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“I Swear I Won’t!” 
A Brief Explanation of Virginity Pledges 

Virginity pledges—promises that young people make to remain abstinent until marriage—are becoming increasingly popular in schools and communities across the country.   Virginity pledges are the cornerstone of most abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.  Taking a virginity pledge is often times an indication that a young person has participated in some type of abstinence-only-until-marriage program. The federal government has spent over $1 billion on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, to date, and continues to pour large amounts of funding into these programs, despite the fact that no abstinence-only-until-marriage program has been proven effective and recent evidence shows that virginity pledges may actually have negative effects on the health of young people.
 
A Religious Concept Gains Momentum in Secular Programs
Since the concept was introduced, virginity pledges have been intricately linked with religious organizations. For example, True Love Waits, the pioneer of the virginity pledge movement, is sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources, the “world’s largest provider of religious products and services,” which is operated by the Southern Baptist Convention. [1] Other religiously affiliated groups followed suit, including the Pure Love Alliance, a project of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. Religious programs typically ask young people to sign a pledge to God, themselves, and their families to remain virgins until they marry. 
 
Today, however, virginity pledges are also part of many secular abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that are taught in public schools. These secularized versions typically omit overt references to God or Jesus Christ and instead ask participants to pledge in front of their families, friends, or classmates that they will remain abstinent until marriage, either by remaining virgins until marriage or by committing to “secondary virginity.” 
 
Many of the most common abstinence-only-until-marriage programs use pledges including A.C. Green’s Game Plan, Choosing the Best PATH, Choosing the Best LIFE, FACTS, Navigator, No Apologies, Sex Respect, Reasonable Reasons to Wait, and Worth the Wait, All of these programs currently receive some type of federal funding. In fact, nearly all of the programs participating in the evaluation of federally funded Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage programs include some type of virginity pledge.  
 
 
What Virginity Pledges Really Look Like
Some common examples of virginity pledges for young people include:
 
  •  “I, _____________, promise to abstain from sex until my wedding night. I want to reserve my sexual powers to give life and love for my future spouse and marriage. I will respect my gift of sexuality by keeping my mind and thoughts pure as I prepare for my true love. I commit to grow in character to learn to live love and freedom.”
 Sex Respect, Parent Guide, p. 16
 
 
 
  • “Recognizing that abstinence enables me to experience:
Freedom from: worry, guilt, pregnancy, pressures to marry before I am ready, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, being used by others, and the bother and worry of contraceptives, and
Freedom to: be in control of my life, develop self-respect, focus my energy on establishing and realizing life goals, experience more healthy and long-term relationships, and enjoy being a teenager…
I make a commitment to myself, my family, my friends, my future spouse and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day forward until I enter into a marriage relationship.”
Choosing the Best LIFE, Student Workbook, p. 44 
 
  • “Believing in The Vision of Marriage, I make a commitment to myself, my family, my friends, my future spouse, and my children to be sexually abstinent from this day forward until the day I enter a lifelong, committed, monogamous marriage.”
 Reasonable Reasons to Wait, Student Workbook, p. 188
 
  • Sex Respect also asks parents of participants to pledge to create a “Chaste Home.” Among other things, parents are asked to promise that they:
“…will not allow in our home any pornographic materials, sexually suggestive videos, or any form of media that exploits or misuses the gift of human sexuality. Besides being harmful to the minds of our teens, these also lower the resistance of teens to engage in sexual activity.”
Sex Respect, Parent Guide, p. 15
 
One faith-based version says:
“Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship."
True Love Waits Commitment Card
 
 
What the Research Says
Recent research shows that not only are virginity pledges ineffective, they are also having harmful effects on the young people who take them.
 
  • Researches found that pledges only worked in situations where a limited number of students participated. Pledges taken by an entire class were ineffective. When pledges do work, “pledgers” delay the onset of sexual activity for an average of 18 months longer than their peers who had not pledged—a goal still far short of marriage.).[2] 
 
  • The same study also found that young people who took a pledge were one-third less likely to use contraception when they did become sexually active than their peers who had not pledged.[3] In other words, pledging can create harm by undermining future contraceptive use.
 
  • The researchers also found that “pledgers” have the same rate of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as their peers who had not pledged.  Not only were pledgers less likely to use condoms to prevent STDs, they were less likely to seek medical testing and treatment, thereby increasing possibility of transmission. In fact, in communities where there are a higher proportion of pledgers, overall STD rates were significantly higher than in other settings. [4]
 
  • Further research found that, among those young people who have not had vaginal intercourse, pledgers are more likely to have engaged in both oral and anal sex than their non-pledging peers.  In fact, 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.[5]
 
Virginity Pledges Are Not the Answer
Far from providing a solution to the complex problem of unintended pregnancy and STDs, virginity pledges are undermining the use of contraception and disease-prevention methods among teens, potentially exposing them to greater harm.  This is a recipe for disaster for the health of youth in the United States.
 
 In addition, having youth pledge abstinence until marriage is not appropriate for all teens. Young people who are gay or lesbian cannot legally marry in this country.[6] Asking them to pledge to a lifetime of abstinence is unfair and unrealistic. Like their heterosexual peers, these teens need viable and effective methods of protecting the reproductive and sexual health.  
 
Nevertheless, virginity pledges remain popular in the United States and the Bush Administration has undertaken a plan that exports abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and their components, including virginity pledges, to places devastated by HIV/AIDS, including 12 countries in Africa, as well as Guyana, Haiti, and Vietnam.  Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and virginity pledges are predicated on the belief that marriage is a protective factor in avoiding HIV infection.  Yet, data from at least two sub-Saharan countries has found that young married women have greater rates of HIV infection than their unmarried peers.[7]  This expansion of pledging and abstinence-only-until-marriage programs as part of the international battle against the spread of HIV is clearly misguided.
 
Updated August 2005
 
 
 
 


[1] “About LifeWay,” LifeWay Christian Resources, accessed 26 July 2005, <http://www.lifeway.com/lwc/mainpage/0,1701,M%253D200220,00.html>
[2] Peter Bearman and Hanah Brückner, “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and the Transition to First Intercourse,American Journal of Sociology 106.4 (2001): 859-912.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Peter Bearman and Hanah Brückner, “After the promise: The STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges,” Journal of Adolescent Health 36.4 (2005): 271-278.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Recent court decisions in Massachusetts have granted same-sex couples the right to marry in that state. Numerous court challenges and legislative hurdles remain and it is therefore unclear whether this right will be permanently guaranteed in that state or other states in the country. As of 2005, Massachusetts is the only state that recognizes legal marriage between individuals of the same sex.
[7] Nancy Luke and Kathleen M. Kurtz, Cross-generational and Transactional Sexual Relations in Sub-Saharan Prevalence of Behavior and Implications Negotiating Safer Sexual Practices, (International Center for Research on Women, Population Services International, 2002), accessed 26 July 2005, <http://www.icrw.org/docs/CrossGenSex_Report_902.pdf>.

 

 

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