STOKING FIRE: Today is Purity Day – Is Your Local School Pushing Chastity Pledges?

Eleanor J. Bader

The Liberty Counsel continues to pretend that abstinence is related to virtue and that waiting to become sexually active will invariably lead to success and happiness.

Surprise: the Liberty Counsel, a 22-year-old rightwing advocacy group “dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and the family,” wants American teens to become part of the counter culture.

At least that’s what their website says. Perusal of the site makes clear that there’s a huge gulf separating LC’s vernacular from more progressive usage of the now-dated phrase. In fact, they’re advocating that youth participate in the ninth annual Day of Purity, using the occasion to declare, or in some cases re-declare, their devotion to “purity of mind and action,” AKA avoidance of sexual contact with members of the opposite sex until they walk down the aisle.

Purity Day takes place on February 14, a mid-winter holiday typically associated with chocolate hearts, cheesy greeting cards, and heartfelt expressions of love. Yes, Valentine’s Day.

“Today’s culture encourages youth to become sexually active at a young age and to experiment with sexual preferences,” LC’s website rails. “There is a concerted effort in the schools and media to turn our youth away from traditional values. The message is that sexual promiscuity and experimenting at an early age is normal.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

As they see it, waiting to have sexual intercourse until one enters into holy, heterosexual matrimony is akin to finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Again, their website touts the benefits—albeit without references for their specious data–of premarital chastity. “Teen virgins can expect an income that is 16 percent higher than sexually active teens from identical socioeconomic backgrounds,” it tells readers. What’s more, it states that the divorce rate for female virgins is 76 percent lower that for non-virgins. Then there’s the issue of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Here too, the message is simple. Without physical contact, there can be no STD transmission. Case closed.

As tempting as it is to ignore such trifling nonsense, it’s important to grapple with the fact that hundreds of schools in 43 states—most, but not all, of them private and religious– have opted to participate in LC’s Day of Purity. Once on board, they’re able to order a host of LC materials, from tee-shirts, to chastity pledge cards, plastic Day of Purity wrist bands, and “fact” sheets for assemblies, after-school, and community programs.

One of the main problems, of course, is that kids feel obliged to take the chastity pledge when it is presented and then promptly forget that they’ve done so. According to an article by Janet Elise Rosenbaum, published in the January 2009 issue of Pediatrics, five years after signing a pledge card, a whopping 88 percent of signers said that they had no recollection of having affixed their John or Jane Hancock to such a statement.

Patrick Malone of the Sexuality Information and Education Counsel of the United States reports that “all of the data show that virginity pledges have very limited effectiveness in terms of age of first sexual encounter and number of partners. But because abstinence-until-marriage education programs play down condom effectiveness, when these teens have sex they don’t protect themselves because they think condoms don’t work.”

This may at least partially explain why nearly 50 percent of the 19 million STDs diagnosed annually in the U.S. occur among people aged 15 to 24 and why one-sixth of new HIV infections show up in people under 25. Even the Washington Post has decried the push for abstinence-until-marriage, reporting that the percentage of teens who take precautions against pregnancy and STDs is 10 points lower for pledgers than for non-pledgers.

This reality has had little-if-any impact on Liberty Counsel or the pro-purity crowd. Rather than championing comprehensive sex ed—which they mistakenly believe is pervasive in American schools–their work bolsters the notion that ignorance is bliss. Worse, since most U.S. educators are not required to teach students about sexual behaviors, contraception, or making responsible choices, the political momentum is clearly on their side.

“Maine, Oregon and the District of Columbia are the only places where comprehensive sex ed is a mandatory part of a student’s schooling,” laments Patrick Malone. “California mandates comprehensive HIV/AIDS education but not comprehensive sexuality ed. There are thousands of schools and school districts in this country and it’s impossible to track who offers what. We do know that in many states, people favor abstinence only approaches. In a large part of the country no one objects to a Day of Purity.”

It goes without saying that the federal government could play a decisive role in pushing schools to offer detailed and explicit sexuality curricula. Instead, Malone reports that the feds have allocated $50 million a year through 2014 to promote abstinence.  Malone likens the expenditure to “flushing money down the toilet.”

“We know that comprehensive sex education programs do a better job of delaying sex for teens than abstinence only programs,” he continues.  The question, he adds, is this: “Are we going to live in a fantasy world where we espouse one moral belief system or do we acknowledge the realities of how people actually live?”

The Liberty Counsel continues to pretend that abstinence is related to virtue and that waiting to become sexually active will invariably lead to success and happiness. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been wasted in pursuit of this fantasy.  One can only hope that as Purity Day approaches, Cupid will continue to smile at all of us, misinformation be damned.  

Commentary Sexuality

Busywork to Keep Teens From ‘Getting Busy’: High School Students Asked to Sign an Abstinence Contract

Martha Kempner

One Utah program makes students choose to promise to uphold several flawed statements on abstinence. I would love to believe that the students would be brave enough to challenge what’s written on the page, but just in case, I decided to explain why some of the most outrageous statements just don't make sense.

A picture of an abstinence-only-until-marriage workbook distributed in a Utah high school is making the rounds on social media, thanks to PopSugar. As the apparent homework for students on Day 12 of a so-called sex education program, the assignment asked them to choose their top five (or more) reasons to remain abstinent out of a list of 28. Students were then told to write those reasons neatly on the next page and sign it as a “contract.”

There are many reasons that I hate this activity, including how closely it resembles virginity pledges—which, though they don’t often go through the same trouble of outlining reasons for abstinence, we all know don’t work. Research has shown that 88 percent of young people who take those pledges end up having sex before their wedding night. And worse, according to those studies, once pledgers become sexually active, they are one-third less likely to use contraception than their non-pledging peers.

What upsets me the most, however, is the degree to which young people are supposed to accept the premise of the 28 so-called justifications for abstinence without question. If they were allowed to think critically about what they are being asked to sign, they might notice that the statements are based on the assumption that all premarital relationships are unhealthy, morally wrong, and overwhelmingly likely to lead to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or unintended pregnancy. The statements are also based on the flawed idea that abstinence until marriage would be the only way to fulfill the promises they’re putting in the contract.

I would love to believe that the students in these classes would be brave enough to challenge much of what’s written on the page but just in case, I decided to explain why some of the most outrageous statements just don’t make sense. Maybe my arguments can help other kids faced with homework like this challenge assumptions or, even better, help adults realize why this kind of program does not meet the needs of students.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

#1. I refuse to use others for my physical needs.
#2. I refuse to be used by someone else to satisfy his/her physical needs.
I suppose we can give the authors credit for acknowledging that teens have physical needs, but they lose those points for assuming that all teenage sexual relationships involve using each other purely for physical intimacy. Sure, some teens enter into unhealthy relationships in which one person is being used, but this is true of adults as well. Teens can and do have sexual relationships that are based on mutual love, trust, and respect. And some of these relationships include mutually pleasurable sexual experiences. Instead of assuming such relationships can’t exist, we should be teaching teens what is and isn’t healthy, and why mutual consent and pleasure is important. This understanding is critical even for teens who decide to stay abstinent in high school or until they get married, because they’ll need it in adult relationships as well.

#3. I refuse to risk getting pregnant or a girl pregnant.
Awkward phrasing aside, this is a good risk to avoid. But while abstinence is the surest way to ensure that no one gets pregnant, there are other ways to do so. Condoms, if used consistently and correctly, are 98 percent effective in preventing pregnancy. Yes, some teens use them wrong, but the most common mistake is leaving it in their purse or night table drawer. Teaching teens the importance of consistent condom use could allow them to keep this piece of their promise even if they end up having sex before marriage, which the majority of Americans do. Or, we could teach about (and give them access to) contraceptive implants and IUDs, which are over 99 percent effective without any effort on the part of the user and last for at least three years. These methods are a near-guarantee that teens will keep the promise of avoiding pregnancy whether or not they choose abstinence.

#6. I refuse to live through the trauma of an abortion.
First, we have to question the premise that abortion is traumatic. A recent study of women who’d had abortions found that 95 percent believed they’d made the right decision. Moreover, the most common emotion of the women after their abortion was relief. The study found no evidence that “post-abortion trauma syndrome”—a scare tactic frequently used by crisis pregnancy centers—exists. But #6 is flawed for another reason as well: It assumes, again, that sex before marriage is going to end in pregnancy. As I just discussed, a teen can refuse to live through abortion and can do so by using a highly effective form of birth control.

#12. I refuse to lose my self-respect.
This one really galls me because it goes back to the dichotomy set up by many abstinence-only curricula that says teens who are abstinent are model citizens and teens who have sex lack character, dignity, and self-respect. Abstinence programs have compared teens who have already had sex to things like used tape, to a cup full of spit, a mushed-up Peppermint Patty, chewed pieces of gum, or a rose with no petals. A person’s value is not wrapped up in their virginity. And teens who have had sex should know that they are no less valuable than any of their peers.

#16. I refuse to disrespect other’s physical boundaries/limitations.
This is a great promise that all teens should make. It is the basis of a lesson on consent. Teens need to learn that everyone has the right to make their own choices when it comes to sexual activity and they must respect those choices. Such a lesson, however, has little to do with staying abstinent until marriage. It’s about respecting an individual’s own boundaries, whatever they may be. So if your partner doesn’t want to have sex until marriage, then yes, you have to abide by that decision. But it’s equally important to abide by their decision if they tell you they don’t want to have sex until, say, next Thursday.

#18. I refuse to enter into marriage with unnecessary baggage from past relationships.
Abstinence-only curricula often focus on the idea that all sexual relationships outside of marriage leave memories and scars that will haunt you forever. You may lose your ability to bond (again, think about the tape game) or you may have flashbacks of prior partners during sex with your spouse. The average adult between the ages of 30 and 44, however, has had between four and eight opposite-sex sexual partners. Although I can’t tell you what images were going through their heads the last time they made love to their husband or wife, many seem to manage marriage without daily PTSD flashbacks of the ones who came before. While some people might consider past relationships as baggage, others see them as opportunities to learn the communication, negotiation, and emotional skills needed to be a good life partner.

Though this assignment might seem extreme, it is actually the kind of thing kids have been made to do in abstinence-only programs for years. Making young people blindly adopt tenets like these and then promise to follow them for years is not going to help them learn to protect themselves against STIs, pregnancy, or even heartache. Nor is it going to help them develop the critical thinking skills they need to make responsible sexual and relationship decisions as they mature. Good programs aim to educate young people rather than indoctrinate them. These teens would be much better off with one that let them think for themselves and question the basic premise that all sex before marriage is wrong.

This contract, as they say, isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

Commentary Sexual Health

College Pregnancy Prevention Programs Need to Go Beyond Abstinence

Martha Kempner

A new Arkansas bill mentions abstinence explicitly while avoiding any direct mention of contraception—suggesting that state lawmakers are kidding themselves about the behavior of college students.

Arkansas state Rep. Deborah Ferguson (D-West Memphis) undoubtedly has good intentions with her new bill to address unplanned pregnancy, which passed the state house in an 87-2 vote on Tuesday. According to the legislation, HB 1534, Arkansas has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. However, many of those pregnancies occur after young people have left high school—which is where most pregnancy prevention and sexual education efforts are focused. The bill notes that of 4,089 births to Arkansas teenagers in 2013, some 3,000 were to 18- and 19-year-olds.

Not all individuals this age attend college, of course. But in order to try and reach those who do, Ferguson’s bill would require the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board to develop an action plan that would include educating community college and university attendees about pregnancy prevention at their initial orientation sessions, incorporating medically accurate information about unintended pregnancy into compatible coursework, and discussing abstinence with students. However, the bill mentions abstinence explicitly while avoiding any direct mention of contraception—suggesting that most Arkansas lawmakers are either kidding themselves about the behavior of college students or would rather send a moral message to young people than actually help them prevent unintended pregnancy.

To be fair, the language used in the bill does seem to hint at contraception. It suggests that the action plan should “integrate information that is recognized as medically accurate by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists about the prevention of unplanned pregnancy into academic courses if and when appropriate.” ACOG supports providing young people with information about and easy access to all forms of contraception from condoms to intrauterine devices (IUDs). But no mention of these methods make it into the bill. Instead, the sentence about ACOG ends with “including without limitation abstinence education.”

Moreover, only abstinence came up in the debate about the bill. According to the Arkansas Times, after Ferguson explained the legislation, “one of the bill’s cosponsors, Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Springdale), rose to make sure Ferguson didn’t forget to emphasize a crucial point. ‘The bill also includes an abstinence component, correct?’ she asked.” Ferguson assured her colleagues that it did.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

It seems highly probable that Ferguson supports making contraception available to college students. It’s even possible that Lundstrum does too. As sponsors of the bill, however, they likely knew this would be controversial and hid behind ACOG recommendations and abstinence language in order to get the bill passed. I get that. Political expedience is important, and legislators have to live within their state’s reality. Unfortunately, what we’re left with is a bill that seems to suggest we gather all college freshmen together at orientation and tell them to keep their pants zipped for the next four years. The language is so vague the board—or institutions—could easily develop a program that includes no mention of contraception at all, despite what the sponsors may have been subtly intending.  

That’s just not going to work. Abstinence education is ineffective, even with younger students. A 2007 study of federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs found that the students who attended them had similar numbers of sexual partners and a similar age of first sexual intercourse as their peers not in the programs. Similarly, a British review of 13 abstinence-only programs in the United States found that they had no effect on sexually transmitted infection or pregnancy rates. In fact, they didn’t significantly affect the number of students engaging in vaginal sex. And, on an individual level, researchers have found that 88 percent of teens who take a pledge to remain a virgin until they’re married do have heterosexual intercourse before their wedding day. More concerning, pledgers who have sex are less likely to use contraception when they do become sexually active than their peers who had not pledged.

It is one thing to debate abstinence programs when we’re talking about high school students. Some parents think 14-year-olds shouldn’t have sex, period. As they get older and kids get more mature, the question of whether or not they are old enough for sex becomes more complicated, and opinions become more divided. Regardless, in many ways, 18- and 19-year-olds are more adults than they are teenagers. They can drive. They can vote. They can serve in the military. And they are having sex. By age 19, seven out of ten young people have engaged in sexual intercourse. The National Survey for Family Growth found that 44.9 percent of never-married 18- and 19-year-old girls and 42.6 percent of their male peers had had sex in the three months before they were surveyed. Individuals this age are definitely sexually active, and as such they are definitely at risk for an unintended pregnancy.

I have done many college orientation workshops about sexuality, and I would have been embarrassed to stand up in front of those emerging adults and suggest that the best thing they could do is to stop having sex. It’s not realistic, and it’s not necessary.

Instead, I’ve helped them understand the importance of thinking critically about each sexual experience. We’ve talked about who it would be with (do you feel comfortable with this person, and how will you feel next time you sit down next to her in Econ?); where it would take place (maybe wait until a night when your roommate is out instead of doing it under the covers knowing she’s wide awake on the upper bunk); whether it was consensual (you can’t assume your partner is into it—you have to ask); and whether it was protected against STDs and pregnancy (condoms and another form of birth control together is the very best option). Because I have been lucky enough to be at institutions that made contraception accessible, each talk ended with a mention of the many places on campus where students could get free condoms as well as how to make an appointment with health services to get prescription contraception methods. Information and access were combined. 

This is what college students need, because this is what is missing from too many high school sexuality education programs. Ferguson’s bill recognizes the problem of unintended pregnancy but doesn’t (likely because it couldn’t) go far enough in suggesting a solution. For that matter, it is unclear how much authority the Higher Education Coordinating Board itself has in implementing these policies at an institutional level. I can only hope that lawmakers in other states, and perhaps future lawmakers in Arkansas, won’t be afraid to admit that older teens are having sex, that they are getting pregnant, and that they need real help. A better approach for legislators would be to make sure, through an actual mandated action, that all state schools are providing both information and access to contraception. This is the only way we can ensure young people are able to make the best decisions about their sexual and reproductive health, both during college and in the years after.