Commentary Sexuality

Just Sign No: More Evidence Virginity Pledges Don’t Work

Martha Kempner

A new study confirms that virginity pledges don't work—that is, unless the young person signing them already has a high level of religious commitment.

New research published in the August issue of the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that virginity pledges—which involve youth promising to remain abstinent until marriage—only worked for young people who were committed to that religious belief in the first place.

Most pledgers, including youth who are active in their religious community, engaged in vaginal or oral sex before marriage. Only those young people with strong religious conviction who had internalized their religious beliefs were less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior than other youth after they pledged.

This study confirms what many of us have been saying for years—asking young people to promise not to have sex does nothing to actually help them make good decisions about their sexual health.

Virginity pledges began to gain attention in the early 1990s with True Love Waits, a project of the Southern Baptist Convention, and became even more widely recognized when Silver Ring Thing began staging splashy events from which young people would leave with a sliver ring—a public symbol of their promise. But participants of the Silver Ring Thing events weren’t the only ones who signed pledges; research found that by 1995 approximately 2.2 million young people took such a pledge. In fact, federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs frequently ended with ceremonies in which whole classes of middle school students promised not to have sex until their wedding day.

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Such rings were very publicly worn by a number of young celebrities—including Miley Cyrus, Jordin Sparks, Selena Gomez, the Jonas Brothers, and Jessica Simpson—who said they promised to remain abstinent until marriage.

Young people across the country are still taking virginity pledges, though research emerged more than ten years ago showing that such pledges were ineffective at preventing kids from engaging in risky sexual behaviors. The first of two studies by Peter Bearman and Hannah Bruckner found that 88 percent of pledgers had sex before they were married. Moreover, those who took a pledge were one-third less likely to use condoms or other contraceptive methods when they did become sexually active than their peers who had not pledged.

Though the limited data did not allow researchers to determine why pledgers were less likely to protect themselves, it always seemed pretty obvious to me. If a person promises they’re not going to do something, they can’t take any steps to prepare for doing it. Slipping a condom in one’s pocket or going on the pill shows an intent to break that promise, but if breaking the promise just kind of happens, well, that’s a different story. This is why it was not surprising when Bearman and Bruckner’s second study came out showing that pledgers had the same rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as those who hadn’t pledged.

The new research adds to this evidence that virginity pledges are not an effective strategy to help young people avoid STIs or unintended pregnancy. Researchers surveyed a sample of 1,380 young people ages 18 to 24 who went to a “large, public, Southeastern state university.” They found that 27 percent of respondents reported having taken a virginity pledge. Among those who signed a pledge, 65 percent said they had engaged in vaginal intercourse and 77 percent said they had engaged in oral sex.

Researchers also asked respondents about their level of religious commitment and tried to separate out those who participated in religious activities—like Sunday school or youth groups—from those who had actually internalized religious beliefs. They found that virginity pledges worked for those who had high levels of religious commitment, but pledgers with low religious commitment (regardless of the amount of religious participation) had more intercourse and oral sex partners than even non-pledgers. Virginity pledges, therefore, increased the likelihood of risky sexual behaviors among those with low religious commitment. In particular, pledgers with low religious commitment were more likely to have oral sex perhaps in an effort to maintain their so-called virginity.

Again, these results make perfect sense to me. Those who believe strongly in the ideal of abstinence from premarital sex even before they take the pledge are more likely to stick to that ideal afterwards. But young people who are on the fence become more conflicted when they take a virginity pledge—now their decisions are not only about whether to have sex but whether to break a promise. And once that promise is broken, why not break it again?

The researchers explain it this way:

With an “all or nothing” abstinence approach to sexual decision making, once the pledge has been broken or violated, there is little reason not to continue to have sex with other partners. Pledge signers without the necessary beliefs to reinforce the abstinence pledge (e.g. those with high religious participation but low religious commitment) are especially vulnerable to making ill-informed decision about sex when they find themselves confronted with sexually charged situation.

And if “maintaining virginity until marriage is the only goal and most individuals ‘fall short’ of that goal,” the researchers go on to say, “they may be at additional threat of pregnancy, STI transmission, cervical cancer and other problems associated with risk sexual behaviors.”

I completely agree. Virginity pledges set young people up for failure. Asking a 13-year-old or even a 16-year-old to make a promise that he or she is going to have keep for over a decade (the average age of marriage in this country is almost 27 for women and over 28 for men) is pretty ridiculous. And such a promise is made dangerous when it is done instead of giving youth the information and negation skills they need to think critically about sexuality. Moreover, placing so much importance on one decision is counterproductive when what we really want is to help young people make a lifetime of healthy decisions.

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.

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#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 Religion

Purity Culture Doesn’t Prepare Teens for Healthy Sexual Exploration

Dianna Anderson

Many self-identified evangelicals have ceremonially promised to stay virgins until marriage. But there are often few narratives available from adults who are now struggling with the purity vows they made as teenagers.

When I was 13 years old, I pledged my virginity to God and my future husband. I remember walking into my eighth-grade homeroom and proudly showing my teacher my new ring. “This is nicer than my wedding ring!” she exclaimed, holding her left hand up for comparison. My tiny gold ring with diamond chips in it shone like a prism in the morning light. Throughout the next week, I consciously tilted my hand to make my ring more obvious as I spoke, with all the subtlety possible for an eighth-grader. When someone would ask about it, I’d point out that I was saving myself. For marriage!

Ten years later, a friend in graduate school asked me if I was engaged. I shook my head, looked down at the ring that had been my companion for a decade, and explained that it was a marker of a promise from when I was 13. “I don’t even really know why I wear it anymore,” I said. “Habit, I guess.” While I hadn’t “lost” my virginity by that point, the realization that I was still beholden to a vow made under social and religious pressure was becoming uncomfortable.

In my church, young men and women pledged to remain abstinent until they married a heterosexual spouse. And my experience was far from uncommon: The recent Ethics and Religious Liberty Conference on behalf of the Southern Baptist church indicates that saving oneself until marriage is a major tenet of evangelical belief. Many self-identified evangelicals, who comprise about one-third of the population, have ceremonially promised to stay “pure,” often receiving a ring, a necklace, or some kind of token to remind them of their resolution. Although young teenagers may be eager to show off their new pledge, like I was, there are often few narratives available from adults who are now struggling with the declarations they made—and the ramifications those oaths have had on their lives.

Over the course of my career, I’ve spoken to hundreds of evangelicals and former evangelicals about their perspectives on these vows. Many of them point out how young they had been when they made their promises. Sally, 23, told me, “I suppose the most concrete age I [made] a pledge was about 13, which is when I wrote down ‘Save my virginity for marriage’ as number two in the list of 100 things I wanted to do … in the back of my Teen’s Study Bible.” (Sally’s name, like the others in this story, has been changed to protect her privacy.)

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Lucy, a now-married mother of 35, says she made a pledge at 16. Avery, another woman, said she doesn’t recall her exact age, but “it was definitely high school.”

These promises frequently act as the only education about sexuality and sexual activity that young evangelicals receive. Even at school, abstinence-only education initiatives often simply reinforce the purity narrative or have pledge programs of their own. Many of these educators have ties to explicitly religious foundations, despite receiving federal funding.

Overall, the pledges tend to be ineffective in actually assuring that people remain abstinent. According to a comprehensive analysis conducted by John Santelli and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2006, abstinence-only education does not delay the age of first sexual activity. Statistically, those who make purity vows at a young age are just as likely to engage in sexual activity as those who don’t make a pledge. Additionally, pledgers who break their promises are actually more likely to have unprotected sex and contract sexually transmitted infections.

This disproportionate rate of STI contraction may be, in part, a result of the fact that in the evangelical community, a purity pledge is not an isolated event between a participant, their future spouse, and God. It also holds the teenagers accountable to their social groups, including their families. Adults in the church will remind the adolescents, both directly and through sermons, youth group meetings, and church events, about how much they owe their virginity to their future spouses, how their spouses will be disappointed if they don’t keep their promises, and how losing their purity before marriage will make their relationship more likely to end in divorce. And those who break the pledge early face ostracization from their religious community—especially if they are not repentant. This can mean that if teens do have questions about their sexuality, sexual health, or consent, they can feel as if they have no one to turn to.

This was the case with Kyle, a 26-year-old man who took the pledge as a teenager. He commented, “Highlighting premarital sex above all other sins makes it that much harder for teenagers, or adults, who struggle with sexuality to ask for help.”

Kyle’s point is a good one: Because purity hinges solely on whether or not someone is keeping their promise, any questions about sexuality are perceived as questioning the very holiness behind a virginity pledge. Asking questions, in of itself, is seen as a sin in this culture, where the only ethic is “no.”

This early equation of sexuality with moral transgressions means that many adult evangelicals still believe that remaining a virgin until marriage is a central mark of holiness. Their pledge has entwined this tenet into their lives—and making the decision to break it would be, in the eyes of the church, throwing away a gift from God.

When I asked these former pledgers why they are still saving themselves, their answers were almost always the same—because “these are my values.” Amelia, a 35-year-old straight woman, told me that her hope for finding someone who shares her purity values is dwindling, but that she doesn’t question them at all.

However, I also noticed that the people holding on to those principles were all straight and white. People of color and queer people were much more ambivalent about their vows and what they meant for them—perhaps because evangelicalism in America is particularly geared toward white, heterosexual, cisgender individuals. It is easier to notice the cracks in the system when you already exist outside of it.

One woman, Chloe, pledged to save herself in eighth grade, married at 22, and divorced her spouse a year and a half later when she came out as a lesbian. She told me that she now finds the entire concept of “saving herself” ridiculous.

“I hadn’t even developed an interest in sex; I had barely started my period; I didn’t even know what sex was. How can you ask a child in those circumstances to make a huge decision that’s going to impact the rest of their lives?” she wrote to me.

Because Chloe felt the pressure to marry a man without exploring her sexuality further, she had never truly considered the possibility that she might not be attracted to men at all. However, she realized a short time into a marriage that lacked physical intimacy that she was, indeed, gay.

Chloe has since returned to the faith and now works to educate young women about healthy sexual boundaries and sexual orientation. She doesn’t want young women to go through what she went through with the pressure to get involved in heterosexual marriage at a young age.

“It really upsets me that I lost so much time to such an unhappy marriage,” she wrote in an email. “A lot of pain could have been avoided if we had just slept together, and then decided that it hadn’t worked.”

Meanwhile, Sally, a woman who is beginning to question her sexual orientation, told me that she feels “ambivalent at best” about her promise. She no longer knows what a heterosexual marriage would mean for her now that she is grown. “It seems I share very little with my 13-year-old self. I’ve changed so much, as people do, and probably wouldn’t recognize the girl who wrote that pledge,” she said.

The testimonies of those who pledged their purity at a young age demonstrate a need for a deeper understanding of sexual ethics beyond just “stay away from sex.” Many critics of the purity movement, including myself, have pointed out that the purity movement’s “sexual ethic” is really the absence of one.

Such emphasis only on keeping an agreement, with no other expectations of fidelity, consent, or healthy sexual boundaries, fosters a dynamic in which the promise is the only guiding principle. This, in turn, creates a world where young, emotionally manipulated teenagers grow up and have no idea how to approach sex in a healthy, consensual, caring manner. They end up not knowing themselves or each other, because the pledge, for many, creates a barrier to comprehending sexuality on a basic human level.

Virginity itself isn’t shameful—and neither is an active sexual life. But the total lack of understanding these virginity pledges create in their participants is.

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