A new study in The Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that 12 year-olds enrolled in an “abstinence only” sex-ed program delayed the onset of sexual activity for at least two years (and was subsequently written up in the mainstream media). This is a good thing: the age of onset of sexual activity and use of contraception/STI control measures have been repeatedly shown to be strongly correllated, so delaying the so-called “sexual debut” will therefore increase the likelihood of safe sex at the debut and beyond.
In this case it’s important to realize that the “abstinence only” program tested in this study is not of the over-churched, Jesus-will-hate-you-if-you-have-sex-before-you-get-married variety; the authors of the study were examining instead a secular, health-based just-don’t-have-sex-yet program. The point was not to try to get teens to feel morally shamed into waiting until marriage to have sex, but rather give them the confidence to say, “no, I’m not ready yet,” give them the facts about STI’s, and non-specifically delay the age of onset of sexual activity. As mentioned above, delaying the sexual debut leads to better eventual use of condoms and other protection. And obviously a secular program is something that everyone can feel comfortable about; religious programs by virtue can’t be as effective for people who aren’t a partisan of that religion.
That said, this particular study was not able to come to any conclusions about whether the kids who put off having sex for a while due to the abstinence message program actually engaged in safer sex practices when they did eventually have sex. For this study to really be informative, you’d need to make a connection between the kids who delay and better use of contraception; if you just cause them to put off sex for a bit but then not have safe sex, you really can’t say that the abstinence program “worked” or had much of a positive effect.