Teens Take Virginity Pledges – And Then Have Sex?

In the January issue of
, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, there’s
a new study from Janet Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins
University about the effects of virginity pledges on sexual behavior.   

So how do these commitments
to abstain until marriage affect sexual behavior?  Do teens who
pledge to abstain have less sex than their compatriots?  Nope. 
Do they wait longer to have sex?  Nope.  So what’s the effect? 
Teens who take virginity pledges are significantly less likely to use
the Pill or condoms than their non-pledging peers.  

Color me unsurprised.  Researchers
Bearman and Bruckner have looked into virginity pledges twice before. 
In 2001, they found that when compared to the general
population, teens who take these pledges are more likely to delay first
intercourse, but less likely to use a condom or birth control when they
do have sex.  

But here’s why Rosenbaum’s
new study is important: while Bearman and Bruckner compared pledgers
to non-pledgers, Rosenbaum used 128 different factors to ensure that
her samples had similar attitudes towards sexual activity to begin with. 
So factors like economic status, emotions about sex and religion that
may make someone more or less likely to pledge are already accounted
for, which should make it harder to claim bias in reading the data (although
abstinence-only-until marriage advocates have already tried).  

That might all be kind of boring. 
Even I think the summary is kind of boring beyond the nitty gritty of
teen pledgers’ attitudes towards sex (they’re more likely to have
negative expectations/feel guilty about sex, think birth control is
bad or morally wrong, and have less experience in romantic relationships. 
The real kicker?   They’re also less likely to have masturbated
in the last 18 months, which is just plain sad.).

But there are a few significant
findings from these studies:

  1. Bearman and Bruckner
    found that too many pledgers spoil the soup, as it were.  Basically,
    if too many people pledge, the pledgers quit thinking of themselves
    as different and/or special, and the pledge becomes meaningless, even
    to them.  Which means massive national pledge drives won’t work. 
  2. Rosenbaum found
    in an earlier study that half of virginity pledgers will
    deny having pledged within one year.  So even as an identity movement,
    it doesn’t seem too successful. 
  3. Bearman and Bruckner
    used data from a 1995 study by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent
    Health.  Rosenbaum picked up that group, followed it through 2001,
    and used more rigorous study methods to show that virginity pledges
    have NO PROTECTIVE EFFECT on teen sexual behavior, and have a statistically
    significant NEGATIVE EFFECT on contraceptive use. 

What does this mean for policy? 
Rosenbaum’s findings reinforce the same thing we’ve been
saying for years – abstinence-only programs, many of which include
virginity pledges, do not work.  The whole virginity pledge movement
seems to be a means to reassure parents and other "concerned" adults
rather than actually influencing the choices teens make for themselves. 
As part of the larger abstinence movement they fail, and in ways that
seem to demonstrate the problems inherent in abstinence-only programs – that
at best they don’t inform teens of necessary public health information
and, more commonly, deliberately distort and falsify facts to undermine
teens’ sexual and reproductive health knowledge and ability to protect
themselves.  These programs are ineffective, unethical, and quickly
becoming a national embarrassment.

So what’s my hope for the
new year? 

That we start thinking of sexuality education from a
comprehensive, life-long, sex positive perspective.  Sexuality
education should be rights-based: it should be taught not because it
reduces teen pregnancy or STI rates, but because all people, especially
young people, have a right to accurate, complete and unbiased information
about their bodies, their health and their sexuality.  You teach
kids about sexuality for the same reason that you teach them history,
math, and logic – they deserve the tools that help them understand
and function in the world around them.  It’s education, and they
have a right to that education.  Hopefully, the new Congress
will recognize that right, quit funding programs that violate teens
rights, and start looking at comprehensive sexuality education as one
of many necessary steps towards a just and healthy world.   

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  • http://www.vibe.to invalid-0

    What has this world come to.

    I agree we must start thinking of sexuality education from a positive perspective. In honesty teens today I think have the tools to do so; like social communities.

    Wising you all the best in 2009

  • http://www.haushalt-wohnen.de invalid-0

    But it must been overthinked well. First one must have a good knowledge about contraceptives. And then the other important thing: Is it the right relationship for losing my virginity?
    Hardly no one talks about that, most people regret silently.
    Especially girls.

  • http://www.rhrealitycheck.org invalid-0

    It is so unfortunate that even in today’s day and age, diseases so easily prevented with simple education, communication, and precautions, continue to proliferate. But the increases of late are not suprising given the US stance over the last few years denying education, thwarting communication, and creating campaigns against risk-reduction methods.

    I finally took it into my own hands and used a resource called, The Underground Guide to Teenage Sexuality, and gave it to my two young teenagers to read as well. We now discuss these issues regularly and openly and comfortably. This isn’t a guarantee that they will remain disease-free their entire lives, but I am more confident their decisions and actions are better informed.

    I think this resource is available in Spanish also.

  • invalid-0

    Great article, hopefully Obama’s science- based comprehsenive sex education policies will become widespread enough to turn things arund here in the US. Teens need to have correct information so they can make healthy choices for themselves!

  • invalid-0

    Great article, hopefully Obama’s science- based comprehsenive sex education policies will become widespread enough to turn things arund here in the US. Teens need to have correct information so they can make healthy choices for themselves!

  • michelleut

    I find it disturbing that anybody thought a "virginity pledge" would be an effective tool at all. Teenagers are human beings and human beings are animals. Thus, we have the desire to procreate. 


    All the pledges, religions, etc, in the world aren’t enough to stop a natural drive to reproduce. We can either send them to battle with a full knowledge of what to expect and how to protect themselves, or send them in with nothing and say "good luck".



  • invalid-0

    Do the parents of these teens really think their kids are going to restrain themselves when in all likelihood the parents themselves did not? Think Palin (pregnant when she married) think Gingrich (multiple affairs&marriages) think Hyde, Bide, Delay, multiple others. Why do abstinence supporters pretend?

  • amanda-marcotte

    I don’t know anyone who regrets losing their virginity to this person or that, but I believe it happens.  I think the reason is because too much emphasis is put on virginity.  Imagine if people took the emphasis off virginity and put it on health and happiness—making the right choices for you, learning from your experiences, and moving forward.  Then the person you had sex with first would be a part of your history, and whether it ended well or not (and it will most likely end), you can be glad to have experience.

  • invalid-0

    The problem, as with most controversial social issues, is that too many people can’t or won’t see both sides, making compromise impossible.

    Compromise in this case would be for everyone to acknowledge that while sex can be a good thing, and that most people have sex in their teenage years, sex can also be physically and psychologically damaging. Simply telling pre-teens “sex is natural, here’s some birth control, see ya later” may not be the best approach, arguably worse than simply saying “sex is bad, take a virginity pledge”.

    I have provided my daugher with information that really helps her. She knows that if she has sex, I will still love her. She knows how teenage boys think, because I used to be one. She knows about condoms, and she knows about birth control pills, including the day after pill. She knows she has a stepsister who had a child at 17 with a man who has been in prison on and off for the last 5 years. This sister is now 24 years old and has 3 children. She has dreams and ambitions and goals, some of which must be attained before marriage, before children. She understands the potential psychological effects of promiscuity. She knows sex changes a relationship.

    We’ve talked about all these things since she was 14. She’s now 20 and will be beginning her graduate degree in the fall. I don’t know if she’s had sex yet or not, and honestly, I don’t want to know. But I know she’s ready.

  • chelsea-ricker-0

    The beauty of a comprehensive sexuality education program is that it does present sexuality together with all of its risks and benefits.  The dichotomy that you’re referring too, where it’s either all "sex is good, go have some" or all "sex is bad, be scared of it" is one that abstinence-only supporters have had a lot of success setting up.  Essentially, because we (comprehensive sexuality education advocates) support a system that isn’t based on scaring or shaming teens out of having sex, we are accused of being pornographers or of "encouraging" teens to have sex.  We’re not.  What we support is a form of education that teaches adolescents about sexuality as a fundamental and positive part of human life, and includes complete, accurate and unbiased information about all the good and bad that exists in the sexual world.  I am constantly amazed that the idea that you should teach health information that is false or incomplete, as abstinence-only programs do, isn’t seen for what it is: medically unsound and ethically unconscionable.  Scientifically accurate and medically ethical sexuality education can and should be standard we all seek to uphold. 

  • http://www.learn--spanish.net invalid-0

    I’m sorry but talk of virginity pledges is twaddle. Is it not better educate our teens about safe sexual practices rather than abstanance.
    I for one have seen too many young lives wasted because of teenage pregnancy and have often helped my teenage daughters’ friends with advice because their parents are unwilling to approach the subject.
    Take a leaf out of the Netherlands’ book, they have a very open sex education program, some might even say explicit, yet they have one of the lowest , if not the lowest, teenage pregnancy rates in europe!

  • invalid-0

    I’ve been involved in sexuality education for more than 40 years and one thing is clear – you can’t just teach once and believe it’s done You have to keep putting the old wine into new bottles – sexuality is a pervasive factor in every stage of life and must be continually discussed. American society was sexually crippled by its Puritan heritage – Europe is more open because they have a 1000 year old culture and they shipped all their Puritans to the New World and eventually rejected Victorian values – not so here-We had Puritans and Comstock and thus the culture was permeated with the notion that sex is sin and mustn’t be overtly mentioned – it’s created the Ostrich mentality that plagues us today…and it continues – the new administration will open up and the Neanderthals will think of new ways to impede. The fight for truth and reality in sex goes on forever!

  • http://kuyakevin.blogspot.com invalid-0

    If I understand this correctly, the “matched nonpledgers” were virgin teens that 1) anticipated feeling guilty about premarital sex, and 2) attended a church/religious youth group meeting once a week. This is the group she compared with those who made formal virginity pledges.

    Allow me to summarize: a group of teens with religious convictions against premarital sex were compared with a group of teens that made some type of formal virginity pledge. Their behavior was similar. Is this supposed to be a surprise?

    Teens who embrace the abstinence message (whether through church or abstinence program) are less likely to have sex, more likely to delay sex, and more likely to have fewer partners. Awful, awful, huh?

    Thanks for another attack on abstinence.