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Study: Abstinence Pledges Aren't Enough

New research says the mere act of taking a public vow won't keep teens from sex.

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 consider it a fait accompli ("mission accomplished"), and thus don't provide continued sex education to their children. What the Rosenbaum study finds, however, is that there may be more that teens need to learn.

When she began the study, Rosenbaum was interested in addressing the following question: Does taking a vow to abstain from sex alter sexual behavior? To understand how Rosenbaum answers this question, it's key to keep in mind how not to answer it. The wrong way for an academic to probe this question is to compare those who take vows with those who do not, but Rosenbaum does not fall into this trap. Those who take abstinence vows do so voluntarily and are very different from the typical American teenager. The Add Health survey reveals they are more likely to be young, female, and from religious families. These teens also value their faith and are active in church. They are more likely to be "born-again" Christians and to have a high view of the Bible. Because of these demographic and religious differences, perhaps teens who take pledges have negative views toward sex and birth control. In short, those who take virginity pledges are the kind of teens who would be more likely to delay having sex until marriage anyway, even if they did not take a pledge.

What makes Rosenbaum's study an important step forward is how she deals with this problem. Previous studies using the Add Health data considered some of the factors that made pledgers different from other teenagers. Yet there were many, many other factors these studies could not take into account due to limits of the statistical models used at the time. Rosenbaum uses a newer, more appropriate method for this type of research called "propensity score matching." The method has become very popular in the social and behavioral sciences because it allows the researcher to have much more confidence that the differences in outcomes (in this case, of sexual behavior) are due to different "treatments" (taking a pledge or not). Rosenbaum is able to test whether virginity pledges per se make a difference in sexual behavior, or if the differences between pledge takers and all other teenagers are due to some other cause. Here is a thumbnail sketch of how she conducted her study.

By using the propensity score matching method, Rosenbaum was able to test whether taking a virginity pledge actually changes a person's sexual behavior, which is why her research is important. Previous research by professors Hannah Bruckner of Yale University and Peter Bearman of Columbia University used the same Add Health data in their 2001 article in the American Journal of Sociology (see also their research on STDs in 2005). They found that those who took a virginity pledge may (or may not) be less likely to have intercourse. If they did have sex, they were more likely to wait longer to do so. These studies also found that pledgers were less likely to use condoms and other birth control methods. In contrast, Rosenbaum's research provides a more rigorous test of the effects of taking a virginity pledge.

More recently, researchers from the RAND Corporation published a report in the October 2008 issue Journal of Adolescent Health, which found that virginity pledges delayed sexual intercourse and did not decrease the use of condom use when sex occurred. Like Rosenbaum, these researchers used propensity score matching. The differences in results are likely due to the use of a different data set. There are three differences that may be responsible for the different findings. The RAND survey includes adolescents as young as 12, while Add Health survey did not ask questions about views toward sex to adolescents under the age of 15. Rosenbaum's study asked about sexual relations five years after asking if the adolescent had taken a virginity pledge. Thus, the age of those in the study were 21 to 23 years of age when asked about their sexual behavior. The RAND study asked about sexual behavior one and three years later, which means the survey participants were 15 to 20 when asked about sexual behavior. This is an important difference, because Rosenbaum finds that the pledgers and their matched peers who did have sex did not do so until about age 21.

Not surprisingly, Rosenbaum's research has received national media attention because of its implications for debates over sex education. Proponents of abstinence-only education are critical of the study and emphasize that it does not examine sex education. Opponents praise it as an indictment of abstinence-only education because of the close ties between virginity pledge programs and abstinence-only education.

Regardless of its policy implications, these new findings should cause parents, teachers, and churches to pause before promoting a virginity pledge program. For the past decade and a half, churches have put forth an organized effort to encourage youth to take virginity pledges. Some of these include abstinence-first curriculum. Others are one-time events that offer teens platitudes in place of life skills. If a program offers only inconsequential rituals, we would be wise to spend our time and money elsewhere. U.S. News & World Report's Health Editor Bernadine Healy gave a recommendation to parents: "The focus should be on cultivating the teenager's ongoing home and social environment, rather than on eliciting a one-time, easily-forgotten promise." Those who believe that "true love waits" can't consider a teen merely signing a virginity pledge a fait accompli. As True Love Waits spokesman Jimmy Hester told The New York Times in 2004, ''Signing a pledge card does not mean you are magically protected.''

Tobin Grant is an associate professor of political science at Southern Illinois University — Carbondale. He is coauthor of Expression vs. Equality: The Politics of Campaign Finance Reform and dozens of academic articles on politics and religion.

Note: For clarity, the title and deck of this article have been changed since the article first appeared.

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