How is Abstinence-Only Sex Education Like South Africa’s Driving Exam?

South Africa has had, for the last dozen years, what may be the world’s most difficult driver’s license exam. It’s an exercise in extremely defensive driving. Test examiners take off points for, among other things, failure to check all mirrors every seven seconds. An applicant can fail instantly if he lets his car roll backwards even an inch when stopping or starting, or simply if his test examiner hasn’t met his daily failure quota. In a recent Times article, Michael Wines writes that passing the test requires an applicant to “imagine that he is driving a live claymore mine under assault by guerillas in bumper cars.”

So South Africa must have the safest roads in the world, right? Well, no. The fatality rate per mile is five times higher than that of the United States, and rising fast. Why? Because the test is so hard, and the accompanying bureaucratic process so byzantine, that it acts as a strong disincentive for South Africans to get proper driver training. Many people simply drive without a license or buy one off the black market. So the unintended consequences of South Africa’s rigorous licensing program seem pretty plain: there is more bad driving as a result.

Turn now to the United States, where the Federal Government has spent upwards of $1 billion over the last decade on abstinence-only sex education. (Call it defensive dating.) The idea is that not teaching students about contraception, safe sex, etc., will lead to better outcomes, including less unwanted pregnancies and fewer sexually transmitted diseases.

Except … it turns out that teenagers are circumventing their abstinence education and having sex anyway. Studies have repeatedly shown that abstinence-only students have almost the same number of sexual partners, and have sex almost as early, as students who receive traditional sex ed. In fact, abstinence-only programs may actually increase the risk of STDs and unintentional teen pregnancies. That’s because those abstinence-only students who do have sex tend to be less likely to use protection.

That’s one of the reasons why New York State recently canceled its abstinence-only program, passing up millions of dollars in Federal aid. Congress nevertheless appears ready to continue funding for similar programs. Maybe abstinence-only would work better if the classes were administered by one of those stern South African driving examiners.

Gregory A. Butler

When I was a vocational instructor at a GED program in the Bronx, we had 1 hour of sex education for our students during each year.

The "sex education" consisted of somebody from the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene coming in with a slideshow of people with horrible sores from untreated Sexually Transmitted Infections.

The symptons shown were Tuskeegee Experiment stuff - horrible and disgusting (so bad that I had to run out of the room to vomit! ...which my students thought was incredibly funny!!!)

The symptons were also totally unrealistic - nobody in New York City is going to let an infection get that bad without going to the hospital.

The point was to scare the students into being abstinent.

Problem number one - our students were ADULTS (young men and women aged 18 to 22) and sexually active adults at that (out of 40 students, 2 of the young women were pregnant, and 2 of the young women and one of the young men already had small chilren).

Problem number two - the students drew the totally wrong conclusion from the slideshow.

The students drew the conclusion that you could easily tell if a person had an STI simply by asking them to take their clothes off, looking at their body and conductiong what the students called a "smell test" (that is, sniffing the person's genitals for an unusual and/or unpleasant smell).

But, the narrow minded Fundamentalist Christians who ran our program - and the folks at NYC DHMH who supplied the slideshow, actually thought this slideshow was A SUCCESS!!!

What a waste of time!!!

We would have been better off having a bowl of condoms by the reception desk (where our students signed in and out every day) and leaving it at that!!

The reality was, the students were sexually active young adults, and there was no way to change that, so as educators we should have been helping them to make informed choices about how they used their bodies.

Instead, we ended up making them more ignorant and ill informed than they were before they went to that class!!!



yep, totalitarianism without repression does not work at all. And with repression (in these cases, repression would be arresting the offending drivers without license and sex-hungry teenagers and throwing them in jail), it only works for a while.

The more interesting question is what would happen to the south african AIDS crisis if south african drivers were taught sex abstinence. The plot thickens.


Yet another case where government has their head in their...well, in the clouds, and not in reality. Sponsoring a reality based bill would be unpopular with the voting population and they won't do anything to alienate their voter base. As I've said before, government has no business in our private lives as it is. Don't even get me started about religion.


Unfortunately, like all reasonable answers to neo-puritanism, this information is destined to be roundly ignored. Neo-puritans forbid pleasurable practices because they want to get their subjects frustrated, not because they think abstinence is better for them. They know that frustrated people are more easily manipulated; instead of thinking and learning, they are obsessing about sex. We can best encourage responsible sexual practices by doing the best job we can at informing ourselves about them; does this sound like a likely approach?


Man, are you struggling for an item.


Not checking the mirror every 7 seconds, and having the car roll back even an inch when stopping or starting can result in failing a driving test. That is not a driving test;it's a test in futility.

Who came up with this test? I am sure that if this person is dead, South Africans take a yearly pilgrimage to his grave and spit on it. I would.

Scott S

What is it the government's job to teach about sex? Why can't parents provide this sort of education for their children?


abstinence-only education: the quintessntial "wouldn't it be nice" policy, whereby if we say something, or make a show of it, we think it will work.

some of its relatives:
-gun control laws
-drug control laws
-imigration control laws (i.e. the wall vs. mexicans)

any suggestions for other "wouldn't it be nice" policies?


There are also parallels in US policy on illegal drugs, illegal immigration, guns, gambling, prostitution, etc.


To Scott S ("Why is it the government's job to teach about sex? Why can't parents provide this sort of education for their children?"):

It is good public policy to have our schools teach children useful facts. Facts about sex are useful. Can there be any doubt about this?


Of course these policies are pretty hard to judge, perhaps if we didn't broadcast through our media outlets that sex makes life better 24/7 the United states wouldn't "continue to suffer from the highest birth rate and one of the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in the industrialized world".

I usually have to go back and forth on abstinence education, the truth is that growing up I was just told that "Sex is great, and you will do it. Here's a condom." Its a bit like the DARE program that tells kids "Don't do drugs, but their great because ..." Somehow I think both approaches are wrong.


I grew up in a very religious town; sex ed at my school taught nothing about preventing pregnancy or alternatives to intercourse, and almost nothing about disease. You would not believe how many of the girls I graduated with got pregnant their first year of college, dropped out, and never went back. Yet so many Americans (and Congress too, apparently) would say they just got what they deserved for "sinning."

Uncle Mikey

In my experience, those who argue against the effectiveness of abstinence training don't want it mentioned at all, making them just as unreasonable as those who want to teach only abstinence. There's room for both in the process. This is not an either/or situation.


Unlike illegal drugs, guns, gambling, and alcoholism, the vast majority of normal people from all walks of life will feel a natural "yearning curiousity" for sex before they complete grade school, even without much exposure to it. An explanation for these feelings and facts surrounding them can go a long way to allowing young adults to come to a personal understanding of where they stand individually.

David (a South African)

Our driving exams are the hardest in the world? That's news to me, lol. Sure they're strict on the people, but that's why you have driving instructors...

The ironic thing is that the defensive driving is completely useless - you look at everything but the road in front of you. I suppose it's the same as the abstinence thing - you're focusing on everything but the thing you're meant to be


First, I wonder how "non-partisan" the study is? I mean, there are organizations that apparently feel threatened by abstinence-only education.

Second, assuming the study is correct (not sure it is), you cannot expect abstinence-only education to work in a society that continually sends the message that abstinence is stupid or backward.

There was a time in America when abstinence was taught at home, at school, and in socieity at large. That is, there was a UNIFIED message regarding this.

But when there is a MIXED MESSAGE--when the school teacher's say no, but Jennifer Aniston and Friends (reruns) say that it's the cool, hip, fun, enjoyable thing to do...who are you going to listen to?

Also, just because people are failing doesn't mean the message is wrong. It just means that people listening to it are not doing or getting it for some reason. We don't stop saying murder is wrong because some people are going to murder anyway.

Lastly, and this is absolutly key, I'll bet a Coca-Cola that we can find scores of SUCCESS stores about abstinence-based education. I've heard of places the went from all kinds of unwanted pregnances to virtually none. Just depends on what "anecdotes" you want to hear the most.

I'll also bet a second Coca-Cola that this study is about as non-partisan as Norman Lear's People for the American Way. That is, it may call itself non-partisan, but it comes down very clearly on a certain side of the line.



The "Law" of unintended consequences crops up in many places. A former employer - mega-insurance company - had their systems folk institute a rule to make data extra secure they would require all employees change their password every month for system access.

The password had to have a capitol letter, a lowercase, a number and a special character, had to be at least 8 characters long. The password could not be repeated, nor even be close to the prior five passwords i.e you couldn't change one character and re-use. It couldn't be a row of letters or numbers from the keyboard, not something easily guessed like the employee's name nor their spouses, nor variations of the word "password". There may have been other rules as well, I can't remember.

Bottom line - the consequence of all this security - nearly everyone in the place had (and may still have) a piece of paper next to their computer with their passwords writen down!

Trying for ultra security led to lowered security.



Seriously aaron? comparing murder to sex?


Of course they are, since the classes take about 2.5% of their time. The other 97.5% is consumed by advertising and myspace blogs along with TV shows and movies which aggressively promote sex. You aren't cool unless you're showing 9 miles of skin and hooking up with anyone available. It's not the abstinence classes that are failing kids, it's the lack of follow through messaging as parents, teachers and other nominal adults shrug shoulders and say they're doing it anyway...


Another way to look at it is that abstinence-only programs are like telling people not to think of pink elephants.

Don't think of pink elephants.

Don't think of pink elephants.