Teens Take Virginity Pledges – And Then Have Sex?

Chelsea Ricker

A recent study of virginity pledgers suggests the movement is a means to reassure parents rather than actually influencing the choices teens make for themselves.

In the January issue of
, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, there’s
a new study from Janet Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins
University about the effects of virginity pledges on sexual behavior.   

So how do these commitments
to abstain until marriage affect sexual behavior?  Do teens who
pledge to abstain have less sex than their compatriots?  Nope. 
Do they wait longer to have sex?  Nope.  So what’s the effect? 
Teens who take virginity pledges are significantly less likely to use
the Pill or condoms than their non-pledging peers.  

Color me unsurprised.  Researchers
Bearman and Bruckner have looked into virginity pledges twice before. 
In 2001, they found that when compared to the general
population, teens who take these pledges are more likely to delay first
intercourse, but less likely to use a condom or birth control when they
do have sex.  

But here’s why Rosenbaum’s
new study is important: while Bearman and Bruckner compared pledgers
to non-pledgers, Rosenbaum used 128 different factors to ensure that
her samples had similar attitudes towards sexual activity to begin with. 
So factors like economic status, emotions about sex and religion that
may make someone more or less likely to pledge are already accounted
for, which should make it harder to claim bias in reading the data (although
abstinence-only-until marriage advocates have already tried).  

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That might all be kind of boring. 
Even I think the summary is kind of boring beyond the nitty gritty of
teen pledgers’ attitudes towards sex (they’re more likely to have
negative expectations/feel guilty about sex, think birth control is
bad or morally wrong, and have less experience in romantic relationships. 
The real kicker?   They’re also less likely to have masturbated
in the last 18 months, which is just plain sad.).

But there are a few significant
findings from these studies:

  1. Bearman and Bruckner
    found that too many pledgers spoil the soup, as it were.  Basically,
    if too many people pledge, the pledgers quit thinking of themselves
    as different and/or special, and the pledge becomes meaningless, even
    to them.  Which means massive national pledge drives won’t work. 
  2. Rosenbaum found
    in an earlier study that half of virginity pledgers will
    deny having pledged within one year.  So even as an identity movement,
    it doesn’t seem too successful. 
  3. Bearman and Bruckner
    used data from a 1995 study by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent
    Health.  Rosenbaum picked up that group, followed it through 2001,
    and used more rigorous study methods to show that virginity pledges
    have NO PROTECTIVE EFFECT on teen sexual behavior, and have a statistically
    significant NEGATIVE EFFECT on contraceptive use. 

What does this mean for policy? 
Rosenbaum’s findings reinforce the same thing we’ve been
saying for years – abstinence-only programs, many of which include
virginity pledges, do not work.  The whole virginity pledge movement
seems to be a means to reassure parents and other "concerned" adults
rather than actually influencing the choices teens make for themselves. 
As part of the larger abstinence movement they fail, and in ways that
seem to demonstrate the problems inherent in abstinence-only programs – that
at best they don’t inform teens of necessary public health information
and, more commonly, deliberately distort and falsify facts to undermine
teens’ sexual and reproductive health knowledge and ability to protect
themselves.  These programs are ineffective, unethical, and quickly
becoming a national embarrassment.

So what’s my hope for the
new year? 

That we start thinking of sexuality education from a
comprehensive, life-long, sex positive perspective.  Sexuality
education should be rights-based: it should be taught not because it
reduces teen pregnancy or STI rates, but because all people, especially
young people, have a right to accurate, complete and unbiased information
about their bodies, their health and their sexuality.  You teach
kids about sexuality for the same reason that you teach them history,
math, and logic – they deserve the tools that help them understand
and function in the world around them.  It’s education, and they
have a right to that education.  Hopefully, the new Congress
will recognize that right, quit funding programs that violate teens
rights, and start looking at comprehensive sexuality education as one
of many necessary steps towards a just and healthy world.   

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