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.
It is not surprising, then, that the new study finds virginity pledges make little difference in the behaviors of religious teens with less permissive attitudes. In fact, the average age of sexual initiation for both the pledgers and non-pledgers in this study is 21, four years later than the average American teen. This is not an insignificant consequence, as the research suggests that abstinence at least through the teenage years is associated with a number of benefits, from reduced risk of physical and psychological harm to improved educational outcomes such as the greater likelihood of graduating high school.
From this perspective, the question of whether or not one act of public or written pledging during early adolescence changes behavior long term becomes less meaningful. Indeed, the more interesting question, one that researchers and the general public alike ought to ask, is this: What causes teens to be more pro-abstinence and anti-permissive? These attitudes and traits certainly do not occur spontaneously, especially considering the popular and media culture in which today's teens are immersed. Rather, they are taught and cultivated over time.
And this is the question with which many parents, religious youth workers, and abstinence educators grapple. They are concerned with fostering attitudes and behavioral traits that would lead teens to delay sex and to remain abstinent until marriage. Their focus is much more than just a simple "say no to sex" message. Instead, they emphasize character development and equip youth with invaluable life skills.
This question also reveals another misleading aspect of the study and the subsequent media coverage. The study attempts to assess the per se effect of virginity pledges — i.e., teens' self-reported response to a survey question about taking a public or written pledge to abstain from sex until marriage. It does not evaluate the effectiveness of virginity pledge curricula, religious youth programs, or abstinence education in general. Many of the non-pledgers in the study may very well have received some type of abstinence education, character development program, or religious teaching that influenced their behavior.
Thus, the study's findings do not merit the conclusion that these programs are ineffective. Nor do they justify a policy recommendation that abstinence education programs be abandoned. If anything, these new findings ought to prompt more urgent questions about the attitudes that can have an impact on teen behavior and what parents and churches can do to develop these qualities.
Christine C. Kim is Policy Analyst and Robert Rector is Senior Research Fellow in the Domestic Policy Studies Department at the Heritage Foundation.
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See Christianity Today's earlier coverage of the study, "Study: Abstinence Pledges Aren't Enough."
The study, by Janet Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, appears in the January issue of Pediatrics journal.
Critiques of the media coverage of the study have appeared at GetReligion.org, The Wall Street Journal, and U.S. News & World Report.
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