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Study: ‘Virginity Pledges’ Ineffective

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

Teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence according to a new federal study. That study also shows teens who take the pledge are significantly less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do have sex.

The report, which is featured in the January 2008 issue of Pediatrics, found that more than half of teens became sexually active before marriage regardless of whether they had taken a “virginity pledge”, but that the percentage who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was 10 points lower for pledgers than non-pledgers.

“Taking a pledge doesn’t seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior,” said report author Janet E. Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “But it does seem to make a difference in condom use and other forms of birth control that is quite striking.”

Rosenbaum focused on about 3,400 students who had not had sex or taken a virginity pledge in 1995. She compared 289 students who were 17 years old on average in 1996, when they took a virginity pledge, with 645 who did not take a pledge but were otherwise similar. She based that judgment on about 100 variables, including their attitudes and their parents’ attitudes about sex and their perception of their 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, Rosenbaum found, 82 percent of those who had taken a pledge had retracted their promises, and there was no significant difference in the proportion of students in both groups who had engaged in any type of sexual activity, including giving or receiving oral sex, vaginal intercourse, the age at which they first had sex, or their number of sexual partners. More than half of both groups had engaged in various types of sexual activity, had an average of about three sexual partners and had had sex for the first time by age 21 even if they were unmarried.

“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.”

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