Defining Abstinence: Views of Directors, Instructors, and Participants in Abstinence-Only-until-Marriage Programs in Texas. (Articles)

By Goodson, Patricia; Suther, Sandy et al. | Journal of School Health, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Defining Abstinence: Views of Directors, Instructors, and Participants in Abstinence-Only-until-Marriage Programs in Texas. (Articles)


Goodson, Patricia, Suther, Sandy, Pruitt, B. E., Wilson, Kelly, Journal of School Health


Shared meanings and common understanding of sexuality-related terminology are vital for the success of health education efforts in schools and communities. Meanings of sex-related terms, however, are not necessarily or automatically agreed upon by individuals. Alongside anecdotal data, scientific research has accumulated evidence that misconceptions and ambiguities pervade the field of human sexuality. In a survey of undergraduates, (1) researchers found that 59% of sampled students did not define oral-genital contact as "having sex" though the behavior placed them at risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Another study (2) revealed that students' labeling of specific acts as "sex" depended on several factors such as type of behavior (vaginal, anal, or oral sex) and whether participants in the behavior reached orgasm.

Sexuality education--a key component for disease prevention and promotion of responsible sexual behavior (3,4)--also is plagued with problems related to terminology, definitions and shared meanings. Nuances surrounding the terms "sex" and "gender," for instance, still require clarification in some college-level sexuality textbooks, as do the subtleties contained in the many legal and cultural definitions of the term "rape." (5,6) The taxonomy currently employed for various approaches to school-based sexuality education ("comprehensive," "abstinence-only," "abstinence-based or abstinence-plus," and "abstinence-only-until-marriage") represents another instance of contention. Educators debate whether the existing language used to describe adolescent pregnancy and STI prevention programs might be outdated, inadequately descriptive, and/or biased. (7)

Ambiguities and debate surround both the definitions of certain sexuality terms as well as the terminology employed in sexuality education. Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that the semantic difficulties surrounding terms and phrases related to "sex" may equally affect the construct of sexual "abstinence." This study examined how program directors, program instructors, and participant youth from a sample of federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage education programs in Texas define the term "abstinence" and its object (from what one abstains). Due to a paucity of systematic examinations of "abstinence" definitions, this study contributes to the promotion of clarified, shared meanings in the arena of sexual health promotion for adolescents.

Background and Rationale

In recent years, increasingly larger amounts of funding have been allocated to promote abstinence-only-until-marriage education. This type of education presents marriage as the only morally acceptable context for sexual activity, emphasizes abstinence from all sexual behavior until marriage and does not teach contraceptive use or disease-prevention methods. (8) Allocation of federal funds for these programs was mandated by the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act (PL 104-193), signed into law in 1996. The provision contained in this act (Section 510[b], Title V of the Social Security Act) allocated $50 million per year to states, for fiscal years 1998 through 2002, specifically for abstinence-only-until-marriage education. Based on a funding formula and state matching required by Title V, Texas currently has the largest amount of federal monies invested in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. (9) In 2000, the Texas Department of Health (responsible for disbursing funds from the Welfare Reform Bill in Texas) contracted with the authors to conduct an independent evaluation of 32 programs funded by Title V in the state. This paper presents a portion of the data collected through this evaluation effort.

Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs presently enjoy substantial economic and political support, but evidence of effectiveness of this approach is scarce. (10,11) Systematic and rigorous evaluations of these programs are, therefore, paramount both for accountability purposes and for evidence-based prevention practice. …

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