Research & Insights

Politically Motivated Support for Abstinence-Only Sex Ed Is Risky Business

It’s been proven that abstinence-only sex education is neither effective at preventing teen pregnancy nor does it reduce sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers. So why do so many Americans – including politicians – continue to support it? New research out of Washington State University and the University of West Virginia suggests that political bias – and where someone gets their news –  is a major influence on what kind of sex education people favor.

Communications scholars Douglas Blanks Hindman and Changmin Yan were interested in exploring the link between political beliefs, exposure to cable news channels (Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC), and support for abstinence-only sex ed. They designed a statistical study using data from three consecutive years of health surveys to examine these relationships. Their results were published in the Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives in May 2015.

Hindman and Yan examined data from over 600 responses to the Annenberg National Health Communication Survey from the years 2005 – 2007. They looked at measures of how often respondents said they watched each of the three major cable news networks; their education, age, and income levels; their political leanings; and their levels of support for abstinence-only sex education.

Unsurprisingly, they found that political conservatives, regular viewers of Fox News, and people with less education were more likely to support abstinence-only sex ed. This supports the idea that political ideology drives beliefs about sex ed. The researchers also found that the link between beliefs and abstinence beliefs grew over the years. “It seems that over time,” the researchers note, “political partisans are not necessarily absorbing more information about the alternative of abstinence-only education, i.e. the scientific consensus regarding the issue, but instead are more interested in reaffirming what they already believe.”

Interestingly, although exposure to more Fox News was associated with more support for abstinence-only education, a similar increase was not found for viewers who watched more MSNBC or CNN. “The fact that political ideology was a significant mediator of the relation between Fox News and abstinence belief, not the CNN- or MSNBC-abstinence belief relations…implies that Fox News content is different than that of CNN or MSNBC,” the researchers explain. “Specifically, results in the present study suggest that the content of Fox News fosters conservative political ideology, which then harnesses support for abstinence beliefs.”

“The results are consistence with previous research showing that political elites and partisan media such as Fox News reinforce conservative identities. It also appears that those identities are extended to beliefs that become increasingly polarized over time.”

“In short,” Hindman and Yan say, “political elites, in tandem with partisan media, cement morality policies to viewer identities as conservatives. This close connection between identity and policies may explain how beliefs persist in spite of contrary evidence.”

Journal of Health Communication

Douglas Blanks Hindman, Washington State University
Changmin Yan, University of West Virginia

Posted: August 3, 2015