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For me, sex education in middle school consisted of watching awkward 1970s videos about puberty. We never really learned too much about sex — any time the county attempted to expand the health curriculum, a firestorm of parental protests quickly erupted.

A recently released Penn study has reignited that debate. Researchers found that abstinence-only sex education can prove effective in preventing sexual activity among young teens. Unfortunately, the study has quickly become another weapon in the culture war between liberals in love with condom-focused “safer-sex” classes and conservatives bent on imposing moralizing, abstinence-until-marriage programs.

In their desire to score political points, both sides have missed the mark. If anything, the study’s results suggest we should reject both extreme approaches — and instead implement sex-ed programs for young teenagers that emphasize abstinence, but discuss sexual activity in an honest and unbiased way.

The study assigned 662 students in the sixth and seventh grades to four different sex-ed classes: condom-only, abstinence-only, a combination program and a control program that avoided the topic of sex. After two years, students in the abstinence-only group reported a significantly lower level of sexual activity than the control group. The condom-only and comprehensive sex-ed programs, however, didn’t significantly reduce sexual activity.

The results led many conservative groups to redouble efforts to secure federal funding for “abstinence-until-marriage” programs. But the program used in the study isn’t anything like those that have received funding over the past decade. In particular, this study’s program lacked any of the moral or religious overtones of other abstinence programs.

“There are no other abstinence-only programs that are like ours,” said Penn Medicine professor John Jemmott, who, along with Nursing professor Loretta Jemmott, authored the study. The program didn’t teach “that the expected standard for young people is [no] sex outside the context of marriage.”

The study’s classes dealt with sex in an honest manner, using fun but informative exercises. For example, students took part in role-playing to understand how to resist the pressure to have sex. The program also had students explore some of the pros and cons of sex versus abstinence in relation to their future goals. “It’s subtle,” Jemmott said. “The teacher has to have skills to get the kids to bring these issues up and get to the right conclusion without being overbearing.”

Teachers in the study’s abstinence-only program also didn’t disparage the use of condoms. If any questions about contraception came up, teachers were instructed to answer them in a scientific and unbiased manner. Unsurprisingly, students in Jemmott’s abstinence-only class who had sex didn’t report lower rates of condom usage compared to the control group. Contrary to the talking points of many liberal organizations, abstinence-only education doesn’t have to equal reduced condom usage.

Because of the study’s limitations, we need more research to compare the efficacy of different sex-ed classes and see whether similar programs can work for other populations. “One study isn’t enough for public policy decisions,” Jemmott told me.

Still, the results offer important lessons for the sex-ed debate. Liberals must learn that abstinence-only education can play a key role in fighting teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, and may prove more effective than “safer-sex” programs in delaying the onset of sexual activity. But conservatives also must realize that moralizing abstinence programs that disparage condom use can prove just as harmful to teenagers.

The debate over moral values shouldn’t dominate how we develop effective sex-ed programs. As the culture war rages, teenage pregnancy continues to rise and sexually transmitted diseases continue to plague already vulnerable populations. We can’t afford to wait any longer.

Ashwin Shandilya is a Wharton senior from New Market, Md. He is the former Marketing Manager and Editorial Page Editor of the DP. His e-mail address is Penn vs. Sword appears on Thursdays.

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