by Sarah Miller, RN
Virginity pledges have received a lot of attention over the years. There has been controversy, though, about whether or not they are effective in delaying teen sex. Two studies published within the last two years have yielded different results. One study, published in Pediatrics in 2009 by Janet Rosenbaum, a researcher with a Ph.D. in Health Policy and Statistics from Harvard, found that virginity pledges made no difference in whether, and at what age, teens had sex. In contrast, a study headed up by Steve Martino, a Ph.D. from the RAND Corporation and published in The Journal of Adolescent Health, found that virginity pledges were effective in delaying sex for some, but not all, teens.
Rosenbaum’s Study, entitled “Patient teenagers? A comparison of the sexual behavior of virginity pledgers and matched non-pledgers,” compared 289 teens who had taken virginity pledges at age 15 or older with 645 similar teenagers who had not taken pledges. The sample of teens was taken from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health Respondents. The teens in the study were from many parts of the United States and had characteristics representative of teens nationwide. The researchers matched the two groups according to age, how religious they were,their relationships with their parents, as well as attitudes about sex and birth control. This allowed the researchers to eliminate almost everything that was likely to make the two sets of teens different and focus only on whether or not the virginity pledge made a difference in when the teens started having sex.
Teens were surveyed at the time of taking the virginity pledge and five years later on sexual behaviors and on test results for sexually transmitted diseases. This study found that there was no difference between pledgers and non-pledgers five years after taking the pledge in terms of whether or not they had pre-marital sex, whether they engaged in anal and oral sex, and whether they tested positive for sexually-transmitted diseases. In fact, 82% of pledgers denied ever having taken the pledge five years later, which indicates that most did not take these pledges very seriously.[i]
Another interesting finding of this study was the fact that teens who had taken a virginity pledge were less likely to use condoms or birth control..This finding is important because it shows that teens who take virginity pledges may be at higher risk for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy. This makes sense: if teens have decided not to have sex, they will not be prepared if they unexpectedly change their mind.
The other recent study by Martino that looked at virginity pledges found that pledgers were more likely to remain virgins and just as likely as non-pledgers to use condoms consistently. This study surveyed 1105 teens ages 12-17 on their sexual behavior and, like the other study mentioned, compared pledgers and non-pledgers by matching them based on age, their relationship with their parents, how religious they are, and on their attitudes about sex. Unlike the other study, it also matched them on whether they had friends who had sex.
According to this study, while many teens broke their virginity pledge, 42% of the students who pledged to remain virgins still were virgins after three years, as compared with only 33% of those who did not make a pledge. This was a statistically significant finding, which means the difference could not have occurred by chance.
Comparing the two studies
Neither of the studies looked at the circumstances surrounding the teens’ virginity pledges-such as where and why they made them. For example, some teens may have made their pledges in a church group or classroom that expected all teens to make a pledge. There is evidence that virginity pledges work mostly among teens who make them willingly and without pressure from peers, parents, or teachers.[ii]
There are several reasons that these studies came up with different results. In the June 2009 issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, both authors are given a chance to write in and defend their studies. Steven Martino, of the RAND Corporation , speculates that virginity pledges were effective in his study because he studied younger teens. He cites previous studies that have shown that “virginity pledges may be effective mostly, (perhaps solely) among younger adolescents.”[iii]
Janet Rosenbaum, author of the study that found virginity pledges do not help delay sex, speculates that the difference in results was due to the different measures of religion in the two studies.. Her study asked teens many more questions about the role of religion in their lives, and she believes it is important to make sure that it is the virginity pledge itself, not just how religious the teen is, that influences his or her decision to delay having sex for the first time. It’s safe to assume that kids who seek out other kids like themselves, with the same spiritual or other values, and who decide together to make a virginity pledge, are more likely to stick to it than kids whose pledges were made in the classroom because a teacher or school program recommended it.
The bottom line: Both studies found that the majority of teens had sex, regardless of whether or not they had made virginity pledges. Even if virginity pledges are effective, as found in Martino’s study, they are not effective for most students. This demonstrates how important it is to give all teens information about pregnancy and STD prevention regardless of whether they have taken virginity pledges.
[i] Rosenbaum, JE. Patient teenagers? A comparison of the sexual behavior of virginity pledgers and non-pledgers. Pediatrics123(1) pp.110-21, 2009, January.
[ii] Berman, PS and Bruckner, H, Virginity Pledges and First Intercourse. American Journal of Sociology. 106(4) pp. 859-912, 2001.
[iii] Marino, SC. Virginity pledges may work among some adolescents, Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. 41(2)pp.132-3. 2009, June.