Taking a pledge to remain a virgin until they are married may delay the age at which some young people start experimenting with sex, according to a new RAND Corporation study.
According to researchers, waiting until a person is older to have sex is good from a health standpoint.
The study showed that teens who vowed to remain virgins until they are married were less likely to be sexually active over the three-year study period than other youth who were similar to them, but who did not make a virginity pledge.
"These findings do not suggest that virginity pledges should be a substitute for comprehensive sexual education programs, or that they will work for all kinds of kids" said Steven Martino, the study's lead author and a psychologist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.
"But virginity pledges may be appropriate as one component of an overall sex education effort," he added.
Earlier studies have examined the impact of virginity pledges, but the new research was uniquely designed to account for pre-existing difference between pledgers and non-pledgers on factors such as religiosity, parenting and friendship characteristics.
In the new study, researchers tested the impact of virginity pledges by comparing pledgers with young people who had not made a pledge, but shared other characteristics with pledgers.
They surveyed 1,461 adolescent virgins aged 12 to 17 in 2001 and re-interviewed participants one and three years later.
About one-fourth of the group reported during the initial survey that they had made a virginity pledge.
The study showed that 42 percent of those who did not make virginity pledges but were otherwise similar to those who did started sexual intercourse within three years, while just 34 percent of those who made virginity pledges reported having sexual intercourse within the same period.
"Making a pledge to remain a virgin until marriage may provide extra motivation to adolescents who want to delay becoming sexually active," Martino said.
"The act of pledging may create some social pressure or social support that helps them to follow through with their clearly stated public intention," he added.
Some researchers have speculated that abstaining from intercourse might increase participation in other sexual activities, like oral sex.
However, the new study showed that those who pledged were no more likely to engage in non-intercourse behaviors than comparable youth who did not take a pledge.
"Waiting until you are older to have sex is good for teens from a health standpoint. There are lots of reasons for more kids to wait until they are older," Martino said.
According to researchers, people who delay sex until they are older are less likely to have unintended pregnancies or contract a sexually transmitted disease, and are better equipped emotionally for the experience.
The study is published online by the Journal of Adolescent Health.