Take One Guess How Well Abstinence-Only Sex Education Works

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Photo: Andrew Brookes

The United States has spent more than $1.4 billion to promote abstinence and monogamy in an effort to reduce HIV risk in 14 African countries and a new study found that it did basically nothing.

The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was started in 2003 by George W. Bush and has saved more than a million lives by providing HIV medication. But when it was first established, Congress mandated that at least a third of its prevention dollars would be earmarked for abstinence-education programs

For a study published in the journal Health Affairs, researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine analyzed survey data from more than 475,000 men and women under 30 in 14 African countries that received PEPFAR abstinence education and 8 that did not. They found that there was no difference in sexual behaviors including the age at which people first had sex, number of sexual partners, or rates of teenage pregnancy. In short: Telling people not to have sex before marriage didn’t work.

The one-third requirement was dropped in a 2008 bill and abstinence funding fell from $260 million in 2008 to $45 million in 2013. That’s still a lot of money to spend on finger-wagging instead of promoting other proven HIV-prevention tactics like treating pregnant women who are HIV-positive and, you know, using condoms.