Virginity Pledges Work — for Some Adolescents

Health |

More than 2.5 million adolescents have taken part in public pledges of abstinence until marriage, and study findings released Thursday show that such promises are effective.

Teens who pledge abstinence “are much less likely than adolescents who do not pledge, to have intercourse,” according to study co-authors Drs. Peter Bearman of Columbia University and Hannah Bruckner of Yale University. The study was initially conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Bearman was a former full-time faculty member and Bruckner was a doctoral student.

The “virginity” pledge was borne out of a social movement sponsored by the Southern Baptist Church. “The pledge works by embedding adolescents into a moral community which gives them identity,” Bearman told Reuters Health.

Analyzing data from 1994-1996, the investigators found that pledgers have a 34% lower likelihood of having sex than non-pledgers. The study included male and female white, black, Hispanic and Asian youths, according to the report, which will be published in the January issue of the American Journal of Sociology.

Pledgers are significantly more religious than their peers, Bearman and Bruckner note. Yet the data show that the religious adolescents delayed intercourse only during middle and late adolescence.

Academic achievement and sports participation were the strongest delaying factor in early and middle adolescence for non-black girls, the researchers point out.

Also, adolescents who perceived that their parents disapproved of premarital sex were more likely to delay having sex throughout adolescence.

Emotional commitment to a relationship increased the risk of sexual activity for all of the youth — except black males. “This finding has implications for the pledge movement, which assumes that sex is the expression of romantic love,” the authors write.

According to Bearman, “the effect of taking a pledge is conditioned by age and shaped by the school context.” Among adolescents who attend schools where few friendship and romantic relationships develop between males and females, pledging delays intercourse “only if there is an interacting community of pledgers.”

Those in schools where a majority of students engage in cross-sex friendship and romantic relationships are less likely to have sex only if no other pledgers are present. If a community of pledgers exists, the adolescents who pledge are more likely to have sex than those in schools with few pledgers.

Contrary to critics of the pledge movement, however, pledgers who later engage in premarital sex do not seem to suffer a loss of self-esteem, the report indicates.

However, these individuals are less likely to use contraception at first intercourse. “It is hard to be contraceptively prepared and at the same time not intend to have sex,” Bearman explained.

“Pledgers who break their promise and have sex would benefit from knowledge about contraception, to further reduce their risk of sexually transmitted disease acquisition or pregnancy,” he added.

“Teens don’t need to pledge in order not to have sex, they can simply decide not to,” Bearman said. On the other hand, “pledging may provide a language that teens can use to negotiate the complex world of adolescent intimacy,” he acknowledged. “It may help them disentangle intimacy from sex.”

The study was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from various agencies including the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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