Do Virginity Pledges Work?

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Ian Waldie / Getty

A member of the U.S. teen celibacy group Silver Ring Thing.

The debate over sex education has long been a heated one. A new study released Dec. 29 found that a popular method of promoting abstinence — pledging to remain a virgin — doesn't appear to be the answer. To reach this conclusion, Janet Rosenbaum, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health, analyzed information gathered from nearly 1,000 teenagers, of which approximately 30% took a virginity pledge. Parsing the data, Rosenbaum found that the teenagers who took chastity vows were just as likely to have premarital sex as their peers—and significantly less likely to use protection. TIME talked to Rosenbaum, whose study appears in the January 2009 issue of Pediatrics, about her findings.

Can you walk me through how you did this?

The data I analyzed was from a federal study commissioned by Congress in the early 1990s. They collected data in 1995, 1996 and 2001. I analyzed this data using a statistical method that lets me compare pledgers with similar non-pledgers.

[Between the two groups, I measured, among other factors,] whether they'd feel guilty if they had sex; how often they go to church or attend religious youth groups; whether they identify as born-again Christians; their level of sexual experience; their friends' risk behaviors; whether they think their friends know how to use condoms; and their knowledge of condoms and birth control [as demonstrated by] a quiz that was part of the survey.

And what common threads did you discover?

I found that five years later, pledgers and non-pledgers don't differ at all in their sexual behavior. That includes oral and anal sex, which previous studies had speculated might be used as substitutes for vaginal intercourse. In this data, that seems not to be upheld. They don't differ in their age of sexual initiation; both groups initiated around 21 years old. That shows that this is quite a conservative group, because that's four years later than the American average. And they don't differ in number of lifetime partners. Each group had about three partners by age 21.

What aspects of your findings struck you as most surprising?

The fact that there was a difference in birth control use — especially in condom use — was really surprising. It's problematic for public health. Pledgers are 10 percentage points less likely than similar non-pledgers to use condoms.

Do you think that your findings will inform the debate over allocating federal or state resources to abstinence education?

States have actually already started to move away from requesting abstinence funds. We're down to about half of them that request funds currently. I think that they'll continue to move away unless the federal program changes. It's currently defined so that abstinence education is required to give the advantages of abstinence and the disadvantages of sex, which means that we can't teach birth control. The whole idea of abstinence education comes from this idea that if you teach birth control, that's going to cause kids to have sex. That's been tested probably over 100 times — certainly dozens of times — and it's never been shown as having any basis in reality.

Do you expect pushback from groups that advocate virginity pledges?

I see myself primarily as a researcher, not as an advocate. They're free to dislike the research but they can't dispute it unless they have a specific statistical basis on which to do so.

I ask because this is such a contentious issue.

I don't see myself as part of a culture war. I don't feel any particular glee in finding that virginity pledges don't work. Certainly it would be great if we had something that caused teenagers to delay sex. We do actually have these programs, but they're all sex education programs that actually teach birth control.

Stepping back from your role as a researcher, what method would you advocate schools or parents teach to get kids to delay sex?

Parents are absolutely crucial. They have to talk to their kids at every teachable opportunity. It can't just be one conversation, but repeated efforts. These have to include teaching kids to use condoms, which is something many are reluctant to do. Even parents who approve of premarital sex are still afraid that if they teach their kids to use condoms, it might be misconstrued as encouraging sex. And there's no basis for that.

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