Bristol Palin says abstinence is not realistic for teenagers (something science backs up!)

In a recent interview, Bristol Palin (Sarah Palin’s daughter) acknowledges that abstinence from sex is “not at all realistic” for many teenagers, and that sex is relatively common among teenagers and certainly before marriage. Although her mother, Sarah Palin, is a proponent of abstinence-only sex education, the fact is that science – and the lives of most Americans – back Bristol’s thoughts far more so than her mothers.

You may remember earlier reports, for example, about studies that have shown that most Americans (roughly 95% or so) have had sex before marriage and that premarital abstinence pledges (so-called “purity pledges” that sometimes involve “promise rings”) are largely ineffective and that those teenagers who take them often end up having premarital sex anyway but, compared to those that don’t, they may be less likely to use contraception or other means of safer sex.  Uh-oh.

It doesn’t take much more than a Google search to find links to reports that suggest the federally recommended abstinence only sex education is ineffective - in fact, some health groups feel that it may even violate human rights by not providing adolescents with information that could help them to better prevent infections that could impair their fertility or cause them to get AIDS.  One can also read a statement on abstinence only education from the American Psychological Association.

Then again, most of us – like Bristol – get it. We get that many (but not all) teenagers will have sex during their high school years. Some may even have sex during their middle schools. Most teenagers and young adults will have sex by the time they leave college and certainly most will do so before they get married.

And most of us get something more - that having sex is serious business and that few people would gamble their health or a potential pregnancy if it weren’t for the fact that sex can so often feel pleasurable or hold the hope of something more (e.g., keeping or solidifying a relationship, attention, affection, etc). Though some people like some of these reasons more than others, there are hundreds of reasons that people have sex and whatever the reason, most people end up doing it.

So why not help people – and yes, teenagers included – learn how to do so in ways that minimize emotional and physical risks?

If you’re a parent of a young child or teenager, you might find it helpful to learn more about ways parents can approach this challenging topic. An often recommended book is From Diapers to Dating: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children (the 2nd edition just came out last year!). Read more about the book or buy it here.

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at