It's Never Been about the Abstinence Pledge Itself
Virginity pledges are under scrutiny once again. A recent flurry of media headlines has not been kind, thanks to the latest study on the subject. But studies can be just as misleading as headlines sometimes are. And that appears to be the case with this new study on virginity pledges.
According to the new study of adults in their early 20s, those who as teens had signed a pledge to abstain from sex until marriage had engaged in sexual behaviors no different from those of their non-pledging peers. In some cases, the study indicated, pledging may even be associated with more risky decisions.
Those who oppose the pledge movement, and the abstinence-until-marriage message in general, quickly seized these findings, touting them as more evidence that virginity pledges, as well as abstinence education (though the study does not test this), are ineffective.
Yet the research falls well short of making an open-and-shut case. For one, the new findings counter existing research that shows pledging can delay premarital sex and strongly improve life outcomes. The current study, however, contends that its findings are more compelling because of its improved design and statistical method. Specifically, it identifies a selectively matched population of teens who pledged and those who did not for analysis.
Interestingly, it is this design of the two comparison groups that seems to be driving the results of the study. And therein lies the misleading nature of the study's premise.
When researchers investigate the effectiveness of virginity pledges, they typically compare self-reported pledgers to non-pledgers. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health ("Add Health"), on which most virginity pledge research is based, asks teens whether or not they have taken a public or written pledge to remain abstinent until marriage. Based on their responses, teens are labeled "pledgers" and "non-pledgers." Aside from this response, pledgers and non-pledgers differ on a number of personal, demographic, and religious characteristics as well. For example, pledgers are more religious and hold more pro-abstinence attitudes than do their non-pledging peers, on average. Pledgers also tend to come from more values-oriented backgrounds.
Some of the variations in youths' backgrounds, e.g., their religiosity, have been linked to teen outcomes. Thus, to ensure that these differences are not confounding the pledge effect on teen sexual behavior — i.e., it is taking the pledge, not youth's religious beliefs or involvement, that drives the results — researchers compare the outcomes after they take into account these factors. That is, they evaluate teens with the same profiles, except for their pledge status, based on these important characteristics.
The new study, however, contends that the comparison groups in the previous studies are not similar enough. Using a new statistical method, the study incorporates a significant number of factors, including several measures of teens' sexual attitudes and religiosity that have not been previously considered due to statistical limitations. Yet when all these factors are considered, the new comparison group no longer resembles "mainstream" non-pledgers. Instead, it becomes a unique subgroup of non-pledgers.
Essentially, the new study compares two near-identical groups of relatively religious teens who hold strong pro-abstinence, anti-permissive sexual attitudes, with only their responses on the virginity pledge question in the Add Health survey distinguishing between the two.