Sunday, August 26, 2007

Abstinence only programs: asking the right questions

This piece at the Australian ejournal Mercatornet has some useful insights about the "effectiveness" or lack thereof of abstinence-promotion programs in education, in light of a recent British Medical Journal study that concludes that such programs are "ineffective" when it comes to reducing HIV infection. After briefly examining some of the methodological issues with the study in the BMJ, the author continues,
In any case, whether those programs worked is not the real issue. The real issue is whether we are asking ourselves the right questions about them. Do we really expect that "abstinence promotion" during a few school sessions will work in a society where the media are conveying exactly the opposite message? (5)

Think of gender violence, sexism, discrimination, academic failure, lack of exercise, unhealthy eating, the problem of drinking and driving, smoking and other drug taking. Would a dozen classes in eighth or ninth grade change these behaviours if everywhere else the message was different?

The question for these issues is "how" can we convey the right message and not "whether" we should convey them. If a program aiming to prevent gender violence does not succeed, it would be a terrible mistake to conclude that "education against violence is not effective". We would rather have to think of a way to do it better given that this particular program had failed, or we would have to think of how we could help this program to succeed.
Here's the real point
Let us not forget many anti-smoking programs have little success and no one doubts we should prevent smoking in youth. Do we really expect that "abstinence promotion" during a few school sessions will work in a society where the media are conveying exactly the opposite message? The question is: do we really believe abstinence is a good choice for our youth and do we really want to promote abstinence?

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