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Information on Both Contraception and Abstinence Compatible in Sexuality Education, Teens Say

Two new studies recently released and conducted by the Guttmacher Institute show that teenagers view the provision of information on both contraception and abstinence as not just compatible but necessary.[1] The studies’ findings not only add to the large body of evidence supporting the effectiveness of comprehensive sexuality education but also debunk the argument commonly made by advocates of abstinence-only-until-marriage program providers that comprehensive sexuality education sends inconsistent, incompatible messages. In addition, the teens surveyed in the two qualitative studies identified schools and families as the most trusted information about contraception, highlighting the importance of both the presence of comprehensive sexuality education in schools and parental involvement in the sexual education of youth.[2]

The two studies, Teens Reflect on Their Sources of Contraceptive Information, by Rachel K. Jones and colleagues, and The More Things Change . . . : The Relative Importance of the Internet as a Source of Contraceptive Information for Teens, by Rachel K. Jones and Ann E. Biddlecom, involved in-depth interviews with 58 racially and ethnically diverse junior and senior students from high schools in New York City and Indiana. The researchers focused on three schools with an “average” academic performance when conducting the interviews in 2008.
Both of the studies were conducted in order to create “a more nuanced understanding of teens’ exposure to and views of contraceptive information from a wide range of sources including school, parents and other family members, friends, romantic partners, health care providers, religious groups, the media (including television, movies, and magazines) and the internet.”[3]

The authors of Teens Reflect on Their Sources of Contraceptive Information noted that although the compatibility of information about abstinence as well as contraception was a dominant theme that emerged in their research, such a result was somewhat unanticipated: they originally hypothesized that teens would perceive contraception and abstinence as “somewhat opposing constructs.”[4] They assumed that “teens would regard abstinence as an ‘all or nothing’ safe sex strategy and contraceptive information as appropriate for sexually-active adolescents.”[5]

However, their research produced a very different result: contrary to what some people claim, providing information about both contraception and abstinence does not send “a mixed message.”[6] “For many of these teens, information about contraception and abstinence is not only compatible, but necessary,” Jones notes, adding, “Teens believe they need a range of information—about abstinence, about contraception, about consequences—to make the best decisions.”[7]

Often the teenagers interviewed discussed contraception and abstinence in ways that emphasized their compatibility. For example, the study cites a 17-year-old girl from New York who spoke of abstinence and contraception as equally viable options: “Well, you can always wait. It’s nothin’ to rush. You can, you know—if you do decide to do it, use condoms, ’cause, you know, things that happen that people do not want to happen: having kids, gettin’diseases and all that.”[8]

The second study focused on where teenagers obtain information on contraception, in addition to the level of trust they associate with different sources. Whereas the teens interviewed were often wary of contraceptive information found on the Internet, they identified their parents and their schools as the most trusted sources of information.[9] Schools and teachers were seen as “responsible for educating adolescents” about sexual health issues, and were trusted as authoritative sources because teens believe them to have “fact-based knowledge or expertise.”[10] School is “a place that I would expect to know what they are talking about, to tell me the truth, to educate me on what I should know,” said one young man from Indiana who participated in the study. However, although most of the teens interviewed reported that they had received contraceptive information from their schools, many of them recall the information received as “seemingly superficial” and “often limited to condoms.”[11]

The authors wrote that family members were “highly trusted” sources of contraceptive information, despite the fact that some of the teens reported receiving little information from family.[12] “Well from my parents I would say, what little I have gotten I would say I trust it completely,” reported one male participant from Indiana.[13]

The findings from these studies add to the body of data finding public support for comprehensive sexuality education in schools as the best method for protecting adolescent sexual health. The authors suggest in their conclusion that the data “support bolstering school-based, comprehensive sex education.”[14] And, because teenagers regard parents with such a high level of trust, the authors suggest that sex education programs should find ways to incorporate family involvement. They write, “Public monies are best suited to implementing comprehensive sex education programs that place sexual activity in its social context—beyond a biological, public health or moral framework and acknowledging the value of delaying sex until one is ready—and provide more detailed information about contraception.”[15]


[1] Rebecca Wind, “Schools and Families Are Teens’ Most Trusted Sources of Information about Contraception: Teens View Information about Abstinence and Contraception as Compatible—And Necessary,” Guttmacher Institute, 17 March 2011, accessed 19 March 2011, <>.

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Rachel K. Jones et al., Teens Reflect on Their Sources of Contraceptive Information (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2011), 3.

[4] Sofia Resnick, “Expanding Sex Ed: Kid-tested, Dems-approved,” American Independent, 21 March 2011, accessed 21 March 2011, <>.

[5] Jones et al., “Teens Reflect on Their Sources of Contraceptive Information,” 22.

[6] Wind, “Schools and Families Are Teens’ Most Trusted Sources.”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rachel K. Jones and Ann E. Biddlecom, The More Things Change . . . : The Relative Importance of the Internet as a Source of Contraceptive Information for Teens (New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2011), 2.

[9] Ibid., 2.

[10] Ibid., 18.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 20.

[13] Ibid., 21.

[14] Jones et al., “Teens Reflect on Their Sources of Contraceptive Information,” 28.

[15] Ibid.