Skip to main content

Is It Enough to Abstain?

Is teaching "abstinence only" the answer to teaching kids about sex and safety?
Updated: December 1, 2022

Is It Enough to Abstain?

Sex Ed in Schools
Does sex education belong in public schools? Yes, say 90 percent of parents around the country. But that doesn't indicate parental consensus on what sex education means. Should it be health-and-safety oriented? Informed by moral principles? Focused on contraception or celibacy? School boards everywhere are wrestling with different perspectives on a very touchy subject. This article explores the "abstinence only" approach.

Saying No
Postponing Sexual Involvement (PSI) is an abstinence initiative that involves acting, mimicking, and role-playing. It was created in the early 1980's by Marion Howard, a professor at Atlanta's Emory University. Howard asked 1,000 sexually active teenage girls what they most wanted to know about sex. To her astonishment, 84 percent said they wanted to learn "how to say no without hurting the other person's feelings."

To address those concerns, Howard designed a seventh-grade curriculum based on two basic premises: middle-schoolers are too young to have sex; the message to abstain is best delivered by kids their own age. Today, PSI training has taken place in New York, Texas, Virginia, and Ohio and is broadening its scope to reach fifth- and sixth-graders.

The PSI curriculum teaches kids to be assertive: Saying "No" is better than "I don't think so." It teaches kids to avoid the kind of body language that indicates insecurity -- it's better to say "No" while making eye contact than staring at the floor -- and it guides them in role-playing activities that help them respond confidently, not awkwardly.

Setting an Example
Here's a typical PSI scenario, enacted by trained peer leaders -- older teens -- for an audience of seventh-graders. The teacher supervises from the back of the room.

Against a background of romantic music, a boy and a girl are sitting together on a couch, watching a movie on TV. His arm is around her. He's caressing her shoulder.

He: We've been goin' out a while now, right?
She: About six months, baby.
He: And we love each other, don't we?
She: Sure do, baby.
He: (moving closer) Well, I think it's time we took the next step.
She: You mean sex? I'm not ready.
He: But you said you love me.
She: You're talking about sex, not love.
He: You're just worried what other people will say.
SheE: If I wanted to do it, I wouldn't be arguing with you about it.
He: But everybody's doin' it.
She: I'm not everybody. Besides, everybody's not doin' it!
He: But a man has needs!
She: (Looking at him dead-on): What you need to do is respect me. When I say no, I mean no! And if you can't accept that, I'm leaving.

She gets up and marches out to applause, giggles, and encouraging shouts from the audience. Students then critique the performance and discuss the underlying issues.

Does it Work?
Atlanta's public schools have used PSI since 1985. Program Director Maria Mitchell says formal evaluation reveals the following results:

  • Seventh-graders who have completed PSI are five times less likely to become sexually active in the eighth grade.
  • Follow-up studies show students in the program are also one-third less likely to become sexually active a year later.
  • By twelfth grade, one-third of participating girls are less likely to become pregnant.

In Cincinnati, the program has operated in the public schools for more than eight years, sponsored by the Adolescent Clinic at Children's Hospital Medical Center. Citywide program director Christopher Kraus says, "PSI is teens becoming part of the solution rather than the problem. It's teens taking responsibility for themselves and their world. This contradicts the negative image most people have... that they're incorrigible, self-centered, even sociopathic." Each year, Kraus trains 80 Teen Leaders, kids on the same wavelength as their peers in fashion, music, appearance -- and, of course, in knowing what's cool. They're believable, effective messengers.

"Reducing the Risk" is another abstinence program, which is centered around homework assignments that parents and kids can do together. That's a boon for parents who don't know where or how to start the discussion with their kids, who often must make difficult life choices at a young age.

FamilyEducation Editorial Staff

About FamilyEducation's Editorial Team

FamilyEducation is a trusted leader in parenting and pregnancy… Read more

Subscribe to Family Education

Your partner in parenting from baby name inspiration to college planning.