Virginity Pledges: Broken, but Effective?

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A new study of virginity pledges provides evidence about both their effectiveness and their shortcomings.

Most teens who vowed sexual abstinence until marriage didn’t keep the pledge, says a federally funded study of 12,000 teens, released last month. And they contracted sexually transmitted diseases (STD) at about the same rate as teens who didn’t make a pledge.

But pledge-takers waited longer to have their first sexual intercourse (about 18 months) and had fewer sexual partners, according to the study by Peter Bearman of Columbia University and Hannah Bruckner of Yale University.

The report, “After the Promise: The Long-Term Consequences of Adolescent Virginity Pledges” was based on analysis of data from the annual National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (known as Add Health) and on a six-year follow-up of study participants. Coupled with previous studies using Add Health data, the findings provide support for both supporters and detractors of the pledges.

Such pledges – which have grown more popular in recent years, along with the abstinence-only movement, a general moral conservatism among American youth and increased federal funding for abstinence-only education – typically involve youths signing pledge cards. No one claims that they work in isolation: The cards are usually part of a larger education or youth development program, such as Teen Aid, based in Spokane, Wash., and Abstinence the Better Choice, based in Akron, Ohio.

True Love Waits, widely credited with pioneering the pledge card movement when it was started by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1993, estimates that more than 2 million youth have signed such pledges.

The new report’s finding that 88 percent of youth who said they had taken such pledges actually had intercourse before marriage seems to confirm criticism that the pledges are futile. (Of those who hadn’t taken pledges, 99 percent reported having premarital sex.)

Critics, such as the Washington-based Advocates for Youth, point out that the vast majority of Americans have sex before marriage. And with Americans waiting longer and longer to get married, they say, it’s ludicrous to expect youths to suppress until marriage sexual urges that begin at puberty – for many people a span of a decade or more. Some have suggested that pledging to abstain until high school graduation or adulthood (say, 21) would be more realistic.

The question is whether 100 percent compliance is the only measure of the pledges’ effectiveness. It’s always been obvious that many youth would not completely stick to the pledges, just as many people who pledge to abstain from any number of activities – such as drinking alcohol or not losing their tempers with their children – occasionally fall off the wagon. So, for that matter, do sexually active people who say they’ll always use condoms.

But people who stumble on pledges often cut down on the behavior they were trying to curtail. Even with most virgin pledgers not making it to marriage as virgins, the pledges have an effect.

The average delay in first intercourse of 18 months has been found by Bearman and Bruckner in two studies using Add Health data. That’s not an insignificant amount of time for a teenager; it can mean a girl stays in school because she doesn’t get pregnant, and it probably lessens the chances of a youth contracting an STD. And with all the emotional complications that come with a sexually intimate relationship, not having to deal with those emotions for a while may help a youth in numerous, immeasurable ways.

When they do become sexually active, the pledgers have fewer sexual partners than non-pledgers, according to the new report. Thus, those who break their pledges may be less sexually active or promiscuous than those who don’t take a pledge.

It must also be noted that not all pledges are equal. Some are part of a few education sessions in which most, if not all, the kids in a class sign a pledge as a routine exercise. Faith-based organizations, in which the pledge is part of a youth’s ongoing involvement in faith activities with other youth, say their approach is far more successful.

This brings up the chicken-and-egg aspect to the relationship between pledges and behavior: Does the pledge help youth abstain from sex, or are the pledges being taken predominantly by youth who are more likely to abstain anyway?

A 1998 study of Add Health data found that taking a virginity pledge was the highest indicator that a teen would not engage in early sexual behavior. One of the co-authors, Michael D. Resnick of the University of Minnesota, noted, “We expect that young people who indicate they have taken a public or written virginity pledge hold a certain set of beliefs about themselves, about relationships, about adolescent sexual behaviors.”

Pledge-takers say pledging helps them stick to their decision not to have sex by reinforcing the value of the commitment to themselves and creating a sort of positive peer pressure, because other youths are watching to see if they stick to the promise.

“You have to live with yourself,” one teen pledger told Youth Today in 2000. She added, “I have a constant reminder that people are watching my activities.” [“The Score on Teen Virginity Pledges,” November.]

It seems that the youths’ desire to abstain and the pledge to abstain are mutually reinforcing. As Bearman wrote in his earlier study of the pledges, in 2000, “They do not need to pledge to avoid sex, but pledging helps them not to have sex.”

But since most of them do have sex before marriage, the pledges appear to have one particularly dangerous consequence: They seem to trap the pledgers into not obtaining contraception.

It undoubtedly seems hypocritical to carry a condom in your purse or wallet next to a sexual abstinence pledge card. But pledge critics have warned that one ironic impact of pledges would be that the youths would not have contraception available when they do have sex. Indeed, the study found that non-pledgers were more likely to have used condoms.

It also found no statistically significant difference in the rates of infection for chlamydia, gonorrhea and trichomoniasis among youth who took pledges and those who did not. What’s more, pledgers were less likely to know they were infected, thus posing greater risks to their own health and that of their partners.
This finding raises questions for advocates of abstinence-only sex education. If nearly nine out of 10 pledgers have intercourse before marriage, might it be prudent to also teach them about contraception and recognizing the signs of STDs?

“This study clearly demonstrates that it is critical for us to provide all our young people with open, honest and medically accurate information to protect themselves against STDs,” stated one critic of abstinence-only education, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

But True Love Waits co-founder Richard Ross told the Southern Baptist Press, “Handing a condom to a pledger simply says, ‘We adults know you can’t do this, and we know you are destined to live like a barnyard animal. So, when you do break the promise you are making today, maybe this latex will help your odds a little.’… Such a plan will lead to more sex with more partners and more devastating consequences.”

One other interesting finding: Pledge-takers get married younger than do non-pledgers. It’s not known how many of them married the person with whom they broke the pledge.

Add Health is funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

The report can be found at