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Virginity pledges – what you need to know

December 30th, 2008

Dr Petra

New research just published in the journal Pediatrics shows those taking virginity pledges do not delay sex. The follow-up study compared young people who had made virginity pledges with similar counterparts who had not made such promises and assessed their sexual behaviour over time.

What are virginity pledges?
Virginity pledges are promises young people make, usually following a faith-based sex information event (for example a workshop, play, dance, or series of lessons). The promises can be made verbally or in writing, either by individuals or by groups of teens. Within the pledges young people promise not to have sexual encounters until they marry – although how ‘sexual encounters’ are defined can vary. Some pledgers go as far as promising not even to kiss another until marriage, although more liberal interpretations do allow young people to date, and be emotionally intimate, while forbidding sexual contact. Some pledgers mark their promise by wearing ‘purity rings’.

The idea of such a pledge is to promote abstinence, underpinned by a belief that getting young people to promise to avoid having sex – particularly in front of their peers – will ensure sex doesn’t happen until marriage.

In the US millions are paid to support abstinence only programmes, both in the country and in charitable outreach programmes abroad – particularly in sub Saharan Africa. In the UK we don’t have state funded abstinence programmes, but faith schools do pay for virginity pledge-based events, and Primary Care Trusts have been known to fund or support abstinence programmes (dependent on the political/religious views of practitioners). Youth groups – particularly faith based ones – also endorse pledging, and many in the UK, US and elsewhere deliver these messages through plays, songs or dance performances at carnivals, fairs or other public events.

Supporters of such pledges argue they delay sex and encourage chastity. Detractors argue they do little to help young people as they are often delivered in a vacuum, meaning that wider lessons on safer sex, contraception or life skills for positive relationships are not given since pledgers are assumed not to need such advice since they’re not having sex.

What does this research show?
This research was based on a subsection of teenagers aged over 15 who completed the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (1995). 289 teens who reported taking a virginity pledged were matched on similar characteristics with 645 teens that were similar but had not made a virginity pledge. Participants were followed up five years later (in 2000) and were assessed for STIs, use of contraception (including condoms), and number of sexual partners.

Results suggested that 82% of those who reported making a pledge in 1995 denied making such a promise when assessed again five years later. They weren’t particularly different from the non-pledging participants in the kind of sex they’d engaged in, number of partners or STIs. However, they were less likely to report using contraception.

The researchers conclude that if pledges were effective in promoting abstinence until marriage, then one would expect to see significant differences between those reporting pledge-making and similar teens that’d made no such promise. The similarities between participants suggest that pledging did not seem to make much difference towards sexual behaviour in the subsequent five years after promising to abstain from sex.

Why is this study important?
This research follows up participants to see how their behaviour has changed, and therefore allows us to see the impact of pledging on sexual activity. It suggests that pledging may seem important to a young teen but is not upheld over time, that pledgers appear less likely to use contraception, but no less likely to avoid sexual behaviour. These findings do two important things – they call into question the vast sums of money used to fund abstinence education, and they clearly highlight the need for providing sex education for all young people that covers contraception, STIs and positive relationships – regardless of whether the teen is sexually active or plans to have sex in the future.

What are the limitations of the research?
The study is based on data that is nearly nine years old (the last follow up of participants in 2000). That’s not particularly sinister as often subsets of data are analysed long after a study has been completed. However, it is possible critics will use this as a means of dismissing the research, albeit unfairly.

The researchers’ state there may be some limitations based on sampling – as although all efforts were made to ensure participants were closely matched, this is only as thorough as information provided by participants. However, they did feel their analysis was robust enough to conclude similarities between the pledgers and non pledgers and allow for comparative analysis. Again, this admission is likely to be used by detractors to dismiss the study wholesale.

The research focused on teens aged 15 and above. The researchers agree that they had not looked at younger teens that’d pledged and accept it is possible that those who pledge at a younger age may have different subsequent sexual behaviours than those who pledge in their mid-late teens.

My main frustration with the study is, since it was a survey, it does not give much detail on participant’s thoughts and feelings that may explain their actions. For example, we do know that most pledgers denied even making such a promise. But we don’t know why. I’d have been interested in knowing the many reasons participants surely had for this opinion shift as such information would let us understand in more detail why people pledge – and why they may not see pledging as something to stick to long term.

The researchers rightly conclude that practitioners should provide contraception advice to all teens – particularly those who have promised to abstain. This is a welcome recommendation, but one that is actually very complex and difficult. I was surprised that it was made as a few line conclusion rather than a wider explanation and debate. After all, parents and religious groups, plus teens may well feel offended or excluded if a practitioner starts providing alternative sex advice. This could lead to conflict, ill feeling and more confusion for young people. Now we have more information on how pledging isn’t working we need wider discussions and clearer guidance on what sex education will benefit young people – and what messages should be delivered by health professionals.

Why we shouldn’t ignore these findings
Those working in the area of sexual health as practitioners, educators, or youth advocates are aware that pledging-based abstinence focused sex education programmes are problematic. Teenagers who are encouraged to pledge and abstain are often given support not to have sex from their religious community, youth group or similar. However, they are also not usually given basic sex information about contraception, STIs, negotiating sex, pleasure and assertive communication in relationships. While they are encouraged to avoid having sex before marriage, they are not being prepared for marriage itself.

Such programmes do little to help young people who are sexually abused or coerced – indeed they may make the victim of a sexual assault feel more guilty and less likely to seek help because they feel they have ‘broken’ their pledge.

Emotional conflict can occur where teens have pledged but also have sexual feelings – leading to guilt and worries for those who engage in masturbation (either alone or with a partner), or who find themselves in a passionate relationship where they no longer feel inclined to keep their pledge. Guilt over breaking a pledge accompanied by fear of others finding out may mean young people are less likely to seek advice on contraception.

And for many young people it seems that pledges to abstain from sex can be made in a group setting, after an exciting play or educational event, and following some inspiring talks advocating abstinence (often led by young people). In such an environment it is easy to see that many young pledgers do so as an exercise in conformity.

That’s not to say they don’t genuinely mean their promise when they make it, but that it may not be something they continue to agree with as they get older or are not mixing with fellow pledgers. Realistically teens change their views on all kinds of things – from music to fashion to friendships – as they age. This means many drop their pledge or even forget they made it as they grow.

Often this debate is framed in a polarised way. With both abstinence advocates and their opponents presenting each other as potential child abusers who are responsible for our increasing teen pregnancy and STI rates. This doesn’t help anyone. We need to take a critical look at all kinds of sex education offered to young people, and apply the same level of scrutiny to sex positive education as we do to abstinence approaches.

It is worth noting that those adults endorsing pledging and providing pledging programmes are doing so because they believe this approach is the right way to work with teens. We need to move away from basing educational programmes on faith and good intentions and look at the evidence on how such schemes work. If they are found to have limitations we must address this.

So the take home message is simple. Pledging alone isn’t working. We need to ensure educators, parents, and practitioners deliver additional information to young people about contraception, STIs and positive relationships. We can’t keep hoping that a promise can be easily kept – or believing that such approach is conducive to positive future relationships.

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