Just Sign No: More Evidence Virginity Pledges Don’t Work

New research published in the August issue of the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that virginity pledges—which involve youth promising to remain abstinent until marriage—only worked for young people who were committed to that religious belief in the first place.

Most pledgers, including youth who are active in their religious community, engaged in vaginal or oral sex before marriage. Only those young people with strong religious conviction who had internalized their religious beliefs were less likely to engage in risky sexual behavior than other youth after they pledged.

This study confirms what many of us have been saying for years—asking young people to promise not to have sex does nothing to actually help them make good decisions about their sexual health.

Virginity pledges began to gain attention in the early 1990s with True Love Waits, a project of the Southern Baptist Convention, and became even more widely recognized when Silver Ring Thing began staging splashy events from which young people would leave with a sliver ring—a public symbol of their promise. But participants of the Silver Ring Thing events weren’t the only ones who signed pledges; research found that by 1995 approximately 2.2 million young people took such a pledge. In fact, federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs frequently ended with ceremonies in which whole classes of middle school students promised not to have sex until their wedding day.

Such rings were very publicly worn by a number of young celebrities—including Miley Cyrus, Jordin Sparks, Selena Gomez, the Jonas Brothers, and Jessica Simpson—who said they promised to remain abstinent until marriage.

Young people across the country are still taking virginity pledges, though research emerged more than ten years ago showing that such pledges were ineffective at preventing kids from engaging in risky sexual behaviors. The first of two studies by Peter Bearman and Hannah Bruckner found that 88 percent of pledgers had sex before they were married. Moreover, those who took a pledge were one-third less likely to use condoms or other contraceptive methods when they did become sexually active than their peers who had not pledged.

Though the limited data did not allow researchers to determine why pledgers were less likely to protect themselves, it always seemed pretty obvious to me. If a person promises they’re not going to do something, they can’t take any steps to prepare for doing it. Slipping a condom in one’s pocket or going on the pill shows an intent to break that promise, but if breaking the promise just kind of happens, well, that’s a different story. This is why it was not surprising when Bearman and Bruckner’s second study came out showing that pledgers had the same rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as those who hadn’t pledged.

The new research adds to this evidence that virginity pledges are not an effective strategy to help young people avoid STIs or unintended pregnancy. Researchers surveyed a sample of 1,380 young people ages 18 to 24 who went to a “large, public, Southeastern state university.” They found that 27 percent of respondents reported having taken a virginity pledge. Among those who signed a pledge, 65 percent said they had engaged in vaginal intercourse and 77 percent said they had engaged in oral sex.

Researchers also asked respondents about their level of religious commitment and tried to separate out those who participated in religious activities—like Sunday school or youth groups—from those who had actually internalized religious beliefs. They found that virginity pledges worked for those who had high levels of religious commitment, but pledgers with low religious commitment (regardless of the amount of religious participation) had more intercourse and oral sex partners than even non-pledgers. Virginity pledges, therefore, increased the likelihood of risky sexual behaviors among those with low religious commitment. In particular, pledgers with low religious commitment were more likely to have oral sex perhaps in an effort to maintain their so-called virginity.

Again, these results make perfect sense to me. Those who believe strongly in the ideal of abstinence from premarital sex even before they take the pledge are more likely to stick to that ideal afterwards. But young people who are on the fence become more conflicted when they take a virginity pledge—now their decisions are not only about whether to have sex but whether to break a promise. And once that promise is broken, why not break it again?

The researchers explain it this way:

With an “all or nothing” abstinence approach to sexual decision making, once the pledge has been broken or violated, there is little reason not to continue to have sex with other partners. Pledge signers without the necessary beliefs to reinforce the abstinence pledge (e.g. those with high religious participation but low religious commitment) are especially vulnerable to making ill-informed decision about sex when they find themselves confronted with sexually charged situation.

And if “maintaining virginity until marriage is the only goal and most individuals ‘fall short’ of that goal,” the researchers go on to say, “they may be at additional threat of pregnancy, STI transmission, cervical cancer and other problems associated with risk sexual behaviors.”

I completely agree. Virginity pledges set young people up for failure. Asking a 13-year-old or even a 16-year-old to make a promise that he or she is going to have keep for over a decade (the average age of marriage in this country is almost 27 for women and over 28 for men) is pretty ridiculous. And such a promise is made dangerous when it is done instead of giving youth the information and negation skills they need to think critically about sexuality. Moreover, placing so much importance on one decision is counterproductive when what we really want is to help young people make a lifetime of healthy decisions.

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  • conversate

    Yep. Abstinence only fails.

  • StealthGaytheist

    Sadly facts never persuade the people who promote dangerous ideas like “abstinence only sex-(non)education”.

    • Ivy Mike

      Against all evidence, they wish to scare little Sally Mae so badly that she won’t even think of doing the back-seat boogie with Billy Bob, at least until they are properly wed and Billy Bob has legal possession.

      Any education at all is seen as encouragement for this reason. Sex is BADBADBADBAD, Sally, and is only enjoyed by rotten slutwhores (and married Good Girls, but not too much). Now, don’t even THINK of such filthy things, lest you embarass the whole family and ruin your value by turning up with a swelling belly.

  • laugh or retch

    But the kids promised?!?! Face-palm…

  • Ella Warnock

    These are the same people who think abstinence within marriage is ‘common sense’ contraception.

    • conversate

      No shit. Talk about being divorced from reality.

      • Ella Warnock

        If you’re NFPing and abstaining with a wildly irregular cycle, you just might end up divorced, for sure.

        • Cactus_Wren

          Even Catholics agree, it’s called “practicing the rhythm method” because you never do get it right.

          • Ivy Mike

            The rhythm method was clearly invented to trick couples into parenthood, even if they weren’t yet ready for it. Again, the desires and plans of individuals mean nothing to an organization like the RCC, which must grow its numbers incessantly so as to pay the bills.

            Those palaces aren’t going to gild themselves in gold, are they?

  • Mike Rubin

    My God, yet more rightwing sexual pathology, of which there is no end, in these chastity pledges. We see it in the attacks on sex ed, contraception, “sodomy,” gay marriage, and abortion and we read the endless comments on the Internet about “keeping your legs together” and “I shouldn’t have to pay for your fun.” We hear about “innocent babies” in reference to zygotes, embryos, and non-viable fetuses, from people whose only use for those “innocent babies” is to use them as punishment for women who dare engage in non-procreational sex. (Inevitably, these “icky sexers” work actively both to ensure that no unwanted child goes unborn and that no unwanted child is given prenatal care or is fed, housed, clothed, educated, or cured of disease on their dead-souled, compassionless, self-absorbed, narcissistic, “not my brother’s keeper,” “I got mine,” anti-social-compact, cheapfizzuck objectivist GOPTP dimes, even though they and their fellow Baggers would be directly responsible for the births of all of those unwanted children.).

    When you listen carefully, you can see that all roads lead to the same place: A puritanical hatred of sexual pleasure — yours or theirs, in marriage or outside of it — that verges on outright mental illness. Mental illness needs treatment in therapy, not implementation in law.

    • Ivy Mike

      100% agree. I would only add that this sex-negative pathology has its roots in a belief system born of Middle Eastern tribal desert nomads, peoples who have never been known for sex-positivism, regardless of which of the three Abrahamic traditions they follow. To all of the major sects, sex is bad, evil, and icky. Women, being those with whom sex is had (if heterosexual), are to be strictly controlled and regulated as chattel property, lest they lead men “astray” from their duties of worship and tithing.

      It is a striking thought, isn’t it? To take sex, a life-affirming, pleasurable, and bonding human instinct as powerful as that of survival, and to convince humans that it is wicked, evil, filthy, and wrong; and further, that fully half of the human population is likewise inherently evil (including, of course, mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives) and undeserving of status above one’s livestock…all of this is the result of thousands of years of programming and brainwashing by religious “leaders” and “prophets”.

      One wonders what traumas the earliest of shamans and priests must have endured as children or young adults, to convince them that something as pleasurable and beautiful as sex, and as wonderful as women, were so wicked that they attacked them so mercilessly that we still pay the price today.

  • paganheart

    In a past career life, one of my sisters-in-law worked as a high school teacher & counselor a in a small, heavily-fundie-christian town in South Dakota. She says she sometimes had girls (and a few guys) come to her and ask if having oral sex or even anal sex meant they were no longer virgins. The reason? They had signed abstinence pledges and/or agreed to wear “purity rings” at church, and did not want to disappoint their parents or their future spouses on their wedding nights. I can just imagine the massive coronaries some of these kids’ fundie parents would’ve had, if they knew about their little darlings’ virginity pledge “work arounds”….

    And did I mention that the county this high school was located in had the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the state? (Surprise, surprise…)

    We will never learn….