Over the past decade, millions of teens in the United States have made formal pledges to delay sex until they are married. Virginity pledges are part of a wider abstinence movement that has been a controversial approach to sex education.
Essentially, the available research suggests that teaching abstinence alone to teenagers does not work — they are no more likely to delay the start of sexual activity than other teenagers. But research has not been so clear regarding virginity pledges specifically.
Some studies have found that pledges may help young people delay the start of sexual activity. This would be important regardless of one’s religious or moral stance on sexual activity, because we know that delaying the start of sex reduces a teenager’s risk of an unintended pregnancy and contracting a sexually transmitted disease.
The latest study on the issue, published in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics, seems to throw cold water on the idea that virginity pledges do much good, finding no difference in sexual activity between pledgers and nonpledgers. Those findings appear to be in direct conflict with those of a similar study I led at the RAND Corporation, published last summer in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
So which study is right? The truth is that pledges seem to delay sex for some kids some of the time.
Virginity pledges do not work in the strictest sense of delaying sex until marriage. Almost everyone has sex before they are married (95 percent of Americans), and that includes those who take virginity pledges.
That pledges fail is understandable. Teens’ relationship circumstances change. Their perspectives may change. What matters is that at the time young people take a virginity pledge, they express a desire to delay sex. Taking a virginity pledge may help them to do so.
So, who are the “some kids” for whom virginity pledges seem to work? They seem to be most (perhaps solely) effective among younger teens. The new Pediatrics study investigated the effectiveness of pledges taken at age 16 or older. In contrast, the RAND study focused on pledges taken between the ages of 12 and 17, or earlier.
Pledges also seem to work for only a limited period, or stage of life. The RAND study followed youth for 3 years until they were 15 to 20 years old, and found that 42 percent of pledgers remained virgins, while only 33 percent of similar nonpledgers did so.
The new Pediatrics study followed participants for five years after they reported having taken a pledge, until they were 20 or older, and found that they typically had sex for the first time at age 21. By that time, pledgers and nonpledgers appear equally likely to have had sex. If the pledge delays sex until after the teen years, rather than until marriage, there would still be significant health benefits.
With this knowledge, the most prudent course of action is to offer virginity pledges as part of a comprehensive program of sex education that includes information on birth control methods and condoms.
After all, most young people do not take virginity pledges, and most (65 percent of boys and 70 percent of girls) have sex as teenagers. Even many virginity pledgers will have sex as teenagers, and they need to know how to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases when they do.
Should all kids pledge? The answer is clearly “no.” The RAND study showed that pledges work for teens with strong religious backgrounds and less positive attitudes toward sex, and who have parents that keep close track of them. Other work indicates pledges must be freely undertaken and that pledges are ineffective if all kids in a school or community take them.
Instead, we should make virginity pledges available for those young people who sincerely wish to make a commitment to abstinence, and provide all young people with the education and skills they need to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and emotional harm once they do become sexually active.
Steven Martino is a behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit public-policy-research institution.
This commentary originally appeared in The Providence Journal on April 1, 2009.