A+ A A-

Sex Education: What Works?


Have abstinence education programs been shown to work and if so what are the characteristics of effective abstinence education programs?


excellence & ethics:   What are the key predictors of a teenager's decision to delay sexual involvement?

Stan Weed:  Based on our surveys of tens of thousands of middle school and high school students, we find at least six important predictors:

  1. Having the belief that abstaining from sex outside of marriage has important benefits. 

  2. Believing that you have positive opportunities in your future and that having sex could negatively affect those opportunities. 

  3. Not justifying sex as being okay "if you are in love," or "safe" as long as you use a condom, or as "a way to show you care for someone." 

  4. The ability to resist peer pressure which goes against your beliefs.

  5. Personal efficacy — how confident you are that you can do what is necessary to delay sexual involvement.

  6. Having the intention to abstain from sex.

excellence & ethics:   What are the characteristics of effective abstinence education programs?

Stan Weed:  Our analysis of over 100 abstinence programs finds that effective programs have "adequate dosage" — enough sessions to impact students more than superficially.  Such programs also go beyond merely providing biological information and address multiple predictors of sexual behavior such as those I just mentioned.

They utilize effective teachers — who engage students, gain their respect, model the abstinence from sex outside marriage lifestyle, and believe in their ability to impact the sexual attitudes and behavior of their students.  They are clear, direct, and unapologetic about the abstinence message.

These programs also recognize that risk behaviors such as sex, drug use, and drinking often occur in clusters and have common roots.  Finally, effective programs conduct quality evaluation and use the data to improve the program.

excellence & ethics:  

Some have claimed that comprehensive sex education — including teaching how to use contraception — "works," but abstinence education doesn't.  Could you comment on that?

Stan Weed:  

We looked at 115 evaluation studies in Emerging Answers, a 2007 report which claimed that two-thirds of comprehensive sex education programs had "positive behavioral effects." But a close look at the data showed that no school-based comprehensive sex education program lowered teen pregnancy or STD rates for any period of time.  After 12 months, only two programs delayed the onset of teen sexual intercourse, and only 3 of the 115 programs increased frequency of condom use.  No program produced consistent condom use for even 6 months.

On the other side of the debate, evidence is emerging showing that well-designed abstinence education programs can be effective.  Five peer-reviewed studies of abstinence education curricula have found positive effects still present one to two years after the program.

Heritage Keepers and Reasons of the Heart, a year after program participation, reduced the number of teens who became sexually active by about one-half.  Choosing the Best showed a 60% reduction in teen sexual debut one year after the program.

Sex Can Wait significantly delayed the onset of teen sex 18 months after the program.  And Promoting Health Among Teens! (Abstinence-Only Intervention) significantly reduced teen sexual debut a full two years after the program.

So, if you use the criteria each side in the debate recommends — reduced sexual activity in the case of abstinence ed., and reduced pregnancy and STDs and consistent condom in the case of comprehensive sex ed. — and you follow the target group for at least 12 months, there is actually somewhat more evidence for abstinence education than for comprehensive sex education.

For Programs, Organizations, & Speakers Promoting Abstinencee go here.

For Books on Sex and Character go here.

For Quotes about Abstinence go here.

For other resources on Sex Education go here.

Sex Facts

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 out of 4 American women is the victim of rape (attempted or completed) during her lifetime. Most rapes are not reported.

  • Dating violence is 5 times more likely in teen relationships that involve sex. Young women 16-24 experience the highest rates of violence at the hands of someone they know.

  • Three out of 10 teenage girls get pregnant at least once. About a third get abortions. 20% of teen couples using condoms as birth control become pregnant after one year.

  • About 50% of sexually active youth get an STD by age 25. About 80% of people who have an STD don't know it.

  • You can get an STD such as herpes or HPV even if you use a condom because such infections are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact.

  • Oral sex can spread herpes and other STDs to the face, mouth, and throat. Herpes can be transmitted to a baby during birth, causing brain damage or even death.

  • Pediatrics (87) reported that the attempted suicide rate for sexually experienced girls (12 to 16) is 6 times higher than for virgins.

  • 12- to 17-year-olds are among the largest consumers of online pornography.

  • 58% of girls and 53% of boys ages 15 to 17 have never participated in any form of sex (oral, anal, or vaginal).

  • 67% of teen girls and 53% of boys who have had sex say they wished they had waited.

  • The percent of black high school students who have "ever had sexual intercourse" fell from 82% percent in 1991 to 60% in 2011.

  • Abstinent youth get better grades in school and are less likely to drop out. Teen sex raises the likelihood of other risk-taking such as drug and alcohol abuse and crime.

  • More than 40% of children are now born to unwed mothers (vs. 6% in 1960). Children of unmarried mothers are more likely to grow up in poverty, have social-emotional problems, drop out of school, engage in teen sex, and have a child outside of marriage.

  • Children living with their mother and her boyfriend are 11 times more likely to be sexually, physically, or emotional abused than those living with married, biological parents.

  • Couples who do not cohabit before marriage experience lower rates of marital conflict, infidelity, and divorce.

  • Adults who delay sex until marriage report the highest levels of sexual satisfaction.


Rape and Sexual Assault (White House, 2014);
Centers for Disease Control;
Pediatrics, 87 and 114;
WI Ctr for Health Statistics;
WI Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy;
Lost in Transition; Guttmacher Institute;
Medical Institute for Sexual Health;
A Scientific Review of Abstinence and Abstinence Programs;
Why Marriage Matters: Thirty Conclusions from the Social Sciences.



Stan Weed. "Sex Education: What Works? An Interview with Stan Weed." excellence & ethics (Winter/Spring, 2014): 5.

Reprinted with permission. excellence & ethics is an education letter published by the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs. It features articles, research, and K-12 best practices that help school leaders, teachers, students, parents, and community members do their best work (performance character) and do the right thing (moral character).

excellence & ethics is published once a year. To receive subsequent issues by email at no cost, subscribe here. To see back issues, click here.

The Author

Dr. Stan Weed is director of the Institute for Research & Evaluation and a leading researcher on abstinence education.  He is author of a chapter on abstinence education in the forthcoming handbook, Sex Education. Email Stan Weed at

Copyright © 2014 Center for the 4th and 5th Rs
back to top