Teenagers who take pledges to abstain from sexual intercourse are more likely to engage in other sexual activity that carries a higher risk of sexually transmitted disease, according to a new study.
While teens who take virginity pledges start having sex later, have fewer sexual partners and are less likely to have a child out of wedlock, they are almost as likely to be infected with an STD as those who never made the pledge, researchers at Yale and Columbia said in a study in the April issue of Journal of Adolescent Health.
Possible explanations, the researchers say, are that pledgers are less likely to use condoms when they start having sex or to be tested for STDs. The study also found that teenagers pledging to remain virgins until marriage are more likely to experiment with oral and anal sex than other teens who have not had intercourse.
The study concluded that “adopting virginity pledges as intervention may not be the optimal approach to preventing STD acquisition among young adults.”
“The sad story is that kids who are trying to preserve their technical virginity are, in some cases, engaging in much riskier behavior,” lead author Peter S. Bearman, a professor at Columbia’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, said in the Washington Post.
Critics of the study quickly dismissed the findings as “bogus” and charged they were politically motivated.
“Kids who pledge abstinence are taught that any word that has ‘sex’ in it is considered a sexual activity,” Leslee Unruh, president of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse, told the Associated Press. “Therefore oral sex is sex, and they are staying away.”
Government funding has more than doubled in the last five years for programs teaching that abstinence from sexual activity until marriage is the only sure way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and other health problems, according to Reuters.
President Bush’s 2006 budget cuts spending for hundreds of social programs, but proposes increasing funding for abstinence by $39 million, to $206 million, an amount due to rise to $270 million by 2008.
One of the largest abstinence programs is the Southern Baptist Convention’s True Love Waits. Since 1993, officials say, about 2.4 million young people have signed commitment cards stating: “Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.”
Earlier, Yale and Columbia researchers said that 88 percent of teenagers who took a pledge of abstinence wound up having sex before they were married, and that such pledges caused teens to delay the start of intercourse an average of 18 months.
Richard Ross, founder of True Love Waits, who now teaches at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said it is unfair to lump the program with all abstinence pledges, because, unlike many others, it has a strong religious component.
“True Love Waits is more effective than most abstinence programs that use the signing of commitment cards because it adds an element they lack–a commitment to God,” said True Love Waits spokesman Jimmy Hester.
Ross acknowledged that some True Love Waits teenagers do break their pledge but said that is nothing new.
“People are fallible,” Ross said in Baptist Press. “But the fact that a few default on their mortgage doesn’t mean we should stop asking people to sign house notes.”
Critics of abstinence-only sex education say it doesn’t work for everyone and undermines other methods of avoiding pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, such as condom use, birth control and medical attention.
Ross said he was concerned that youth who break their pledges are less likely to use contraception, thereby increasing their risk of disease or pregnancy, but that handing out condoms to every person taking the pledge would send the wrong message.
“Handing a condom to a pledger simply says, ‘We adults know you can’t do this and we know you are destined to live like a barnyard animal. So, when you do break the promise you are making today, maybe this latex will help your odds a little,'” he said. “At the end of the day, such a plan will lead to more sex with more partners and more devastating consequences than calling youth to live consistent with their highest ideals.”
The study was drawn from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative study of students enrolled in grades 7–12 in 1995, and a follow-up survey in 2001-2002. It found that 20 percent of those surveyed said they had taken a virginity pledge.
According to media reports, the authors separated them into two categories—”inconsistent pledgers” and “consistent pledgers”–to indicate that some changed their status or their responses between interviews.
Among those youth, 61 percent of the consistent pledgers and 79 percent of the inconsistent pledgers reported having intercourse before marrying or prior to 2002 interviews.
Almost 7 percent of the students who did not make a pledge were diagnosed with an STD, compared with 6.4 percent of the inconsistent pledgers and 4.6 percent of the consistent pledgers.
In terms of high-risk behavior, just 2 percent of youth who never took a pledge said they had had anal or oral sex but not intercourse, compared with 13 percent of consistent pledgers.
Last year, the same research team found that 88 percent of teens who pledge abstinence end up having sex before marriage, compared with 99 percent of teens who do not make a pledge.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.