Why Abstinence-Only Messaging Does Not Work in Preventing Teen Pregnancy

Palawan has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, with 1 in every 4 pregnancies (25%) being to teenagers. This is higher than the national average of the Philippines which is at about 1 in 5 pregnancies (20%) to teens.

Abstinence-only messaging and education has not stopped the high number of teen pregnancies. In fact, I believe it has increased the number. Only telling kids to “wait until you’re married” and not giving them any other information puts them at risk for unintended pregnancy and HIV. I have no objection to parents teaching their family values to a child and explaining why they believe sex should only happen between married couples. But if young people are not also taught how their bodies work and how to be safe, when they do eventually have sex, they will do so without knowing how to protect their health and their futures.

At Roots of Health we believe that young people should have access to comprehensive sexuality education, and indeed this is enshrined in the Reproductive Health Law. Our team of teachers thus travels all over the province to teach at public high schools and colleges in order to give young people information and education so that if they do engage in early sex, they will protect their health.

Before and after we teach, we ask students to fill out surveys that demonstrate their knowledge levels and attitudes. Last week, our Monitoring & Evaluation Officer sent me the results of a combined analysis of our pre and post intervention surveys among almost 3,000 grade 9 and 10 students from 15 high schools from Rio Tuba to Roxas.

I was encouraged when I looked at the results because they clearly show that our program is effective at improving young people’s knowledge. I was, however, dismayed to see how low levels of pretest knowledge were about issues relating to sexuality and sexual health.

For example, among the thousands of students taught, on average, only 12% of them knew that withdrawal is not an effective method of preventing pregnancy. To put it another way, 88% of young people thought that if they use the withdrawal method, that they will not get pregnant. This might partly explain the high teen pregnancy numbers.
Withdrawal is the least effective of contraceptive methods. Many guys can’t or don’t always control when they ejaculate, and they often end up accidentally ejaculating inside the girl’s body. There’s a sad joke that asks, “What do you call a couple that uses withdrawal?” The answer is, “parents”.

Another misconception is that jumping up and down after sex prevents pregnancy. 77% of the young people thought this was true. After explaining to young people how quickly sperm travel and how jumping or moving (or bathing!) has zero effect on whether a sperm will get to an egg or not, thankfully only 9% of the kids continued to believe that this is an effective way to avoid pregnancy.

Only 53% of the young people taught believed that Filipinos are at risk of HIV infection. The rest thought Filipinos are safe from HIV. Unfortunately, we have many of the risk factors thay make HIV infection problematic. People have low levels of knowledge about sexual health, have multiple sexual partners, and start having sex at very young ages. Men and boys rarely use condoms, and homosexuality is taboo and hidden, so often gay and bisexual men, and men who have sex with men, hide these activities from their wives and girlfriends, and have unprotected sex with other men in secret.

The Philippines is one of only a few countries in the whole world now where HIV infection rates are increasing. Puerto Princesa City is a hotspot city with projected HIV infection rates of more than 5% of the population. At the moment, a staggering 94% of Palawan’s people living with HIV (PLHIV) are in the age bracket of 16-34 years old.

Only 60% of the young people knew that condoms were an effective method of protection against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Thankfully this number jumped to 94% after our teachers taught. Now young people know that in fact, it’s the only method of contraception that protects against both unplanned pregnancy and STIs like HIV.

Education does not equal encouragement. Giving young people the knowledge to protect themselves if and when they have sex is not the same thing as saying, “Go go go, have as much sex as you want!” In fact, some studies* conducted in America compared sexual activity among kids given abstinence-only education and kids who got comprehensive sexuality education. They found no evidence that kids with abstinence-only education had less sex or fewer sexual partners than their counterparts who got comprehensive sex education.

While we do not think it is healthy for young people to be engaging in early sex, we have to recognize that it is happening. We need to equip young people with the knowledge they need to prevent teen pregnancy. Comprehensive Sexuality Education is the way to do it.

*For a list of references on studies showing the negative effects of abstinence-only education, please see: http://www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/publications-a-z/409-the-truth-about-abstinence-only-programs.

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