Do virginity pledges prevent premarital sex? What does? Influences and attitudes.

by  James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

The headlines read, “Study shows virginity pledgers as sexually active as peers,” or, “Virginity pledges don’t work.”  OK, I thought, I’m not too keen on public pledges myself.  They were probably done in the emotion and peer pressure of the moment.  I wish all programs would undergo similar scrutiny.

But, then, I read an interview with the study’s author and found ”the rest of the story,” to quote Paul Harvey.  I didn’t take my own advice and believed a headline without reading the details.

In this month’s Pediatrics journal, Janet Elise Rosenbaum, Ph.D., A.M., looked at a survey from teenagers regarding sexual activity.  Some had taken a public pledge to remain virgins until married.  Past studies have shown the pledge may have an positive effect, but Dr. Rosenbaum thought the pledgers were not being properly compared with their peer group, other churchgoing teens.

After matching for over 100 traits, including attitudes toward sex, family and religious beliefs, Dr. Rosenbaum found that by five years, an equal percentage of pledgers and the matched nonpledgers had lost their virginity.  In addition, the pledgers were less likely to use birth control and STD protection.  She concluded that every teen should know about birth control and STD prevention. Her implication was that teaching only sexual abstinence was worse than a waste of time.

By chance, I found an interview with Dr. Rosenbaum. In it she mentioned that religious teenagers, as a group, delay sex by an average of three years longer than their peers. So I looked at a few of her references and found she cited one study that concluded religious teens who were having sex were more responsible about STD protection and birth control.

I agree with Thomas B. Collins, a layman who wrote a response to the study, saying:

The most interesting finding of this research is not the data with respect to pledging vs non-pledging, but the differences in sexual behavior based on religiosity, or overall religious activity, of adolescents. The religious teens were found to delay sex an average of three (3) years relative to non-religious. This is significant if we want to reduce teen pregnancy and STDs. Pledges are often taken in emotional rallies, and teens sign on the emotion of the moment. This is not likely to hold up in the heat of sexual passion later on. Teens will “forget about” their pledges. However, teens more deeply socialized within a religious environment growing up, and with the ongoing support of a religious community, and with continued peer religious activity, may be more likely to delay sexual activity and avoid related problems. This is the most important interpretation I have of this study.

Now I don’t know how “religious” was defined in any of these cases, but I have another question.  Were all pledgers churchgoers?  If not, should there not be a matched-peer comparison of non-churchgoing pledgers to churchgoing pledgers also?

The last question is, is it not a stretch to conclude anything about a related, but different subject: abstinence-only teaching in schools?

I have asked the author, and other experts, to comment.  I look forward to the answers.

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16 Responses to “Do virginity pledges prevent premarital sex? What does? Influences and attitudes.”

  1. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Response from Dr. Rosenbaum as follows:

    Pledges are preceded by an abstinence-only curriculum. The Southern Baptist Conference’s pledge was the largest at the time, and that came with a 6 hour curriculum over several weeks.

    The alternative explanation for lower birth control use (e.g., in
    Bearman/Bruckner) is that pledgers are in denial that they are actually having sex, even though in this case they’re having sex at the same rates as non-pledgers (on average one partner per year, biweekly, 3 lifetime partners.) That seems a bit close to images of religious hypocrisy, and it seems more plausible that it’s a correctable issue such as knowledge, though I admit that is my bias against perpetuating images of religious hypocrisy. Likewise I wouldn’t use the word “deny” to be used in connection with my 2006 paper on retraction of reports of sex and pledges, and the press that spoke directly to me didn’t use that word in their reporting.

    I don’t know any other explanations for why pledgers would use condoms so much less: 42% of pledgers versus 54% of similar non-pledgers use condoms most or all of the time is a huge difference, especially since that they started out with the same attitudes and knowledge

  2. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Thanks to Dr. Rosembaum, author of the study, to reply via email request for her to comment.

    I still do not think you can take the results of this study on virginity pledges and extrapolate it to say abstinence-only does not work. That would require a different study. Certainly I think every teen should be taught options of birth control and dangers of not protecting against stds.

    I, also, think the conclusion should have included that church-going teens, on average, delay sex 3 years longer than non-church goers.

  3. Mark Says:

    Like you mentioned what is the definition of religious? On a broader note I think sex is becoming far too accepted among teens.

    Marks last blog post..Feel the Burn Again!

  4. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    True Mark, and I see no end in sight.

  5. lhubbard Says:

    Very interesting.

    Dr. Rosenbaum says, “I don’t know any other explanations [than lack of knowledge] for why pledgers would use condoms so much less.” While her explanation is a plausible, so is the one Dr. Hubbard seems to suggest with his question, “Were all pledgers chuchgoers?” Was this truly a matched peer comparison?

    Teens taking a pledge does not by any stretch mean they are religious, raised in a religious home, or churchgoers. Peer influence or emotion is enough to get a teen to take a pledge. I grew up in the Bible Belt. Kids who were anything but churchgoers would show up every once in a while at religious gatherings, revivals, retreats, etc. We didn’t have virginity pledges then, but I betchya many of the nonreligious kids would have taken them.

    So, although this study is interesting and likely an important step in this line of research, I agree that, just as we can’t say virginity pledges have no impact, we also can’t draw conclusions about what to teach in schools from it.

    Leigh Ann Hubbard
    Managing Editor
    James Hubbard’s My Family Doctor

  6. Kitrona Says:

    I’m going to take what’s likely an unpopular stance and say that some teenagers are going to have sex, regardless of whether they’re taught abstinence-only or educated about birth control. Abstinence takes self-control; teenagers are not without self-control, but hormones have a tendency to override whatever self-control teenagers may have.

    I agree that drawing conclusions about abstinence-only sexual education based on data from virginity pledges doesn’t make sense. But neither does abstinence-only sex ed. I want my kids to have all the information that’s out there, to know that, while abstinence is the vastly preferred course of action, if they do have sex, barrier protection is the best way to prevent all sorts of unwanted outcomes, and that no excuses are going to be accepted. Instilling fear and shame about sex into their psyches is counterproductive to a future happy marriage; to me, this isn’t about preventing sex during one relatively short span of years, it’s about a healthy sex life /whenever/ it starts, and for the rest of their lives.

    Kitronas last blog post..The day from… somewhere.

  7. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Kitrona, I can’t say your stance is unpopular. I agree that all teens should be taught birth control. They should also be taught the physical and psychological consequences of all types of sex and they, ultimately, they are resposible for themselves. Self-respect should be instilled and that no is not a bad word.


  8. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    I see your point Leigh Ann. In these pledge classes and meetings, many can show up who may not be regular church-goers, or “religious”. Good for them, but they match well with regular church-goers.

  9. Gary Patton Says:

    Thanks Dr H. for publishing what may have been intentionally suppressed and crucial information.

    As a 67 year old parent (1) and grandparent (4), I am surprised at some of the things Kitrona wrote. I wonder what message teenagers hear when their parents say: “…some teenagers are going to have sex, regardless …”. While this may be true, our kids read clearly “between our lines”. Such statements not encouraging abstinence, in my opinion. Nor does a parent saying: “…while abstinence is the vastly preferred course of action, if they do have sex,…”.

    We don’t have to “instill fear and shame” as parents. But, we do have to state clearly what our values and desires for our children’s behaviour are. And before commenters rush to remake the tired “hormone excuse”, most even of the macho-men were virgins at age 25 when I attended the U of T in Toronto. I think Dr. H. will confirm that the hormones of male and female teenagers don’t rage any stronger in 2009 than they did in 1965.

    Blessings all …

    @GaryFPatton in TO

    Gary Pattons last blog post..Welcome!

  10. Steve Parker, M.D. Says:

    Whether the pledge works or not, I think there’s a great benefit to delaying onset of umarried young adult intercourse by three years.


    Steve Parker, M.D.s last blog post..Bariatric Surgery Versus Diet and Exercise

  11. Peggikaye Says:

    The pledge won’t work if it’s just for public consumption ..if they pledge for themselves it’s a different matter.

    My son finds these debates offensive. Because if 70% of teens are sexually active (a statistic he pulls out of the air, not one he’s quoting) then 30% are not … The assumption that ALL teens are sexually active using drugs and drinking .. debases those who are not.

    He’s made choices in life .. but he didn’t do a public pledge, he made a private choice .. and he’s tired of being told that statistically … he’s doing all the things his peers are doing. And being snickered at and being having his mother snickered at with “yeah, sure what mom doesn’t know doesn’t hurt her”
    He’s proud of the choices he’s made … and doesn’t like being called a liar because all teens make different choices, it simply isn’t true, while a lot of teens do make different choices … NOT ALL DO.

  12. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Thanks for the comments and reminding me how old I am.
    The issue of sex in today’s teens is tricky.
    If we expect them to not have premarital sex, then you are right, we need to show we expect them not to. To say, “but if you do have sex, do this” is not expecting them not to. We have to explain why they should no, how and why to say no and to not get into those situations where the “hormones kick in”, ie no alcohol, saying no to the things that lead up to sex (having distinct cut-off points) and why to respect yourself.

    Dr. Rosenbaum would say “yes, but that way of thinking is not working”, so the kids are not prepared with protection when sex does happen.

    In the end the kids decide for themselves. The ones prepared and have it clearly in their head they are not, probably aren’t. The others may. Since we cannot see into their thinking, I do think everyone should be educated about birth control. They should also be educated about the psychological and religious (if they are) ramifications of having sex at an early age, why they are the ones to decide and not their partners or peers. They should, also be taught how to say no and think about it ahead of time, be prepared.

    I am not sure if the abstinence-only programs do the above or not.

    Someone, like Dr. Rosenbaum, can, then do a study, to see if the program is working. If not then don’t give up, find ways to change the program to make it successful (ask kids what helped, or did not help or what can be changed.)

  13. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Dr. Parker, I agree. I think, another questioned that could be asked to post-teens, is were you glad you waited, or were you glad you had sex at an early age? I suspect most would not see any advantage to early sex.

  14. James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H. Says:

    Peggikaye, of course your son should be lauded.
    It is too bad he is in the minority and is prone to ridicule for doing what is right.

    I agree, everyone ultimately makes up their own mind and decides what is important to him/her. But he had to learn the basic information somewhere, at school, church or home in order to form his opinion. According to Dr. Rosenbaum church-goers delay sex 3 years average, so that is one choice. Home is the best but unfortunately, many learn their morals at school.

  15. lhubbard Says:

    Peggikaye: Here, here! Teens are not mindless animals driven solely by their hormones. There are plenty who choose not to have sex, no matter what TV shows and media reports suggest. I’m glad your son knows he’s not alone.

    Leigh Ann Hubbard
    Managing Editor
    James Hubbard’s My Family Doctor

  16. Gary Patton Says:

    Hi again Dr. Hubbard;

    Sorry I made you notice your bones creaking. And your welcome for my comments.

    Re Dr. Rosenbaum’s and the pro-condom crowds insistence on the success of education, they’re “blowing smoke” at their readers. And most are doing it intentially because they know the data!

    During 43 years of married life since leaving school at 24, I’ve listened to most family MD writers, academics and sex education experts argue that we need earlier and better school-based sex education. And when we get it right, we’d terminate our STD and teenage pregnancy horror stories.

    So, taking their advice, governments at every level have thrown all kinds of money at educating our teens about the dangers of STDs and the emotional and spiritual problems related to early sexual activity. While this has gone on, too busy parents have abdicated their responsible to their own children.

    The result: We have promoted pre-high school sexual activity and sky-rocketing teen pregnancy and abortion rates.

    Even the favoured and media-promoted Planned Parenthood lie, “safe sex”, sends the wrong message to our teens about what we as parents should be expecting of them. Criminally, it also hides the fact, I understand, that the micro-small holes in latex condoms are much larger than the aids virus. (I ask that you cofirm this as a trusted expert.)

    I’m all for educating our kids about sex in the home as you suggest. And I repeat my original cry: “Where are all the parents in the teen sexuality crisis? And what are you telling your kids?”

    Blessings all!

    @GaryFPatton in TO

    Gary Pattons last blog post..Welcome!

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