An Abstinence Education Research Agenda: What I Really Learned

By Pruitt, B. E. | American Journal of Health Education, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview

An Abstinence Education Research Agenda: What I Really Learned


Pruitt, B. E., American Journal of Health Education


The Brazilian educator and influential theorist Paulo Freire has convinced me that scholarship is a dialogical process. According to Freire, the contributions of one scholar have no meaning if they stand alone--the value of any work becomes apparent only when that work "dialogs" with the work that has gone before. For this reason, we do literature reviews. For this reason, we include in our manuscripts an implications section. And for this reason, we ask scholars to speak at meetings such as this. I am honored to dialog with you today. I am honored to be a participant in this dialog of scholars. I am humbled by the task and the responsibility of being an AAHE Scholar. I thank you for this honor, this opportunity, and for your time.

Being a health educator means dealing with controversy. Few in this room would argue this point. If you ever taught a class on environmental health, you taught about global warming--one of today's hottest political buttons. If you ever conducted a community program on drug abuse prevention, you addressed the so-called "war on drugs"--a highly funded and questionably effective program. Money and power feed these controversies. With no money, and no power, health educators are asked to educate people about them.

My intention this morning is to help you think about controversy. To do this, I will briefly introduce one of the most controversial issues facing our profession--the promotion of sexual abstinence. My experience has given me a new way to think about the political and philosophical nature of this controversy, and a new way to understand how others think about this controversy. By sharing "what I really learned" in conducting a five-year research agenda on abstinence education, I hope to give you a tool for understanding health education controversies in general.

For as long as I have worked in health education, controversy has surrounded the issue of sexuality education. Should we conduct it? When should we conduct it? How should we conduct it? As you are well aware, opinions are plentiful, facts are scarce. Opponents of sexuality education have relentlessly warned adolescents of the perils of sexual involvement, trumpeting instead the values of purity and chastity. Proponents of sexuality education, meanwhile, have persistently emphasized the importance of knowledge and empowerment in combating the very real public health threats of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the public (whose opinion was mostly grounded in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the fear of teen pregnancy and STIs) overwhelmingly supported the provision of sexuality education through public schools, churches, and especially the home. (1,2) Its support for the use of public funds was also solid. (3) Professional health educators, for the most part, viewed sexuality education as an important component of the health instruction program, (4,5) including it in the various lists of recommended subject matter, in public school textbooks, and in convention programming. (6) Organizations such as the American Association for Health Education and the American School Health Association played leading roles in advocating sexuality education.

At the same time, opponents of sexuality education used legal means to challenge it. (7) They also blamed it for growing STI rates, persistent teen pregnancy rates, and even divorce rates. (8) Campaigns against sex education were widespread, and textbook censorship helped to keep the controversy alive.

Overall, then, the controversy surrounding sex education in this country around twenty-five years ago was reasonably clear: to conduct it or not to conduct it. The philosophical lines were clearly drawn, and the public debate energized those on each side. (9) Because little scientific evidence was available, the debate remained primarily a clash of ideas. (10)

The federal government, however, became a participant in the controversy in 1981 when it passed the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA). …

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