Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs. Predictors of Sexual Abstinence

The national evaluation of Title V, Section 510 abstinence education programs collected survey data on study youth over a four to six year period, depending on the year that they began to participate.В  At the time of enrollment in the study, youth were of middle school age or youngerВ  in most cases, too young to be sexually active.В  Over the course of the evaluation, they aged into mid-to-later adolescence, when many youth are making decisions about their own sexual activity.В  To gain insight into the unfolding of these decisions over time and the effect of program participation on these decisions, the evaluation has included analyses of both short-term and longer-term program impacts.

A previous DHHS study report found that the four focal programs had an impact on several of their intended short-term outcomes, which were hypothesized to lower rates of teen sexual activity (Maynard et al. 2005).В В  Most notably, relative to their peers in the control group, youth in the program group reported views more supportive of abstinence and less supportive of teen sex, and they demonstrated a heightened awareness of the possible negative consequences of teen sex.В  Program group youth were also significantly more likely than youth in the control group to make formal pledges to abstain from sex until marriage.

This chapter explores two potential explanations for the apparent inconsistency between short-term impacts on outcomes believed to be predictive of abstinence and the lack of longer-term impacts on abstinence:В  (1) these outcomes failed to affect, or mediate, sexual abstinence as hypothesized, and (2) the short-term impacts on these outcomes were simply too small or did not persist for long enough to have an impact on eventual sexual activity.

Notably, while the chapter provides insight into the links between potential mediators and sexual abstinence, it cannot establish causality.В  An observed relationship between a mediator and sexual abstinence might reflect the effect of unobserved factors correlated with that mediator rather than the causal impact of the mediator itself.В  For example, peer pressure could have a causal effect on sexual abstinence, in which case peer pressure and sexual abstinence would be correlated.В  But an observed correlation between peer pressure and sexual abstinence could also arise from youth with an unobserved propensity to engage in sexual activity selecting into peer groups in which peer pressure is high.В  The analytic approach, presented below, cannot disentangle these two explanations for any correlations between potential mediators and sexual abstinence.

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