General Articles

Misinformation in Schools: What Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs Teach About Condoms

Source: Alison Jeanne Lin and John S. Santelli, “The Accuracy of Condom Information in Three Selected Abstinence-Only Education Curricula,” Sexuality Research & Social Policy (September 2008): 56-69.
The authors reviewed three federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in order to specifically investigate medical inaccuracies about condoms. The three curricula reviewed were: Me, My World, My Future; Sexuality, Commitment & Family; and Why kNOwMe, My World, My Future and Why kNOw were identified as containing inaccurate information by the 2004 United States House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform report prepared for Congressman Henry Waxman but continued to be supported by federal funding. Sexuality, Commitment & Family was not reviewed in the 2004 report, but is published by the same group as Me, My World, My Future and contains much of the same information. The authors focused on statements made about condoms in the curricula as well as the scientific references cited in the programs. They defined inaccurate information as information that was out of date, selectively reported, and/or not peer reviewed.  
Key Findings:
  • Me, My World, My Future and Sexuality, Commitment & Family presented the likelihood a condom would break or slip off to be anywhere between 0.6% and 44.5%, strongly implying that condoms are not reliable. 
  • Me, My World, My Future and Sexuality, Commitment & Family only reported the highest condom failure rates without distinguishing between—or even defining—perfect-use failure rates and typical use failure rates.[1]  In addition, the two curricula confuse condom effectiveness in preventing HIV transmission with condom effectiveness in preventing pregnancy. 
  • All three curricula directly imply that condoms allow the transmission of HIV and present out of date information as if it were still new. 
  • All three curricula strongly imply that unmarried teens are not effective condom users and that condoms should not be made available to teens. 
  • Me, My World, My Future and Sexuality, Commitment & Family compare condom use with playing Russian roulette, suggesting that eventually the “game” is over and sexually active people will be killed by AIDS. 
  • Why kNOw is in the process of removing the “Speedy Sperm” lesson that directly implied that condoms are porous enough to let viral and bacterial particles, like Herpes Simplex, Syphilis, Gonorrhea and HIV, pass through and infect sexual partners. 
  • All three curricula primarily cited references that were out of date or not from any peer-reviewed sources.
SIECUS Analysis:
SIECUS has been reviewing fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula for over a decade (and has reviewed each of the three curricula looked at in this study). In our experience the majority of these curricula spend a great deal of time undermining young people’s confidence in condoms by using inaccurate information and suggesting that condoms are difficult to use.[2]
The results of this study once again show that abstinence-only curricula present explicit misinformation, misleading and selective statistics, and state myths about condoms as if they were facts. 
Furthermore, the curricula deliberately discourage young people’s faith in condoms. Suggesting that sexual activity, even when using condoms, is behavior that will inevitably end in death is dangerous and untrue. Undermining young people’s confidence in condoms will not prevent them from having sex; it may however prevent them from using condoms when they do become sexually active thereby increasing their risk for unintended pregnancy and STDs, including HIV. 
Condoms continue to be one of the most effective prevention tools in the fight against HIV/AIDS, STDs, and unintended pregnancy. It is a violation of public health principles and human rights for programs to be promoting these half-truths to students. Sexuality education must contain comprehensive, medically accurate information that informs all students how to correctly and consistently use condoms in order to protect themselves and their partners from HIV, other STDs, and unintended pregnancy.

[1] The perfect use failure rate (also known as “method failure”) refers to failure that results from a defect in the product. Perfect use failure of the male condom is very rare and is estimated to occur in only two percent of couples using condoms consistently and correctly during the first year of use. The typical use failure rate (also known as “user failure”) is calculated by looking at 100 couples who use condoms as their primary method of birth control over the course of a year. About 15 of these couples will experience an unintended pregnancy during the first year of condom use. It is important to remember that these couples may not have been using condoms or may have been using condoms incorrectly during the act of intercourse that resulted in an unintended pregnancy.

[2] For more information, see SIECUS’ Community Action Kit: <>.