Saturday, May 17, 2008

How does abstinence education work, part 1

When I started studying virginity pledges, I was surprised at the lack of solid descriptive social science on the subject of pledges.

Even abstinence education had relatively little descriptive work. On the quantitative side, there are lots of small mostly quasi-experimental evaluations of individual programs with mixed findings, the Congressionally-mandated Mathematica evaluation, and a systematic review by Cochrane. There's the Waxman report and a GAO report. But somehow I expected a participant-observer view of abstinence education, in the genre of Boychiks in the Hood about Chasidic Jews around the country or Righteous, a book about evangelical youth cultures around the country, both written by Jews in ironically detached style, incidentally.

Mark Regnerus's sociology on the role of religion in adolescents' sexual decision-making recently came out, and seems to be filling the gap somewhat on abstinence education. I haven't finished reading it yet, but on virginity pledges, he repeats a few recurrent "facts" that aren't strictly true true, such as the 2.5 million virginity pledges signed.

Sideline on the number of virginity pledges: 2.5 million is the number of pledges that the Southern Baptists' True Love Waits (TLW) program has had internationally, as of several years ago (2000, perhaps. The date's on their timeline on their website). TLW do not publish a breakdown by US vs. abroad, and they have no idea how many pledges have been signed total in the overall pledge movement, including other organizations, even including affiliated ministries. They don't seem to make any effort to evaluate them: perhaps they're deontological rather than consequentialist, so any pledge is a good irrespective of what happens afterwards. Silver Ring Thing gives their own estimate of the number of pledges taken at their events, as well as the number of Born Again Christians made. I'm not aware of other organizations' totals, or even how many organizations there are. The TLW website is thorough and media-conscious, and they have a timeline, a list of affiliated ministries, and also a curriculum guide, including a contingency publication to the effect of "So you didn't keep your virginity pledge." That's not what it's called, but it's not far off.

I'm writing a series about abstinence education and especially virginity pledges, just to describe what I've learned about it. There are those who say it is propaganda filled with sexism and deliberately-distorted science, and there are those who say it's responsible and attempts to be as accurate as possible, while staying within the desired values. My bottom line on abstinence education is that I've seen evidence that there is truth to both claims.

People have pulled up lots of propagandist bits, and the ACLU particularly has ferreted out the inappropriately religious content of e.g. Louisiana state's curriculum. I'm sure there are many more propaganda pieces available for mining. One of my favorite misuses --- or, more concretely, the one which bugs me the most --- comes from a misquoting of Jonathan Zenilman's paper on misreporting of condom use, because misreporting is one of my favorite subjects. He found that many people who reported consistent condom use got STDs anyhow, and indeed it's been solidified that it was a problem with reporting: apparently, people don't consider consistently to mean 100% of the time. Plus with the strong pro-condom ethic in the early 1990's, it was strongly anti-normative to report ever not using condoms. Obviously, that's completely irresponsible to conclude against the author's intent that this paper was about how condoms do not protect against STDs.

But the propaganda side is not the only side, and my hunch is that it's a minority. Only extremes make good news. So the abstinence folks repeat the "sex ed is teaching your kids about sex toys and grape jelly" line I mentioned in a previous report, and the comprehensive folks repeat the sexist and inaccurate propaganda lines, as well as any hint they can find that abstinence is harmful, being particularly fond of fire and brimstone lines.

The red-blue divide means that the two sides rarely meet in person, of course.

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