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Adolescence and Abstinence Fact Sheet

October/November 1997

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

Adolescents should be encouraged to delay sexual behaviors until they are physically, cognitively, and emotionally ready for mature sexual relationships and their consequences. Comprehensive sexuality education programs offer them a wide range of information while abstinence-only programs focus exclusively on abstinence until marriage. This Fact Sheet presents current statistics on adolescence and abstinence as well as research on both education approaches.


  • More than half of teenagers are virgins until they are at least 17 years of age.1

  • By the time they reach the age of 20, 20 percent of boys and 24 percent of girls have not had sexual intercourse.2

  • The largest study of adult sexual behavior found that only 6.9 percent of men and 21 percent of women aged 18 to 59 had their first intercourse on their wedding night.3


  • Many virgins are sexually involved. In one study of urban students in the ninth through the twelfth grades, 47 percent were virgins. More than a third of virgin male and female adolescents had engaged in some form of heterosexual genital sexual activity in the past year:
    • 29 percent of virgins had engaged in masturbation of a partner of the opposite gender.

    • 31 percent had been masturbated by a partner of the opposite gender.

    • 9 percent had engaged in fellatio with ejaculation with a partner of the opposite gender.

    • 10 percent had engaged in cunnilingus with a partner of the opposite gender.

    • 1 percent had engaged in anal intercourse with a partner of the opposite gender.4

Comprehensive Sexuality Education Can Help Postpone Intercourse

  • Helping adolescents to postpone sexual intercourse until they are ready for mature relationships is a key goal of comprehensive sexuality education.5 Sexuality educators have always included information about abstinence in sexuality education courses.

  • Interventions that are effective in encouraging teenagers to postpone sexual intercourse help young people to develop the interpersonal skills they need to resist premature sexual involvement. Effective programs include a strong abstinence message as well as information about contraception and safer sex. For interventions to be most effective, teenagers need to be exposed to these programs before initiating intercourse.6

  • In a 1993 study, SIECUS found that state curricula emphasize abstinence. Abstinence was among the topics most often covered in state curricula and guidelines along with families, decision-making, and sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. The topics least likely covered included sexual identity and orientation, shared sexual behavior, sexual response, masturbation, and abortion.7

  • Sexuality education does not encourage teens to start having sexual intercourse, increase the frequency of intercourse, or increase the number of sexual partners.8

  • Teenagers who start having intercourse following a sexuality education program are more likely to use contraception that those who have not participated in a program.9

Abstinence-Only Education

  • To date, six studies of abstinence-only programs have been published. None of these studies found consistent and significant program effects on delaying the onset of intercourse, and at least one study provided strong evidence that the program did not delay the onset of intercourse. Thus, the weight of evidence indicates that these abstinence-only programs do not delay the onset of intercourse.10

  • A study of 7,326 seventh and eighth graders in California who participated in an abstinence-only program found that the program did not have a measurable impact upon either sexual or contraceptive behaviors.11

  • Nearly two-thirds of teenagers think teaching "Just Say No" is an ineffective deterrent to teenage sexual activity.12

  • The National Institutes of Health's Consensus Panel on AIDS said in February 1997 that the abstinence-only approach to sexuality education "places policy in direct conflict with science and ignores overwhelming evidence that other programs (are) effective.13


  1. Alan Guttmacher Institute, Sex and America's Teenagers (New York: The Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994), p. 19.

  2. Ibid, pp. 22-3.

  3. E. Laumann et al., The Social Organization of Sexuality--Sexual Practices in the United States (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994).

  4. M.A. Schuster, et al., "The Sexual Practices of Adolescent Virgins: Genital Sexual Activities of High School Students Who Have Never Had Vaginal Intercourse," American Journal of Public Health, 86, no. 11 (1996), pp. 1570-76.

  5. Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, 2nd Edition (New York: SIECUS, 1996).

  6. D. Kirby, No Easy Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy (Washington, DC: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, 1997), p. 25.

  7. Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), Unfinished Business: A SIECUS Assessment of State Sexuality Education Programs (New York: SIECUS, 1993), p. 18.

  8. J.J. Frost and J.D. Forrest, "Understanding the Impact of Effective Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Programs," Family Planning Perspectives, 27, no. 5 (1995), pp. 188-96; D. Kirby, et al., "School-Based Programs to Reduce Sexual Risk Behaviors: A Review of Effectiveness," Public Health Reports, 190, no. 3 (1997), pp. 339-60; A. Grunseit and S. Kippax (1993); D. Kirby (1997), p.25.

  9. A. Grunseit and S. Kippax, Effects of Sex Education on Young People's Sexual Behavior (Geneva: World Health Organization, 1993), pp. 5-6.

  10. D. Kirby (1997), p. 25.

  11. H.H. Cagampang, R.P. Barth, M. Korpi, and D. Kirby, "Education Now and Babies Later (ENABL): Life History of a Campaign to Postpone Sexual Involvement," Family Planning Perspectives, 29, no. 3 (1997), pp. 109-14.

  12. Roper Starch Worldwide, Teens Talk About Sex: Adolescent Sexuality in the 90s (New York: Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, 1994), p. 18.

  13. National Institutes of Health, Consensus Development Conference Statement, Feb. 11-13, 1997.

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

This article was provided by Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. It is a part of the publication SIECUS Report.
See Also
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
Abstinence Programs


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