prevention & control
  • United States / epidemiology