A new study has brought to light the fallacy of "premarital sex abstinence" pledges where teens vow to stay virgins until marriage. Apparently, they are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence. And when they do have sex, this group also fails to use adequate protection like condoms and other birth control.
The new study found that more than half of youths became sexually active before marriage regardless of whether they had taken a "virginity pledge," but the percentage who took precautions against pregnancy was 10 points lower for pledgers.
"Taking a pledge doesn't seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior," the Washington Post quoted Janet E. Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, as saying.
"But it does seem to make a difference in condom use and other forms of birth control that is quite striking," Rosenbaum added.
Rosenbaum analyzed data collected by the federal government's National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which gathered detailed information from a representative sample of about 11,000 students in grades seven through 12 in 1995, 1996 and 2001.
Although researchers have analyzed data from that survey before to examine abstinence education programs, the new study is the first to use a more stringent method to account for other factors that could influence the teens' behavior, such as their attitudes about sex before they took the pledge.
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.
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. 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 said.
While there was no difference in the rate of sexually transmitted diseases in the two groups, the percentage of students who reported condom use was about 10 points lower for those who had taken the pledge, and they were about 6 percentage points less likely to use any form of contraception.
Rosenbaum attributed the difference to what youths learn about condoms in abstinence-focused 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. They tend not to give accurate information about condoms and birth control," he said. The study appears in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics.