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Abstinence Does Not Reduce Risky Sex

A much-touted form of sex education encourages abstinence from sexual relations until an individual is married or in an adult relationship. Advocates say abstinence reduces sexual risk-taking.

“The underlying assumption is that delay reduces sexual risk-taking”—and with it unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, according to University of South Florida psychologist Dr. Marina A. Bornovalova. “If they just wait, then they’ll be less likely to have multiple partners or get pregnant early.”

“But until now, no one had tested this assumption.”

A study by Bornovalova and her colleagues put the lie to that assumption.

The researchers did discover a positive correlation between early sexual initiation (16 years old or younger) and later sexual risk-taking. But delayed sex did not influence sexual risk-taking later in life such as multiple partners, drug and alcohol use during sexual encounters, or unprotected intercourse.

The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The researchers looked at more than 1,000 pairs of identical and fraternal twins enrolled in the longitudinal Minnesota Twin Family Study (MTFS). These twins, aged 11 at the time of enrollment, were questioned on biological, social, and psychological factors, from parental drug use to age of puberty to friendliness.

Then, at age 24, they were asked about the risks they were taking in their sex lives. In some pairs, one twin had early sex and the other didn’t – and the two twins were compared on their sexual risk-taking in adulthood.

Numerous runs of the data led to the same conclusion, Bornovalova said: “You take two twins who share 100 percent of their genes. One has sex at 15 and one at 20. You compare them on risk-taking at 24—and they don’t differ.”

The research brings up a question of timing – why are some sexually promiscuous?

According to the researchers that answer may be that it is a combination of genetic factors—such as the strong inherited tendency to be impulsive or anti-social – and environmental ones, such as poverty or troubled family life. Biology and life experience may fuel early sexual initiation and risk taking later in life.

However, the psychologists aren’t advocating sex at a very early age; it very well might have other harmful effects on a teenager, such as depression or poor school performance.

“But if our goal is to reduce sexual risk-taking, we need to be focusing on something else,” said Bornovalova. “More study is needed to zero in on what that something else is. But for now, one thing should be clear to the people writing sex ed curricula: Whatever is causing sexual risk-taking, it is not early sexual initiation.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Abstinence Does Not Reduce Risky Sex

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Abstinence Does Not Reduce Risky Sex. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 18 May 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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