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Socially conservative policymakers and activists routinely assert that making sexual and reproductive health information and services more available promotes promiscuity. Their argument often focuses on the timing of sexual initiation, but can also include behaviors such as increased sexual frequency or sex with more partners. There are two related assumptions underpinning this claim: One, the availability of information or services related to sexual and reproductive health als to young people and especially young women that society approves of them having sex and will prompt them to initiate sex.
The second, closely related assumption is that being able to obtain such knowledge or services will allow people to reduce the perceived negative consequences of sex and incentivize them to have intercourse for the first time, more frequently or with more partners. Although the evidence does not support these assumptions and claims, social conservatives nevertheless have long employed them to block or undermine policies and programs they oppose on ideological grounds.
The argument attempts to stigmatize sex outside of heterosexual marriage, seeks to shame sexually active young people and young women in particular, and intentionally ignores the fact that for most people, sex is a normal part of adolescence and adulthood. In evaluating how the promiscuity argument applies to various programs or policies, it is important to review the body of evidence as a whole.
Publications that review or synthesize findings from multiple individual studies—such as systematic reviews or meta-analyses—can be especially valuable in comprehensively assessing the evidence. These analyses are deed to draw broader conclusions about an evidence base and can help readers steer clear of outliers—that is, individual studies at odds with the larger body of evidence. A systematic review synthesized 20 studies published between and from a diverse group of countries. The authors conclude that the body of studies they reviewed shows that HPV vaccination does not lead young people to initiate sex or have it more frequently because they believe they are at lower risk of HPV infection, and none of the studies showed evidence of higher rates of STIs.
Another systematic review of 21 studies, 13 looking only at girls and adult women, likewise found no evidence that HPV vaccination is associated with changes in sexual behaviors due to vaccinated women feeling they were at lower risk of negative consequences. Since contraceptives are widely used and policies making them more accessible are politically popular, the promiscuity argument has long been a favorite pretext under which U.
However, the scientific literature strongly rebuts this narrative. Further, the decline in adolescent pregnancy risk during the — period was entirely attributable to better contraceptive use, according to a study by Lindberg and colleagues. Evidence focused on one specific method—emergency contraception—further bolsters this conclusion.
A paper by Meyer and colleagues reviewed seven randomized controlled trials of advance provision of emergency contraception to women aged 24 years and younger. Only one study found any negative impact, albeit for a small population subgroup, showing that parenting young women who receive advance provision of emergency contraception may be more likely to have unprotected sex. Further, this hypothetical conclusion is at odds with both the overall body of evidence and a two-and-a-half-decade trend of rising adolescent contraceptive use, stable or decreased sexual activity and sharply falling pregnancy rates.
This argument has surfaced in various contexts at the local, state and federal levels, including in debates about whether federal funding should support comprehensive approaches to sexuality education as promoted by the Obama administration or be funneled to abstinence-only-until-marriage programs as promoted by the Trump administration. Several large-scale systematic reviews of dozens of studies from the s to the s consistently found no indication that sex education contributed to earlier or increased sexual activity in young people.
Several other studies have upheld that same conclusion. A review by Kirby summarizes findings from 56 studies of curriculum-based sex education programs in the United States published between and Importantly, findings on other indicators drive home the imperative to focus on the overall body of evidence rather than individual outliers: Among 29 studies measuring of sexual partners, 12 showed a decrease in the reported of sexual partners and only one found a ificant increase.
Of 13 studies measuring the impact of programs on contraceptive use, only one reported decreased use of contraceptives. Likewise, of 12 studies measuring the impact on pregnancy rates, only one found a ificant increase. And of 10 studies looking at the effect of sex education programs on STIs, only one found a ificant increase in STI rates possibly a function of more young people getting tested rather than an actual increase.
A pair of systematic reviews by Chin and colleagues examining 62 studies published between and likewise found that comprehensive risk-reduction interventions were associated with declines in various risk behaviors among adolescents. The evidence base is further bolstered by a United Nations—commissioned review of 22 systematic reviews, which found that curriculum-based comprehensive sex education programs contribute to delayed initiation of sexual intercourse, decreased frequency of sexual intercourse, fewer sexual partners and less risk taking.
Most recently, a systematic review and meta-analysis of 21 studies published between and assessed the effectiveness of school-based programs related to youth pregnancy prevention. In other words, they neither increased nor decreased sexual risk. For decades, a contentious debate has raged around whether contraception should be available to adolescents in schools, either through comprehensive health services in school-based health centers SBHCs or stand-alone condom promotion programs. Attacks centered on variations of the promiscuity argument have had a ificant, lasting impact on the type of health services SBHCs provide.
However, the evidence clearly shows that making contraceptives available in school-based settings does not cause more sexual activity. As far back asa study by Kirby and colleagues of three school-based clinics offering condoms or other forms of contraception along with comprehensive health services showed that the presence of the clinic was not associated with increased sexual activity. More recently, a review based on 30 studies—while focused mostly on the United Kingdom—reported that there was evidence from higher-quality U.
Studies looking at the provision of condoms in school-based settings draw similar conclusions. Two reviews, 45,46 of nine and 12 studies, respectively, found that school-based condom availability programs were not associated with increases in sexual and other risk behaviors.“EVERYBODY CRIES THEIR FIRST TIME” - Student Sex Workers
Meanwhile, a study on condom promotion programs illustrates powerfully that even when the topline findings show a negative impact, they may not support the conclusions drawn by social conservatives. This study collected information on condom distribution programs implemented in the s and s in schools across 11 states and the District of Columbia, with findings suggesting that the introduction of such programs in schools is associated with an increase in teenage fertility.
That, in turn, should have resulted in more pregnancies, births and abortions. In reality, none of this has come to pass see figure. While the scientific literature and population-level trends soundly debunk the argument that access to information and services le to increased sexual activity, some social conservatives have seized on the trend of rising STI rates in the United States as validation for their claims and justification for pushing their policy preferences, including abstinence-only programs.
Rather, public health experts attribute the increase in STI rates to a range of other factors. Some experts cite a ificant drop in prevention funding, 57 which has contributed to an erosion of public health infrastructure at the local and state levels for STI prevention and treatment.
And herein lies the root of the problem. The people whose rights and health are most directly compromised by these attacks are those who are most reliant on public health interventions for their health information, coverage and care.
This includes young people, those with low incomes and people of color—all groups that often have few resources or are otherwise marginalized. The negative impact of these tactics has become particularly acute under the Trump administration: Social conservatives in Congress and various government agencies are waging a relentless campaign to undermine critical public health policies and programs, including the ACA, Medicaid, Title X and the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program. And while these attacks are grounded in ideology, social conservatives routinely attempt to deceive policymakers, the media and the public into thinking that their agenda is based on evidence—with the false promiscuity argument a prime example.
The author wishes to thank Sheila Desai and Laura D. Lindberg for their assistance throughout the preparation of this article. Van Dyne EA et al. Walker TY et al. Kasting ML et al. Madhivanan P et al. Ogilvie GS et al. Santelli JS et al. Belzer M et al. Arcidiacono P, Khwaja A and Ouyang L, Habit persistence and teen sex: Could increased access to contraception have unintended consequences for teen pregnancy?
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Kirby D, Waszak C and Ziegler J, Six school-based clinics: their reproductive health services and impact on sexual behavior, Family Planning Perspectives, 23 1 :6— Owen J et al. Denford S et al. Blank L et al. Wang T et al. Algur E et al.
Lovenheim M, Reback R and Wedenoja L, How does access to health care affect teen fertility and high school dropout rates? Donovan MK, The looming threat to sex education: a resurgence of federal funding for abstinence-only programs? Sonfield A, What is at stake with the federal contraceptive coverage guarantee?
Facebook Twitter. Get the latest research and policy analyses on sexual and reproductive health and rights around the world. Population-level trends likewise affirm this conclusion, as interventions such as the HPV vaccine, affordable contraceptive access and comprehensive sex education programs have not led to more sexual activity.
The Scientific Evidence In evaluating how the promiscuity argument applies to various programs or policies, it is important to review the body of evidence as a whole. School-based Health Centers and Condom Programs For decades, a contentious debate has raged around whether contraception should be available to adolescents in schools, either through comprehensive health services in school-based health centers SBHCs or stand-alone condom promotion programs.
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Promiscuous America: Smart, Secular, and Somewhat Less Happy