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Study Questions Effectiveness Of Teen Virginity Pledges

December 31, 2008

A new study released today by John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health finds that teens who make a pledge of abstinence until they marry are just as likely to engage in premarital sex as those who don’t. Furthermore, those making a “virginity pledge” are substantially less likely to use condoms and other birth control methods.

The study is based on a new analysis of data from a large federal survey. It found that more 50 percent of young people became sexually active before marriage, regardless of whether they had made a pledge of abstinence. 

However, the percentage of those who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) was 10 points lower for those who made the pledge than for those who did not.

“Taking a pledge doesn’t seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior,” wrote Janet E. Rosenbaum, the study’s lead author.

“But it does seem to make a difference in condom use and other forms of birth control that is quite striking.”

The study is only the latest to raise questions about the effectiveness of abstinence programs, including those that involve students publicly declaring their intention to remain virgins. However, the new analysis extends beyond earlier studies by focusing on teenagers with similar values about sex and other issues prior to making the abstinence pledge.

“Previous studies would compare a mixture of apples and oranges,” said Rosenbaum.

“I tried to pull out the apples and compare only the apples to other apples.”

The findings have restarted the debate about the effectiveness of abstinence-based sexual education. They come just as Congress is set to reconsider the more than $176 million in annual funding for such programs.

“This study again raises the issue of why the federal government is continuing to invest in abstinence-only programs,” Sarah Brown of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy told the Washington Post.

“What have we gained if we only encourage young people to delay sex until they are older, but then when they do become sexually active — and most do well before marriage — they don’t protect themselves or their partners?”

Supporters of such programs dismissed the study as faulty, and claim that true abstinence programs go much further than simply asking teens to make one-time pledges.

“It is remarkable that an author who employs rigorous research methodology would then compromise those standards by making wild, ideologically tainted and inaccurate analysis regarding the content of abstinence education programs,” Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association told the Washington Post.

In the current study, Rosenbaum looked at data collected by the federal government’s National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.  The survey collected detailed information from roughly 11,000 students in grades seven through 12 in 1995, 1996 and 2001.

And while researchers have analyzed the survey data before, Rosenbaum’s study is the first to use a more stringent way to account for other factors that could influence the teenagers’ behavior, such as their sexual attitudes before making the pledge.

Rosenbaum centered the study on roughly 3,400 students who had not had sex or who had made a virginity pledge in 1995. She compared 289 students who were on average 17 years old in 1996 when they made a virginity pledge, with 645 who did not make a pledge but were similar in other ways. These similarities were based on 100 variables such as the youths’ sexual attitudes and their parents’ and friends’ attitudes about sex and birth control.

“This study came about because somebody who decides to take a virginity pledge tends to be different from the average American teenager. The pledgers tend to be more religious. They tend to be more conservative. They tend to be less positive about sex. There are some striking differences,” Rosenbaum said.

“So comparing pledgers to all non-pledgers doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

By 2001, 82 percent of those who had taken a virginity pledge had gone back on their promise, and there was no significant difference in the percentage of students in either group who had engaged in sexual activity.  This included vaginal intercourse or giving or receiving oral sex.  Furthermore, there were no differences seen at the age at which the teen first had sex, or the number of partners.  

Rosenbaum found that more than half of both groups had engaged in various types of sexual activity, and had an average of three sexual partners. By the age of 21, they had engaged in sex for the first time, regardless of marital status.

“It seems that pledgers aren’t really internalizing the pledge,” Rosenbaum said.

“Participating in a program doesn’t appear to be motivating them to change their behavior. It seems like abstinence has to come from an individual conviction rather than participating in a program.”

Rosenbaum found no difference in the rate of STDs in the two groups, but the percentage of students who said they used condoms was roughly 10 points lower among those who had made the virginity pledge, and they were 6 points less likely to have used any form of contraception at all.

For instance, nearly one in four of those who had pledged abstinence reported that they always used a condom, compared with about 34 percent of those who had not made the pledge.

Rosenbaum said the difference in the two groups is due to what the youths learn about condom use in abstinence programs.

“There’s been a lot of work that has found that teenagers who take part in abstinence-only education have more negative views about condoms,” she said.

“They tend not to give accurate information about condoms and birth control.”

However, Huber disagreed.

“Abstinence education programs provide accurate information on the level of protection offered through the typical use of condoms and contraception,” she said.

“Students understand that while condoms may reduce the risk of infection and/or pregnancy, they do not remove the risk.”

Rosenbaum’s report appears in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics.

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