Government Study Withheld for Year: 70 Percent of Parents and 54 Percent of Teens Say Sex Before Marriage is Wrong

By Jane McGrath | August 31, 2010 | 10:57am EDT
( - Seventy percent of American parents and 53.5 percent of American adolescents believe sex before marriage is wrong, according to a federally funded study released Monday by the Administration of Children and Families, an agency within the Health and Human Services Department.

The survey asked American parents and adolescents whether they strongly agreed, somewhat agreed, somewhat disagreed or strongly disagreed wih the statement that "having sexual intercourse is something only married people should."  Among parents, 47.6 percent strongly agreed and 22.2 percent somewhat agreed, while 17.8 percent somewhat disagreed and 12.3 percent strongly disagreed.  Among adolescents, 38.5 percent strongly agreed and 23.0 percent somewhat agreed, while 21.5 percent somewhat disagreed and 17.1 percent strongly disagreed.
Although the report on the study was completed by February 2009, HHS did not release it until last week, even when asked to do so--prompting speculation that the Obama administration did not like the report’s conclusions.
“I think it tells us that abstinence education is the center of cultural norms for parents and teens,” Valerie Huber, Executive Director of the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA), told “That doesn’t mean that the current teen behavior is exactly in that sweet spot, but it shows that that should be our goal – not just for health reasons but because that is exactly what parents and teens want in terms of sex education.”
Huber pointed out that the results of the study contradict the Obama administration’s stance against abstinence education. “President Obama, in submitting his first budget to Congress in 2010, specifically made note that he wanted to eliminate all funds for abstinence education,” Huber said. “That is not in keeping with public health guidelines and not in keeping with research.”
The study also found that “the majority of parents surveyed favor their adolescents receiving abstinence messages from multiple sources,” including places of worship, doctors’ offices, schools and the Internet.
“I think it’s striking that the study found that large majorities – both of parents and adolescents – believe that having sexual intercourse is something only married people should do,” Senior Fellow for Policy Studies at the Family Research Council Peter Sprigg told “Seventy-two percent of the parents and 62 percent of the adolescents either strongly or somewhat agree with that statement. And that’s the message that abstinence-until-marriage programs seek to send.”
The report suggests that parental attitudes do matter to teenagers: “More conservative parent attitudes about sex and abstinence were broadly associated with more conservative attitudes among adolescents, adjusting for other factors.”
Sprigg pointed to one finding in the study indicating that students involved in abstinence education programs were more likely to communicate with their parents about such topics: “So I think a strong message from parents and a strong abstinence message from a curriculum or program are mutually reinforcing influences,” Sprigg told
In addition to parental attitudes, peers also had a significant impact on adolescent attitudes. “Adolescents with more conservative peers expressed more conservative attitudes about sex and abstinence and more restrictive views about their own sexual behavior,” the report said.
“What the research is really showing is that, parents -- you need to step up to the plate here,” said the NAEA's Huber. “And we know it’s a tough decision – but the reality is the teens are listening even if they’re pretending they’re not, and they want to hear from mom and dad. If mom and dad aren’t saying anything, then they’re going to get that information elsewhere, and they’re going to take their behavioral cues from people who might not have their best interest in mind.”
Sprigg noted that religious participation has a powerful influence on attitudes toward abstinence and premarital sex: “There were very striking differences between those who never attend worship and those who attend worship weekly – both among the parents and among the adolescents,” Sprigg said. “Those who attend worship weekly [had] much more conservative or restrictive attitude towards sex before marriage,” he noted.
Sprigg believes the study “provides proof that a strong majority of American families support the abstinence until-marriage-message.” Maybe that’s one reason the Obama administration was not eager to release it, he said.
“I think this study is an embarrassment for the Obama administration,” said Sprigg, “because it offers significant support for the type of abstinence education that they have stopped funding. But I will add that I think it’s shameful that they repressed the report and failed to release it for a year and a half. Oftentimes liberals will say we need to implement policies that are evidence-based. But it’s clear that when the evidence goes against their ideological preconceptions, then they don’t want the evidence to be the basis for the policy anymore.”
Dr. Gary Scott, a senior research fellow at Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), told he believes the study “will exasperate both liberals and conservatives.”
According to Scott, the report indicates that government abstinence programs are ineffective. “While most parents and children oppose pre-marital sex, government programming to reduce unwanted adolescent pregnancies through abstinence education have mostly failed to steer teens away from the lingering temptation toward premarital sex,” Scott said.
“Those wading deeper into the statistics will discover that religious institutions are more successful; a teen's peers matter a great deal, especially for boys; parents' brief and substantive talks are better than lots of sex talk; attitudes vary systematically across so-called red and blue states,” Scott said.
Under the “conclusions” section, the report discusses the importance of abstinence education. It states, “In general, our findings indicate that adolescent attitudes about sex and abstinence are more subject to influence from parents and peers than to messages about sex and abstinence delivered in the context of classes or programs. However, adolescent receipt of information about sex, abstinence, and sexual values in a class or program was associated with increased levels of adolescent communication about sex and abstinence with both parents and peers. Furthermore, adolescent exposure to some specific topics related to sex and abstinence in a class or program appeared to increase the likelihood that adolescents heard and reported similar messages about sex and abstinence delivered by their parents.”
According to the report, HHS administered a federal grant program to fund abstinence education for states “with the ultimate goal of preventing unwed childbearing, pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases.” The survey sampled 1,000 pairs of adolescents (ages 12-18) and parents to “learn more about the public’s views.”
The report states that the findings of the survey “can be used in the future to inform public education campaigns and abstinence education programs as well as to assist [the Administration of Children and Families] with grant administration and technical assistance activities.”
The researchers conducted the survey by telephone, allowing participants to key in their responses on a touch-tone phone to protect their privacy. The survey also asked to speak to the “most knowledgeable parent,” who would best know the teen’s attitudes toward sex and abstinence.
Long delay in releasing the report

The final report on the study, prepared by the research and consulting firm Abt Associates, is dated Feb. 26, 2009, a full year and a half before it was released in its entirety by ACF on Monday, Aug. 23, 2010.
In March, Dr. Lisa Rue of the University of Northern Colorado requested the full study for a report she was preparing for the Community Based Abstinence Education Program. She says the ACF denied her request and told her it would not be releasing the report.
Dr. Rue told that she heard about the study in a presentation and requested the full report from Abt Associates. Having been told that the administration had not released the report, she contacted ACF. “ACF said, ‘Well, we’re not releasing the report,’” reported Rue. “I asked why, and they wouldn’t tell me why.” 
After discovering the study’s initial findings on the American Public Health Association (APHA) website, Dr. Rue filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the full report. In June, she received a denial for the FOIA request, because the report was under “pre-decisional and deliberative” status.
Rue appealed the decision, based on the fact that the ACF study had been presented in public twice and because APHA had published the initial findings. However, by August, “someone had pulled the executive findings off the American Public Health Association Web site and only the abstract was available,” Rue informed
“I’ve never gotten a response back from my appeal,” said Dr. Rue, “so I was pretty upset about that, given that this was a taxpayer-funded study and it’s relevant to the research work that I do, and it’s relevant to the new policies that they’ve got.”
When asked about the 18-month delay in publishing the report, the National Abstinence Education Association’s Huber said, “You know, that is very curious to me, because this was a study that was done with taxpayer dollars. It took a while for them to compile the results, that when it was finally finalized, the next natural step would be that it would be shared with the public – that it would be posted on their Web site, and that their public policy decisions would be informed by those results.”
She continued, “The fact that a university professor came across this research and wanted to access it for her research studies and for some reports she was writing and she was denied -- that was startling to us and of great concern.”
Huber also noted that both Democratic and Republican presidents have supported abstinence education in the past. “So now he has an opportunity – if he hadn’t seen these research results before now – to look at them and see that those policy positions are clearly out of step with where parents, taxpayers, who are by the way also voters, want sex education to go,” said Huber. sent HHS an email asking for an explanation of the delay in publishing the study and inquiring whether the results will encourage the department to support abstinence education. Although there was no response to the latter question, an HHS spokesman responded via email to about the delay in publication:
“In February 2009, Abt Associates delivered the study to ACF for review.  In November 2009, Abt Associates also reported on the study and its findings at a meeting of the American Public Health Association. In March 2010 a FOIA request for the study was submitted to ACF.  It was not made available at that time because the recently confirmed commissioner of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (ACYF) had not yet had an opportunity to review it. The report was posted on the ACYF website on August 23, 2010.”

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