The Alleged Failure of Virginity Pledges: Dissing the Dreaded “A” Word

A recent study published in Pediatrics compares two groups of relatively religious, conservative kids. One group once made a pledge to remain virgins until marriage, the other didn’t. After several years, both groups have done much better than typical teenagers in avoiding sexual promiscuity. The formal act of making a pledge has relatively little measurable impact within this group of kids — after all, they are already conservative, religious, and far less likely to be promiscuous. So what’s the conclusion that the media have been hammering into American minds? Virginity pledges don’t work. Kids will be kids – don’t try to change their behavior. They’re going to do their own thing, parents, so don’t waste your time trying to teach them the one thing the media abhors above all else: abstinence.

Here’s an excerpt from William McGurn’s excellent observations on this controversy from the Wall Street Journal:

The chain reaction was something out of central casting. A medical journal starts it off by announcing a study comparing teens who take a pledge of virginity until marriage with those who don’t. Lo and behold, when they crunch the numbers, they find not much difference between pledgers and nonpledgers: most do not make it to the marriage bed as virgins.

Like a pack of randy 15-year-old boys, the press dives right in.

“Virginity Pledges Don’t Stop Teen Sex,” screams CBS News. “Virginity pledges don’t mean much,” adds CNN. “Study questions virginity pledges,” says the Chicago Tribune. “Premarital Abstinence Pledges Ineffective, Study Finds,” heralds the Washington Post. “Virginity Pledges Fail to Trump Teen Lust in Look at Older Data,” reports Bloomberg. And on it goes.

In other words, teens will be teens, and moms or dads who believe that concepts such as restraint or morality have any application today are living in a dream world. Typical was the lead for the CBS News story: “Teenagers who take virginity pledges are no less sexually active than other teens, according to a new study.”

Here’s the rub: It just isn’t true.

In fact, the only way the study’s author, Janet Elise Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins University, could reach such results was by comparing teens who take a virginity pledge with a very small subset of other teens: those who are just as religious and conservative as the pledge-takers. The study is called “Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers,” and it was published in the Jan. 1 edition of Pediatrics.

The first to notice something lost in the translation was Dr. Bernadine Healy, the former head of both the Red Cross and the National Institutes of Health. Today she serves as health editor for U.S. News & World Report. And in her dispatch on this study, Dr. Healy pointed out that “virginity pledging teens were considerably more conservative in their overall sexual behaviors than teens in general — a fact that many media reports have missed cold.”

What Dr. Healy was getting at is that the pledge itself is not what distinguishes these kids from most other teenagers. The real difference is their more conservative and religious home and social environment. As she notes, when you compare both groups in this study with teens at large, the behavioral differences are striking. . . . [read more]


Author: Jeff Lindsay

23 thoughts on “The Alleged Failure of Virginity Pledges: Dissing the Dreaded “A” Word

  1. wow, you guys just can’t get it through your heads that virginity pledges just don’t work on their own in preventing sexual diseases from spreading. While abstinence is clearly the best form of preventive care, it still doesn’t stop diseases from spreading by people who DON’T abstain! How else do you get those who still perform from spreading sexual diseases? By preaching to them abstinence once they are already active? Com’on guys!

    I’d like to see a study done of Mormons who have sex before marriage. I bet you the number is far higher than the number who “pledged” to remain sex free until marriage.

    Meanwhile sexual disease continues to spread.

  2. These virginity pledges are no more or less effective than any other covenant or oath. People don’t receive a remission of their sins from being baptized alone, but by making and keeping baptismal covenants. The same with temple marriage. Marriages aren’t sealed by the holy spirit of promise by making covenants alone, but by keeping them.

    In our church, the reality is that only a third to half the total membership are keeping their covenants sufficiently to qualify to salvation. But would it be useful or true to publish a headline that says “Making Baptismal Covenants does not work” because only a third of covenant makers actually keep their covenants.

    Most good people would recognize such a headline as a product from Satan himself. Because Satan wants people to think that making covenants is pointless because so many fail to keep their covenants. And so it is true with the headlines disparaging virginity pledges.

  3. Oh, the irony! McGurn complains that the findings of the study were characterized imprecisely in the media in order to further an agenda, but his characterization of the media’s characterization is at least as imprecise and furthers his agenda. Ha!! Straight out of hypocrite central casting….

    The media said, e.g., “Virginity pledges don’t mean much.” This is not in dispute, even by McGurn. Here is the key passage, where he 100% concedes this point:

    Most parents appreciate that a pledge of virginity — a one-time event that might be made at an emotional moment in a teen’s life — is not some talisman that will magically shield their sons and daughters from the strong and normal desires that grow as they discover their sexuality. … The real difference is their more conservative and religious home and social environment.

    This is EXACTLY what those opposed to abstinence-only education have been saying all along. Yet those in favor insist on wasting millions of dollars in federal funds promoting programs that McGurn admits are completely useless because they are 1-time things. It is not only useless, but the study showed it is actually harmful because it caused a decrease in contraception use–something McGurn inexcusably never mentions.

    Nothing McGurn quoted from the media is inconsistent with what McGurn conceded the study says. Rather, it is McGurn who twists the words of the media. His characterization: “In other words, teens will be teens, and moms or dads who believe that concepts such as restraint or morality have any application today are living in a dream world.” Nowhere does it say this! A complete straw man.

    The final “take-home” message is that anyone with any integrity will stop supporting abstinence-only education. It doesn’t reduce sex (as McGurn concedes), and the lack of accurate information on contraception actually puts kids at risk. Kids can learn simple, factual information about sex safety at school and get all the philosophy about how to [not] use that information from the sources that actually have an impact–home/church/etc (which McGurn also concedes).

    –sister blah 2

  4. and look at this

    Guess which states have the highest teen birth rates. Yep, Southern states. Those highly religious states of Texas and Mississippi.

    Guess which states have the lowest teen birth rates? Godless liberal socialist communist New England. Those dastardly commies!

    The article highlights the top states with the highest teen birth rates. None of those states would be considered “blue” states. All but New Mexico voted for McCain in the last election.

    Perhaps it is time to stop listening to people like this hypocrite.

  5. Abstinence-only programs are not one-time deals. It is not as if the teachers go into a classroom and say, “All right, kids, don’t have sex!” and then leave.

    Anybody who knows anything about education knows that topics are introduced, taught, reinforced, and retaught time and time again.

    McGurn does not concede that abstinence-only education fails to prevent the spread of STIs. He doesn’t even talk about sex education programs (unless I completely missed something the three or four times I read his article looking for it). What McGurn does concede is that a one-time pledge, in and of itself, is not a guarantee that young people will live by it. Which absolutely true.

    The same is true with any pledge program. Kids in grade schools across the nation make pledges to be drug free each year during Red Ribbon Week. How many of these kids go on to experiment with drugs? Well, quite a few. Why does this happen? Because drug prevention education generally doesn’t start until 5th grade, when students are enrolled in a D.A.R.E. program. Before that, all that happens is once a year, students are told, “Say ‘no’ to drugs” and then the math lesson starts.

    On the other hand, young people who are exposed to constant positive reinforcement and positive role models are the ones more likely to abstain from destructive decisions.

    Let’s see a study comparing conservative teens who take a virginity pledge to the not-so-conservative teens who do. Then I think we’ll see some numbers worth discussing!

  6. Dan,

    That article is discussing two very different things at the same time, mistakenly claiming that they are identical. The first is teen birth rates (in the headline). The second is teen pregnancy rates (in the first paragraph). But as many of us know, being pregnant does not always lead to giving birth. Especially not since Roe v. Wade.

    The article also gives several reasons for why this may be – none of which is that conservative teens are rolling in the hay more than liberal teens. I’m not really sure what your point is.

  7. Anybody who knows anything about education knows that topics are introduced, taught, reinforced, and retaught time and time again

    Anybody who knows anything about education knows that’s what has to happen to be effective, but I don’t think you’ve demonstrated at all that abstinence education programs in schools are run this way. All the ones I’ve ever heard about are more like the Bio teaching standing up one day and saying, “ok kids, we’re doing the sex module this week.”

    In fact it has to be done that way, in a discrete, contained module, in order to allow parents to pull their kids out of class for that day/week.

    Alex, I think all you’ve done with your “everybody knows” claim, is reinforce the principles which lead to abstinence-only programs in school being worthless.

    –sister blah 2

  8. Dan, since all active Mormons pledge to be sex free until marriage I don’t understand what you are comparing it to. Sex before marriage seldom means a life of hopeless sin will follow. It just means they may have to raise a kid before they want to.

    The articles I read point out that it is the use of birth control that results the difference in teen pregnancy not the pledges. I grew up in a small mormon community and the teen pregnancy in my graduating class was about 25% among the LDS girls. The non-LDS girls were a lot more sexually active but their parents put them on birth control and that cut down their pregnancies. The first in depth discussion I ever had on birth control was at Ricks College in my Biology class. My professor spent about 3 hours going over how each worked and how effective they were and why. I do believe in abstinence only but a clinical discussion of how a condom-iud-birth control works for high school students should also be manditory. We discuss drugs and alcohol without giving permission to use them birth control should be the same.

  9. Who says abstinence education doesn’t work? If there is a genuine effort to teach it, it can work well. From a 2007 story:

    The Institute for Research and Evaluation studied the Virginia Department of Health’s Virginia Abstinence Education Initiative (VAEI), tracking the behavior of seventh-graders in five different Virginia schools. According to an article that will be published in the January/February 2008 issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior, the study concluded that those students receiving abstinence education were about one-half (45.7%) as likely to initiate sexual activity as students who did not receive abstinence education.

  10. Third-trimester: (congrats, by the way!)

    The study you cite was not with an abstinence-only program. Per the article you cited, the program would be much better classified as comprehensive sex education, not abstinence-only education:

    “[The program] provides youth information about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and contraception within the context of a strong abstinence message, but also provides teens with the skills to set goals, set boundaries, and build strong relationships”

    I read some feminist blogs, who are as virulently opposed to abstinence-only education as you can get, and none of them have any problem with comprehensive sex ed that includes a message that abstinence is best, and social/emotional tools like setting boundaries, etc. As long as it also includes public health info on contraception, STDs, etc. So everyone is pretty much in agreement here.

    But those aren’t the programs that the Bush admin and others push. They push programs that only teach abstinence, and contain no information (or worse, false information) about contraception and other sexual health issues. Such programs are not helpful.

    –sister blah 2

  11. Dan complained: “wow, you guys just can’t get it through your heads that virginity pledges just don’t work on their own in preventing sexual diseases from spreading.”

    Dan, when I have ever said that virginity pledges work on their own? I think you missed the point of the post and of the cited article – sorry if I wasn’t clear. Both the pledgers and their religious, conservative peers did much better than typical teenagers. Raising kids with a religious, moral perspective – something that goes far beyond a quickly forgotten one-time pledge – does work, but the media would have parents abandon hope through their mischaracterization of the study.

    Education is not a one-moment thing. Changing behaviors and attitudes takes lots of teaching and reinformcement. The advocates of immorality know that and exploit it. Parents and churches need to be just as dedicated in conveying counter-messages of morality and self-control.

  12. Okay, I’m confused… I never made any “everyone knows” statements. In fact, I go out of my way to not make such statements. Furthermore, I did not make any claims to be supportive of abstinence-only programs.

    I did state that telling someone something one time, or having someone make a “pledge” one time, and then never revisiting the subject, is not education and is not effective. (And just because something happens in a school does not make it either education or effective.)

  13. Dan said

    “Guess which states have the lowest teen birth rates? Godless liberal socialist communist New England. Those dastardly commies!”

    Yes they probably had abortions hence the low birth rate.

  14. My school had abstinence only education and we learned all about sexually tranmitted diseases and teen pregnacy. They even told us about all the birth control available and its effectiveness against diseases and pregnancy and even told us you could get it for free from the health department. We were told the only 100% way to avoid pregnacy and disease was to abstain and since we were teenagers thats what they recommended until we were adults.

  15. Anonymous, with due respect, that is by definition NOT abstinence-only education, because you learned about things other than abstinence. Abstinence-only means just what the name says–the only information about sex is “don’t have it.”

    The philosophy behind abstinence-only is that if you teach about contraception or any other information that is primarily useful if you are actually having sex, it will send the message to teens that you expect that they might need that information, ie you expect them to be having sex. They believe this constitutes tacit approval of teen sex, and thus all such information should be cut from the curriculum.

    If you learned about those things, you were by definition NOT in an abstinence-only program.

  16. Everyone should experience what I’ve learned.

    I teach some university classes part time and the number of student health forms I see about STDs and why they missed a test will just boggle the mind.

    One girl (I will admit more attractive than most) a while back had to be out for various reasons which I won’t get into but the poor guys in the class just flirt with her day after day and i wanted to scream… STAY AWAY but I couldn’t.

    After you experience 4 semesters of that I promise you it makes me think twice.

    P.S. Its nice to not think about ‘deep’ subjects like mormonism all the time. I enjoyed.

  17. From

    New “Virginity Pledge” Study Draws Inaccurate Conclusions and Mischaracterizes Abstinence Education

    Washington, DC (December 29, 2008) —NAEA strongly disputes the conclusions reported in the Rosenbaum virginity pledge study.

    Valerie Huber, executive director of NAEA, remarks, “The author inaccurately equates the holistic breadth of an abstinence education program to the one-time event of a virginity pledge. A pledge and an abstinence program are not synonymous. Further, the author makes incorrect inferences for the entire population based on very limited research.”

    The author compared two groups that were almost identical in terms of predisposed life skills. The only difference is that one group pledged and one did not.

    Huber adds, “This study looked only at individuals who have specific skills that are taught or reinforced in an abstinence program, so we are not at all surprised that they abstained about 4 years longer than their peers. This study simply reinforces the need to continue the skill building practices found in a typical abstinence-centered class.”

    For the sample group, the mean age of sexual debut was 21, making this group completely non-representative of the general population. The mean age for sexual debut for the general population is about 4 years before this age at age 17.

    Huber concludes: “The numerous and serious inaccuracies and deliberate mischaracterizations made by the author regarding abstinence education call into question her objectivity as a researcher and throws suspicion on the entire research she has conducted.”

  18. I just posted another take on the study – obviously from a source highly committed to abstinence education. Some worthwhile points to consider.

  19. The point of Virginity pledges is not to ensure that teenages will be 100% chaste until marriage but that kids will postpone in engaging in premarital sex until much later.

    I see the age of 12-18 as the “danger zone” where teenagers are not emotionally, spiritually or financially prepared for the consequences of premarital sex.

    The key is to postpone or delay the age of when kids start becoming sexuality active so that when they do become sexuality active, they can actually afford the consequences of thier choices.

  20. When looking at the behaviour of teens across entire countries, it is starkly obvious that abstinence education and the like as taught in the US is only increasing not only the number of unwed teens but also increasing, dramatically, the number of abortions. France and Sweden have much, much, much lower incidences of both, and both have comprehensive sex education. The link, here, shows that sexual activity among teens is pretty much impervious to change — see on the right? It happens. Whether we adults like it or not. These country-wide numbers also smooth out the richer/poorer difference mentioned by at least one other commentor above.

    Abstinence education doesn’t work. It make adults feel good and victimizes their children. Congrats.

  21. Djinn, you claim that the link you provided “shows that sexual activity among teens is pretty much impervious to change”. It is actually a 2001 report giving data from the mid-1990s, probably before the poor Federal attempts at abstinence education were launched (1996, as I recall). And it is not a study of any kind on abstinence education or the ability of teenagers to change, but a summary of stats on sexual activity and contraception use comparing the US to other developed nations. It may show that there is relatively little difference on the average between US teenagers and, say, British or French teenagers for some aggregate stats, but does that really support the notion that “sexual activity among teens is pretty much impervious to change” or that encouraging abstinence is a failure?

    Studies show that children raised in a religious, conservative environment are much more likely to delay sexual activity. Training them to value abstinence works. Ten minutes of superficial abstinence coaching by a teacher the student doesn’t respect might not make any difference, but raising a child with healthy values and views definitely works.

    The efficacy of teaching abstinence and the ability of teenagers to change is not found by comparing the masses in the US to the masses of the UK, but by looking at the individuals who are taught and raised to have healthy and wise views on the God-given gift of procreation.

    Humans can change. Teenagers can resist the power of peers, the degraded media, and hormones to be the noble and morally clean sons and daughters of God that our Heavenly Father wants them to be. They can choose lifestyles of purity that will help them find the greatest joy in life. It’s not easy, and mistakes will happen, but don’t insult them by saying they are impervious to change.

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