“Virginity Pledges,” a Bad Idea?

Re-posted from “Perspectives in Medicine: Ask Dr. Lita” at crossroadslink.org

Choose abstinence

“Abstinence makes the heart grow fonder for someone else.”

A recent study on abstinence pledges, published in Pediatrics by Janet Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, examined the effects of “virginity pledges,” (a commitment that a teenager makes to abstain from sexual activity before marriage, usually expressed by signing a ‘contract’). The study used analyzed data collected from a representative sample of about 11,000 students in grades seven through twelve in 1995, 1996 and 2001. It concluded that, “Taking a pledge does not seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior.”
In this study, it is important to note that the sample group of “virginity pledgers” and their matched “non-pledgers” had similar religious beliefs and attitudes toward sexual behavior. Compared to the general population, these participants “were more conservative in sexual behavior…with fewer reporting of premarital vaginal sex…and multiple sex partners.” (source) “The sample under study is not representative of all teens in the country.” (source)
We also need to point out a variable which was not considered in the study – the likely possibility that peer or audience pressure might have influenced some participants to make a virginity pledge which they were not committed to keep.
This study was cited in a Christianity Today article, “Promise of Pledges Unlikely to Ring True” by Tobin Grant and in the Washington Post article, “Premarital Abstinence Pledges Ineffective, Study Finds” by Rob Stein. Both articles give the reader the impression that pledges to abstain from premarital sex do not appear to make a difference in changing sexual behavior. This impression is sure to make public health and sex education officials reexamine the validity of so-called “abstinence only” education and consequently question their continued funding. Abstinence education, however, is not necessarily the same as a “virginity pledges” program, which is usually a single six-hour church-promoted event.
Though the study concluded that taking a pledge did not significantly change sexual behavior, the results actually indicated that those studied delayed sex until about age 21 (about five years later). Delay in premarital sex is a significant sexual behavior change that has, “…huge advantages from a public health perspective – fewer number of sexual partners, pregnancies, and STI’s, and a reduced abortion rate”
People, especially teens, need a lot of help and boundaries over time to avoid risky choices. Abstinence works 100% of the time in preventing teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. For abstinence pledges to work, teens need to have accountability (from parents, teachers, and like-minded peers), and constant reminders of the dangers of premarital sex, alcohol, drugs, and pornography, which are risky behavioral choices often closely associated with each other. Most importantly, they need to develop core values that help them steer clear of these risky choices.

“Just say no” prevents teenage pregnancy the way ‘Have a nice day’ cures chronic depression. wolfdyke

The point we want to make is 1) that not all abstinence-based programs are tied to making “virginity pledges;” 2) not all abstinence-based sex education programs are short term, religiously based or moralistic; and 3) Life at the Crossroads is an example of an abstinence-based sex education program that teachers use to teach their students over a 30 to 31 week period in contrast to the single six-hour event discussed in the aforementioned study. It also involves parents and an opportunity to be involved in character clubs after school.
– Rosenbaum, Janet Elise. “Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers.” Pediatrics 123.1 (2009): pp.110-120
– Stein, Rob. “Premarital Abstinence Pledges Ineffective, Study Finds.” The Washington Post 29 December 2008: p.A02.
– Rose, Gary. “Hazards of Early Sexual Debut.” Sexual Health in Turmoil, The Sixth National Meeting of the Medical Institute of Sexual Health, July 2007.
– Ball, Marcia, Jennie Cerullo, Blair Cook, eds. Life at the CrossRoads. Orlando, Florida: New Life World Aid, 2001.


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