A new study released on March 18, 2005 in the Journal of Adolescent Health , by Hannah Brückner of Yale University and Peter Bearman of Columbia University, shows that young people who took "virginity pledges" --public promises to remain virgins until marriage-- are nonetheless at risk of engaging in unsafe sexual practices.
The research found that "pledgers" have the same rate of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as their peers who had not pledged. "We were surprised by the findings," said Brückner, "pledgers have fewer sex partners than non-pledgers, they start having sex later, and they marry earlier, so they should have lower STD rates, but they don't." 1 Previous findings by the same authors revealed that while pledging does help a certain segment of young people delay sexual intercourse, it seems to undermine the use of contraception when they do become sexually active. 2
The researchers further found that not only were pledgers less likely to use condoms to prevent STDs at first intercourse, they were less likely to seek medical testing and treatment, increasing possibility of transmission. Brückner said, "if pledgers have infections for longer periods of time than non-pledgers, this is a reason for concern."3
They concluded that some pledgers engaged in alternative sexual behaviors in order to preserve their "virginity." In fact, among those who had not had vaginal intercourse, pledgers are more likely to have engaged in both oral and anal sex than their non-pledging peers. The research shows that among virgins, male and female pledgers are six times more likely to have had oral sex than non-pledgers, and male pledgers are four times more likely to have had anal sex than those who had not pledged.4
"This research confirms what we have known for a long time," said Bill Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS). "Teens, regardless of whether they have a taken a virginity pledge, are engaging in behaviors that put them at risk for STDs and unintended pregnancy. It is vitally important that we provide all teens with the information and skills they need to protect themselves," Smith continued.
Virginity pledges are the cornerstone of many privately and federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, including popular programs such as A .C. Green's Game Plan , Choosing the Best PATH, Choosing the Best LIFE, Heritage Keepers, Reasonable Reasons to Wait, and Sex Respect . These programs do not discuss contraceptives except in the context of failure rates and have never been proven effective.
The authors of the study discussed the limitations of only teaching abstinence-only-until-marriage and the importance of teaching about contraception in light of the new research and said, "pledgers who are married have the same STD rates as non-pledgers who are married. Marriage does not cause STDs; unprotected sex does. Knowing how to protect oneself from STDs is important. Since most adolescents and young adults will have sex, it is important that public health policies are designed to help young people gain the information they need to protect themselves, and others." 5
SIECUS' Bill Smith explained, "not only do virginity pledges fail to keep our young people safe, they are causing harm by undermining condom use, contraception, and medical treatment." "Enough is enough," he said, "it is time for lawmakers to stop pushing their ideological agenda at the expense of young people and to fund comprehensive and medically accurate sexuality education programs that work."
1 "Virginity pledges do not reduce STD risk: May encourage high risk sexual behavior," Medical News Today , 18 March 2005, accessed on 20 March 2005, < http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/
2 Peter Bearman and Hannah Brückner, "Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and the Transition to First Intercourse," American Journal of Sociology 106, (2001): 859-912.
3 "Virginity pledges do not reduce STD risk."
4 Peter Bearman and Hannah Brückner, "After the promise: The STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges," Journal of Adolescent Health , 36 (March 18, 2005): 271-278.
5 "Virginity pledges do not reduce STD risk."