Young women who take a virginity pledge are about 40 percent less likely to have a child out of wedlock when compared to similar young women who do not make such a pledge, according to recently released data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. These dramatic findings are sustained when background factors, such as socioeconomic status, race, religiosity, and other relevant variables, are held constant. This finding strongly suggests the potential for abstinence education programs to reduce teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock childbearing.
For more than a decade, organizations such as True Love Waits have encouraged young people to abstain from sexual activity. As part of these programs, young people are encouraged to take a verbal or written pledge to abstain from sex until marriage. In recent years, increased public policy attention has been focused on adolescents who take these "virginity pledges" as policymakers seek to assess the social and behavioral outcomes of such abstinence programs.
To that end, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (hereafter simply Add Health),1 originally a survey of junior high and high school-aged students funded by the Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies, began asking adolescents whether they have taken such a virginity pledge in 1994. These students were tracked through high school and into early adulthood. By 2001, most of the youth in the survey were between the ages of 19 and 25, old enough to evaluate the relationship between pledging and a number of social outcomes.
One key outcome of public policy interest is out-of-wedlock births. Some 1.35 million children are born out of wedlock annually, and have been in recent years, representing roughly one-third of all births in the United States. Children raised by single parents are seven times more likely to live in poverty than are children raised in intact homes, and they are much more likely to be dependent on welfare programs and to suffer from a wide range of other social maladies.2
- Some 14 percent of young women who had taken a virginity pledge had had a child out of wedlock. This compares with 29 percent among those women who had not taken a pledge.
- In other words, the out-of-wedlock childbearing rate among women who had taken a virginity pledge in their youth was 50 percent lower than that of women who had not taken such a pledge.
One plausible explanation for this difference in out-of-wedlock childbearing is that pledgers differ from non-pledgers in important social background factors such as socioeconomic status, race, religiosity, and school performance. It is possible that these background factors, rather than the pledge per se, account for the differences in rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing. To investigate this possibility, we performed a multivariate logistic regression analysis, which held relevant background factors constant.
In this statistical procedure, girls who took a virginity pledge were compared to non-pledging girls who were otherwise identical with regard to race, income, family structure, religiosity, and other background conditions. This analysis showed that girls who had taken the pledge were still about 40 percent less likely to have children out of wedlock when compared to otherwise identical girls who had not taken a pledge. Thus, the virginity pledge itself was found to have a strong independent effect in predicting lower levels of out-of-wedlock childbearing. The effect of taking a virginity pledge on reducing out-of-wedlock births was statistically significant, at the 99.6 percent confidence level.
The analysis of the Add Health data utilized a logistic regression to assess the likelihood of an out-of-wedlock birth (or births) among young women while holding constant a number of factors that may be related to having a child out of wedlock. The independent variables included in the regression included:
- Family status (whether or not a youth came from a single-parent family, cohabiting family, intact married family, or married stepfamily);
- Family income at the time of the initial Add Health survey;
- Religiosity (how important religion is to the individual, how often the individual attends religious services, and related measures);
- Self-worth and self-esteem, measured by an index of 11 items;
- School performance, measured by a student's grade point average;
- Race; and
- Virginity pledge status (a youth's response to the Add Health survey questions asking adolescents, "Have you taken a public or written pledge to remain a virgin until marriage?").
When all of these factors are held constant, important differences in out-of-wedlock childbearing are apparent by pledge status. Chart 1 shows the differences in out-of-wedlock childbearing rates between pledgers and non-pledgers for three different racial groups.
These findings are consistent with prior research on the potential impact of virginity pledge programs. Young people who make deliberate public pledges to remain virgins are likely to substantially delay the initiation of sexual activity, have fewer sexual partners, and are more likely to marry. These behaviors, in turn, are likely to lead to lower rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing. The current findings strongly suggest that abstinence education programs that clearly encourage young people to delay sexual activity can, potentially, have a large positive effect on youth behaviors and life outcomes.
- The primary importance of delaying sexual activity;
- That human sexual relationships are predominantly emotional and moral rather than merely physical in character; and
- That teen abstinence is an important step leading toward a loving marital relationship as an adult.
Abstinence education programs stand in sharp contrast to the "safe sex" or "comprehensive sex education" curricula that often permeate America's public school classrooms. In general, these sex-ed curricula fail to provide a message to delay sexual activity, fail to deal adequately with the long-term emotional and moral aspects of sexuality, and fail to explain that sexual activity should be linked to love, commitment, and intimacy. True abstinence education programs, on the other hand, are uniquely suited to meeting both the emotional and the physical needs of America's youth.3
At present, there are 10 studies or evaluations that show the effectiveness of abstinence education programs in reducing teen sexual activity.4 Several additional studies demonstrating the effectiveness of abstinence education are being completed or are under review at academic journals. The findings in this paper add to the growing evidence showing the potential effectiveness of abstinence education as a means to positively change youths' behavior.
1. This research uses data from Add Health, a program project designed by J. Richard Udry, Peter S. Bearman, and Kathleen Mullan Harris, and funded by a grant P01-HD31921 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with cooperative funding from 17 other agencies. Special acknowledgment is due Ronald R. Rindfuss and Barbara Entwisle for assistance in the original design. Persons interested in obtaining data files from Add Health should contact Add Health, Carolina Population Center, 123 W. Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516-2524 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
2. See, for example, Robert Rector, Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., and Patrick F. Fagan, "The Effect of Marriage on Child Poverty," Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. CDA02-04, April 15, 2002, at www.heritage.org/Research/Family/CDA02-04.cfm; Robert Rector, Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., and Patrick F. Fagan, "Understanding Differences in Black and White Child Poverty Rates," Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. CDA01-04, May 24, 2001, at www.heritage.org/Research/Welfare/CDA01-04.cfm; and Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (New York: Doubleday, 2000).
3. Robert E. Rector, Melissa G. Pardue, and Shannan Martin, "What Do Parents Want Taught in Sex Education Programs?" Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1722, January 28, 2004, at www.heritage.org/Research/Welfare/bg1722.cfm.