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A More Accurate Way of Talking about Sexual Abstinence

Mary Anne Mosack, Executive Director of Ascend, an advocacy organization that works in the realm of Sexual Risk Avoidance education, discusses how to help teens make wise and healthy decisions about activities and relationships, especially when it comes to human sexuality.

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: A More Accurate Way of Talking about Sexual Abstinence

INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Today we will be talking about an incredibly important topic: helping teens make wise and healthy decisions about activities and relationships, especially when it comes to human sexuality.

Our guest, Mary Anne Mosack, is the Executive Director of Ascend, a national membership and advocacy organization that works in the realm of Sexual Risk Avoidance (SRA, formerly Sexual Abstinence Education). Ascend promotes an accurate understanding and appreciation of Sexual Risk Avoidance as a primary prevention method and message for teens.

Mary Anne Mosack, welcome to Family Policy Matters! It’s great to have you on the show!

MARY ANNE MOSACK: Thank you very much John. It’s a pleasure to be here.

JOHN RUSTIN: We appreciate so much the work that you do. There are a lot of terms we need to keep straight when we’re talking about various approaches to sexual education. Let’s begin by defining some of those terms for our listeners. Talk if you would, about the similarities and differences between Sexual Risk Avoidance education, which many of our listeners will know as abstinence education, and Sexual Risk Reduction education, which is a different approach.

MARY ANNE MOSACK: Well sure. Actually, Sexual Risk Avoidance, just to clarify for your listeners, is a more accurate way of talking about abstinence. Abstinence is a word that has a lot of baggage and mischaracterization attached to it, and it really needed a clear and more definitive understanding in the public square. So, Sexual Risk Avoidance is based on a primary prevention public health model known as Risk Avoidance. It is the same public health model, actually, that we use to address risk behaviors like smoking and underage drinking and drug use. So if we use smoking as an example, the Risk Avoidance message in our public health arena is basically, “If you don’t smoke, don’t start; If you do smoke, here are ways you can stop that risk behavior.” So, Sexual Risk Avoidance education is using an optimal health model that is used to address teen sex, which the CDC, as you know, identifies as risk behavior. Now, Sexual Risk Reduction is also a public health model, and as the name indicates, it’s a Risk Reduction approach. And it starts with the premise that teens are going to have sex and they need to know how to reduce the potential risks: typically, pregnancy and the contracting of an STD. But what we also know about Risk Reduction is that some risks remain. So the primary focus of a Sexual Risk Reduction course is to increase condoms and contraceptive use, and that is really where the two approaches are different. We’re coming from the view that we want to help youth to eliminate risk. The Sexual Risk Reduction of course, they’re coming from an approach to just reduce the risk.

JOHN RUSTIN: Mary Anne, what do we know about the relationship between students’ sexual activity and their educational and life outcomes, both in the short and long-term, particularly when you compare a Sexual Risk Avoidance approach versus a Sexual Risk Reduction approach?

MARY ANNE MOSACK: Actually, we know a lot. The social science research is very prolific when it comes to life outcomes for teens who are sexually active. And basically, the benefits of sexual delay for a teen really cannot be overstated. In addition to better academic success, they have other life-changing outcomes that are very important. And one of the things that we incorporate into our Sexual Risk Avoidance education is research from the Brookings Institute based on what they call, “The Success Sequence.” It’s really a very simple formula, and it’s a poverty prevention formula. Basically, it goes like this:

  1. Finish school—it used to say finish high school, they have modified it to say finish high school and get some kind of post education training;
  2. Then, get a full-time job—it doesn’t have to be high-paying job, but it has to be full-time;
  3. And then wait until you’re 21 and married before you have children.

So, it is prescriptive in those three areas, but the results of following that sequence are pretty amazing. If you follow that sequence, you have a two percent likelihood of living in poverty, and that’s a pretty compelling statistic. We’re always concerned about poverty and poverty prevention, as we should be, in this country. This simple formula, and actually helping to guide students in that kind of a trajectory, we could reduce poverty greatly if that formula were operationalized in their lives.

JOHN RUSTIN: I think one of the questions that that immediately brings to mind when we look at the difference in outcomes of these two different approaches is: How have they made their way into the arena of public policy and affecting the thought processes and the decisions that are being made by state and national leaders? One of the areas, in particular, that I think this sort of manifests itself is Federal funding. And we have been fighting, I know you’ve been fighting, and we’ve been fighting for years and years the fact that the Congress and the Federal government for quite a while have been dedicating a substantial percentage of Federal funds for sex education, to comprehensive sex education, or the Risk Reduction approach, versus to abstinence education, or the Risk Avoidance approach. But now we seem to be seeing things changing, and based on the research that you have referenced, seeing policymakers making wise decisions themselves about which type of educational approach is most appropriate and most effective. Talk, if you would, about the Federal funding, since there have been some recent changes on that front. What are the sources of government funding for sex education, and what is the current status of those?

MARY ANNE MOSACK: Okay. Just to go back for a moment on the success rates. It’s pretty encouraging to know that there is the Sexual Risk Avoidance education grant—a stand-alone grant—from the federal government, and one of the criteria for it to implement in your program is the success sequence. So, our legislators are waking up to the fact that this is some powerful information that can have a tremendous impact, not only on the individual, but society as well. Now in terms of federal funding and what we have, the status of that right now. Currently, there are two state block grants: One is called Title V, and then, more recently, there is another state block grant for SRR education called PREP, Personal Responsibility Education Program. And we have finally reached parity and each of those block grants are funded at 75 million each, and that goes out to all of the states. The other funding streams are the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program that was funded under the Obama administration at about $108 million, and then the SRAE education for 15 million. So you can see there’s quite a disparity between 100 million and 15 million. Now we really, at this juncture, don’t know the status of Teen Pregnancy Prevention programs. The House has eliminated it from the budget, the Administration has eliminated it, and HHS has weighed in and also advised the elimination of the program. So, we don’t know if that program will survive, or in what fashion it will survive. In terms of the Sexual Risk Avoidance education grant at 15 million, there is a proposal in the Senate to increase it by 10 million, which would bring it up to 25 million. So there are funds out there. There is still a great disparity, and a new Administration means a new look at programs, and that’s exactly what is happening. In terms of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program, your listeners may have read that that program has been cut and there’s been an awful lot of press around it and outrage at some level. But it was actually done for some very sound reasons. And this is what people, unfortunately, don’t read about this in the press. But what HHS found, it’s typical after a program like the Teen Pregnancy Prevention program, that you’ll look at the findings, “So, what was the effect of the money that we’ve spent?” And the money, ladies and gentlemen, is nearly a billion dollars! So for sure, we want to know if that’s effective. And this is what they found: They found that 80 percent of the students who were in these Sexual Risk Reduction classes actually fared no better or worse than students who were not in the program. Three of the programs, totaling about $20 million, actually increased sexual initiation, teen pregnancy, and oral sex. So, these were some very severe negative effects! And I think that people need to know that teen pregnancy prevention programs are kind of exalted as being effective and evidence-based, but when you look at the evidence it is simply not there, and that’s why these programs were cut and that’s what brought about the change.

Now, I want to make this clear also to your audience because there is a misconception that Sexual Risk Avoidance education does not prepare students at all regarding contraception, and actually we do teach on contraception. We teach the efficacy rates, the message, etc. But what we do not do is we don’t demonstrate their use in a classroom. But the findings we have on Sexual Risk Avoidance education is that, if a student does become sexually active, he or she is “no more likely” to “less likely” to use a condom than other students. So that’s a charge that we hear often that, “Oh, kids are going to have sex and then they won’t be prepared.” But the research doesn’t back that up.

JOHN RUSTIN: And the factual information that’s provided, as you have said, is important and I appreciate youR sharing that because I think it’s important for our listeners to understand that. There are often—as we’ve been dealing with this issue for, gracious, over 20 years here in North Carolina at the Family Policy Council—we’ve had many, many, many conversations with folks on the other side of this issue and legislators who promote the Comprehensive Sex Education or Risk Reduction approach, and they say, “Oh, you’re just putting your head in the sand and not providing students information that they really need about the facts.” And that’s just not the case. Sexual Risk Avoidance education provides factual, reliable and accurate information about the risks that teens will be engaging in if they do participate in sexual activity, and I think that’s important for them to know, without a doubt. Mary Anne, I know we probably sparked interest among our listeners, and there are many, I am sure, that have been involved and interested in this topic for years. But, I know that Ascend has a lot of great resources on your website, and before we go I want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can obtain those very valuable resources so that they can utilize them with both their families, their friends, and even at their schools.

MARY ANNE MOSACK: Absolutely! We would definitely be very pleased if as many people as possible avail themselves of the resources we have. We can be reached at and if you go to our home page, you’ll see there is a tab for resources, and there is almost every topic imaginable that you would like to discuss or have more information on. We actually have a Parent Toolkit on there. So, if you’re a parent and you would like to have Sexual Risk Avoidance education in your school, this is a step-by-step guidance for you. So please, contact us. We’re really here to help and we really want to be the first line of support for any parent regarding this issue.

JOHN RUSTIN: Great, let me repeat that website for our listeners, it’s And with that, Mary Anne Mosack, I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters, and for all your great research and hard work to help ensure that young people are making well-informed and healthy decisions in this important area of their lives.

MARY ANNE MOSACK: Well, thank you very much for having me!

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