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.

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