Source: Janet Elise Rosenbaum, “Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers,” Pediatrics (January 2009): e110-e120.
The author used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) to compare adolescents who took virginity pledges with their peers who had not pledged but held similar religious beliefs and attitudes toward sex and birth control. The Add Health study followed a nationally representative sample of middle and high school students and surveyed them in 1995, 1996, and 2001. From this data the author matched 289 teens, older than 16, who reported taking a virginity pledge in the 1996 wave of the survey with 645 teens who did not take a pledge. The teens were matched up based on a number of factors measured before their pledges including anticipation of feeling guilty if they had sex and weekly attendance at church and/or religious youth group. The two groups of young people were compared again after five years on self-reported sexual behaviors, birth control and condom use, as well as positive test results for Chlamydia, gonorrhea, or trichomoniasis.
- Five years after the pledge, 82% of pledgers denied having ever pledged.
- Pledgers and matched non-pledgers did not differ in whether they had premarital sex, whether they tested positive for sexually transmitted diseases, or whether they reported having anal or oral sex.
- Pledgers and matched non-pledgers also did not differ in their average number of lifetime sexual partners (~3 each) or average age at first sex (21).
- Though pledgers and matched non-pledgers had similarly high levels of religious belief and negative attitudes about birth control, virginity pledgers were substantially less likely to protect themselves against STDs and pregnancy.
- Pledgers and matched non-pledgers taken together reported less vaginal, oral, and anal sex than the general adolescent population.
- They also reported less birth control and condom use than the general adolescent population.
- While pledgers and matched non-pledgers taken together had fewer positive test results for gonorrhea than the general adolescent population, they tested positive at the same proportion for Chlamydia and trichomonaisis.
Though research has shown, beginning in 2001, that virginity pledges have very little protective effect for young people, they have evolved from a tool of faith-based groups into the cornerstone of even secular abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. This new study builds on that research by better controlling for the attitudes and beliefs that young people may hold before they pledge in order to better isolate the effect of the pledge.
Past research found that pledges could help a select group of young people delay the initiation of sexual intercourse for up to 18 months. Conservatives and abstinence-only-until-marriage proponents hailed these results as evidence of success for virginity pledges in keeping young people abstinent. They ignored the research’s other findings that 88% of pledgers ultimately engaged in premarital sex and that pledgers had similar STD rates and reported similar experience with oral and anal sex as their peers who had not pledged.
Rosenbaum, the author of the current study, argues that the delay in sex was probably not due to the pledge itself, but instead to pledgers more religious beliefs, less sexual experience, and negative attitudes toward contraception prior to their pledge.
To test her hypothesis she used the same set of data that many other researchers have used to examine virginity pledges, but instead of comparing virginity pledgers against the general adolescent population of non-pledgers, she matched them with a group of similarly minded young people who never took a virginity pledge.
The results show conclusively that whatever delay in first sex or reduction in the number of partners occurred, it is not due to the virginity pledges, but to prior attitudes and beliefs. This is confirmed by the fact that pledgers and their matched non-pledging peers reported similar sexual behavior and outcomes, but these differed significantly from those of general adolescent population.
What is perhaps most disturbing in Rosebaum’s results, however, is the finding that pledgers are less likely to use birth control and condoms than their matched non-pledging counterparts. Not only do virginity pledges have no positive effects on young people, they may actually harm pledgers.
Despite this, virginity pledges are still a routine part of many abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula supported with federal grants. These curricula push monogamous, heterosexual marriage as the only moral expression of young people’s sexuality. They provide no support to sexually active young people looking to avoid pregnancy and STDs and completely ignore the existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning students.
The additional information Rosenbaum’s study provides should only add to our conviction that virginity pledges and the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that support them are at odds with the health and rights of young people everywhere.