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A new study on "virginity pledges" suggests that they are ineffective and perhaps dangerous. Should we rethink how we approach teenagers about sex?

This month's issue of Pediatrics includes a study by Janet Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health on the effects of "virginity pledges" — public vows to abstain from sex until marriage. Using a newer, more effective method to analyze data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), Rosenbaum finds the mere act of taking a public vow of abstinence ineffective and likely to lead to riskier choices if (or when) teens have sex.

The study found that teens who took a virginity pledge have sexual relationships that are nearly identical to those of similar teens who did not make such a pledge. The one area in which the pledge does make an impact is negative: Teens who took a virginity pledge and did have sex were less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control.

The bottom line: Taking a virginity pledge is at best ineffective, and may even be dangerous for the health of those who break their pledge.

The study also has a warning. By focusing on virginity pledges, parents, churches, and sex educators may not only be wasting resources, but may actually be causing harm as well. Those who take virginity pledges — indeed, because they take virginity pledges — are more likely to have unprotected sex when they do have sex. The reason for this unintended consequence is unknown. It is unlikely due to a lack of sex education in school, as those who take a virginity pledge report the same type of health and sex education as other teenagers. Perhaps (and this is only a hunch) when a teen takes a virginity pledge, parents ...

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