The Good (and Bad?) News About Virginity Pledges

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GAIL BURTON/AP

Just say no: A billboard in Baltimore displays a sexual-abstinence message

What’s a virginity pledge really worth? About 18 months of abstinence, apparently.

A new study financed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and conducted by researchers at Columbia and Yale found that teenagers who publicly promise to postpone sex until marriage refrain from intercourse substantially (roughly a year and a half) longer than teens who didn’t make such a pledge.

There were caveats to the results, however: Pledges were far more successful among 15 and 16-year-olds than among 18-year-olds. And perhaps unsurprisingly, the study’s authors also found that while teens responded well to being part of a group that took the pledges together, if the group grew or shrunk beyond certain points — and thus lost either its sense of exclusivity or a critical mass of peer pressure — the pledges were less likely to stick. The study did not address the effect of such pledges on sexual behaviors other than intercourse, including anal and oral sex, which are increasingly popular among teens who identify as "virgins."

The news of the pledges’ success was met with jubilation from virginity promoters, including Jimmy Hester of True Love Waits, a high-profile abstinence organization that has encouraged virginity pledges since 1993. "This study is really the first one that provides strong data that proves that pledges do make a difference," Hester told the New York Times.

Sex-education advocates say they are pleased by the study’s results as well, but warn against placing too much weight on the behaviors of a relatively small group of teenagers. They also worry that teaching abstinence in the absence of other sex education — as some of these programs do — puts teens who do not stick with the pledge or who engage in non-intercourse sex at risk for diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

"Our biggest concern is that those teenagers who do have sex after they’ve taken a pledge were less likely to use contraception than those who’d never taken a pledge," heightening that group's risk of contracting HIV and other STDs, says Dr. Jacqueline Darroch of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit family planning research organization. "While there is good news in this study showing that association with abstinence groups does have a strong effect on some teenagers, there is certainly no reason to think that an abstinence pledge is all one needs to help adolescents deal with their sexuality and sexual health."