Do Virginity Pledges Really Work?

Examining the research on virginity pledges.

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Remember when virginity pledges were all the rage? It seems like only yesterday when the Jonas brothers, Jessica Simpson and Miley Cyrus were snapped by paparazzi sporting purity rings.

Enough time has passed to wonder whether past virginity pledges work. More importantly, from a medical perspective, we can now examine the prudence of federally funded abstinence-only education.

Virginity Pledges Defined

Writing for the staid publication, Pediatrics, author Dr. Janet Elise Rosenbaum states, "A sexual abstinence or 'virginity' pledge is an oral or written promise to refrain from sexual activity, usually until marriage, administered after a multi- or single session curriculum in religious youth groups, parochial and public schools, or large group events."

Looking back, virginity pledges were an invention of evangelical groups and first made their debut in 1993. In no time, many Protestant and Catholic groups embraced such pledges and made them their own. Although some young men did take these pledges, abstinence pledges were mostly directed at adolescent girls and often involved fathers (think Purity Balls). By 1995, an estimated 13 percent of American adolescents had reported taking virginity pledges.

Most concerning, virginity pledges are coupled with abstinence-only education. In other words, organizers at abstinence-only programs teach that the only way to avoid pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) before marriage is to avoid sex before marriage. As the vast majority of us know, unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections can both be avoided by properly using condoms.

Research on Virginity Pledges

Research on virginity pledges and abstinence-only education varies somewhat, but overall it's apparent that such interventions don't work—at least not in the way that many hope.

Results from a high-power and longitudinal study (hundreds of participants surveyed five years after pledging abstinence before marriage) authored by Rosenbaum and published in Pediatrics suggests the following:

  • both pledgers and non-pledgers engaged equally in premarital sex, anal sex, and oral sex
  • pledgers differed from non-pledgers neither in number of lifetime sexual partners nor age of first sexual experience
  • fewer pledgers than non-pledgers used birth control and condoms
  • although both pledgers and non-pledgers were less likely to develop gonorrhea as compared with the general U.S. adolescent population, both pledgers and non-pledgers were equally likely to develop chlamydia and trichomoniasis as individuals in the general population
  • 82 percent of pledgers denied ever pledging in the first place

Of note, in this study, pledgers and non-pledgers were matched as closely as possible using an ambit of pre-abstinence program criteria. Additionally, Rosenbaum suggests that the reason why pledgers used less contraception and condoms probably has to do with the stance taken by abstinence-only programs that dismisses such interventions as ineffective.

Results from another longitudinal or long-term study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests that although pledgers (as compared with non-pledgers) transition into sexual relationships later and have less sexual exposure in cumulative terms, there were no differences in sexually transmitted infection exposure rates among these two groups.

These results suggest that although abstinence-only pledge programs might delay age of first sex in some, from an epidemiology perspective, this benefit is countered by limited use or appreciation of contraceptive methods among pledgers. In other words, even if a person were to take a virginity pledge, by the time she finally does have sex, this sex is more likely to be unprotected.

Fortunately, we live in a country where it's an individual's right to take a virginity pledge and don a purity ring. However, many of these abstinence-only programs are funded by the federal government. In fact, during the past two decades, hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into abstinence-only programs making them programs that we, as taxpayers, fund. Even during the Obama administration, money has been poured into these programs for reasons which are unclear. Furthermore, according to some sources, the government fails to monitor whether these programs succeed rather focusing on program census or involvement numbers.

Bottom Line

Because these programs are in part funded by our money, these programs should be accountable to consensus standards that benefit the public and heed the advice of researchers, physicians and public health officials in the United States. More specifically, as a means of birth control and disease prevention and when used properly, condoms work. Purity pledges and abstinence-only programs should be administered in a context that recognizes the importance of safe sex. Currently, abstinence-only programs embrace abstinence at all costs and deny the efficacy of safe sex—a medically irresponsible stance.

Selected Sources

Article titled "After the promise: the STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges" by H. Brűckner and P. Bearman published in the Journal of Adolescent Health in 2005. 

Article titled "Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and
Matched Nonpledgers" by JE Rosenbaum published in Pediatrics in 2008.

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