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.”

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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.  

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