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The Science of Sex: Taking the Pledge

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Taking the Pledge index

If you’re anything like me, you probably groaned aloud when you first heard of “virginity pledges” — those ceremonies where teens stand up in front of their peers and promise not to have intercourse before they get married. Sponsored by the Southern Baptist Church and other conservative groups, the pledge programs became wildly popular in the mid-1990s. Although they may have tapered off a bit, it’s estimated that as many as ten percent of teens nationwide have taken such vows. Now, a Columbia University researcher says they actually work — sort of.

    

There’s a lot to dislike about such programs: they’re sex-phobic, controlling and retrogressive. As a gay man who is not even allowed to marry the person I love, I don’t much like the notion of resurrecting St. Thomas Aquinas to set our national moral agenda. And while I know there might be practical benefits for teens who postpone sex — like avoiding STDs and pregnancy — such programs seemed doomed to failure. How could just signing a scrap of paper turn wishful thinking into reality? It sounds like show-boating, not genuine social change.

    

Sociologist Peter Bearman was skeptical himself when he began his study, but his results (just published in the American Journal of Sociology) offer some limited evidence that the programs work. Bearman analyzed data from over 90,000 students who had been studied as part of the NIH-funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. He found that, on average, taking a virginity pledge causes a teenager to defer his or her first act of sexual intercourse by eighteen months.

    

Eighteen months may not seem like much — “until marriage” it certainly isn’t. But it’s a lifetime in the breakneck world of teen culture. If all the nation’s teens put off sex by this amount, a major drop in teen pregnancy and STDs would surely follow.

    

At the same time, Bearman had to qualify his finding in important ways. The pledges were only effective for younger adolescents, not for those over seventeen. Pledges lost their effectiveness if too many students in a given school — more than about forty percent — took the pledge. And, more disturbing, when pledgers did finally engage in intercourse, they were significantly less likely than non-pledgers to use contraception.

    

One potential problem of Bearman’s results is the possibility that they were caused by what statisticians call a “selection effect.” In other words, perhaps the pledgers were already more likely than non-pledgers to remain virgins before they agreed to participate in the program, in which case the pledge itself may not have had any extra effect. This could potentially explain why increasing the percentage of pledgers in a school decreases the effectiveness of the pledge: the more students who are recruited, the larger the fraction of them who are not strongly motivated to remain virgins will be.

    

Bearman believes that he has ruled out selection effects. The reason why pledging works best when only a minority of students take the pledge, he says, is that it creates an “identity movement” — a group of individuals who gain identity, purpose and self-esteem from their group membership. Such identity movements lose their psychological effectiveness when they no longer have minority status. For this reason, Bearman says, the virginity pledge programs can never be effectively expanded to cover the majority of teens, a major limitation for the movement.

    

For an outside view, I spoke with Doug Kirby of ETR (Education, Training and Research) Associates in Santa Cruz, California. Kirby is a sociologist who has prepared a major study of adolescent sex behavior for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Abstinence-only programs have never been shown to reduce unwanted pregnancy or STDs, Kirby told me, so he was surprised by Bearman’s findings. While he found them “moderately persuasive,” he noted that the possibility of a selection effect hadn’t been fully ruled out.

    

What have been proven to be effective, Kirby says, are school programs that combine encouragement of abstinence with education about contraception and how to avoid STDs. Promoters of the virginity-pledge programs tend to avoid any discussion of these topics, since they believe that discussing safe sex encourages sex itself. Kirby cited Bearman’s finding that the pledge-takers are less likely to use contraception as the unfortunate consequence of this point of view.

    

Myself, I remain skeptical about the abstinence movement. Still, I have to concede two facts: teens are relentlessly bombarded with sexual messages, and early sex has negative consequences for many. If teens want to avoid these consequences by vowing to remain chaste, why should anyone discourage them?