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.
An article by professors Peter Bearman and Hanna Bruckner in the April 2005 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health strongly attacked virginity pledge programs and abstinence education in general. The article stated that youth who took virginity pledges had the same sexually transmitted disease (STD) rates as non-pledgers. It also strongly suggested that virginity pledgers were more likely to engage in unhealthy anal and oral sex. The report garnered widespread media attention across the nation. A reexamination of the data, however, reveals that Bearman and Bruckner's conclusions were inaccurate. Moreover, in crucial respects they misled the press and public.
Bearman and Bruckner tested the long-term effects of virginity pledge programs, examining the health and risk behaviors of young adults (with an average age 22) who had taken a virginity pledge as adolescents. Their analysis was based on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health ("Add Health"), a database funded by the federal government. We used this same database to reexamine the issues they raised.
Several discrepancies were immediately apparent. For starters, the Add Health data clearly reveal that virginity pledgers are less likely to engage in oral or anal sex when compared to non-pledgers. In addition, virginity pledgers who have become sexually active (engaged in vaginal, oral, or anal sex) are still less likely to engage in oral or anal sex when compared to sexually active non-pledgers. This lower level of risk behavior puts virginity pledgers at lower risk for sexually transmitted diseases relative to non-pledgers.
How do Bearman and Bruckner conclude the opposite? In a narrow sense, they do not. Although they strongly suggest that pledgers are more likely to engage in anal and oral sex, they never actually state that. In fact, they very carefully avoid making any clear statements about the sexual risk behaviors of pledgers and non-pledgers as a whole. Instead, they have culled through the Add Health sample looking for tiny sub-groups of pledgers with higher risk behaviors. They then describe the risk behaviors of these tiny groups and let the press infer that they are talking about pledgers in general.
The centerpiece of their argument about pledgers and heightened sexual risk activity is a small group of pledgers who engaged in anal sex without vaginal sex. This "risk group" consists of 21 persons out of a sample of 14,116. Bearman and Bruckner focus on this microscopic group while failing to inform their audience of the obvious and critical fact that pledgers as a whole are substantially less likely to engage in anal sex when compared to non-pledgers.
This tactic is akin to finding a small rocky island in the middle of the ocean, describing the island in detail without describing the surrounding ocean, and then suggesting that the ocean is dry and rocky. It is junk science.
With regard to STDs, Bearman and Bruckner actually found that adolescents who made virginity pledges were less likely to have STDs as young adults than were non-pledgers, but concluded that this difference was not statistically significant. This conclusion was based on limitations in their methodology methodology. In fact, the same methods that they used to demonstrate that virginity pledges do not reduce STDs also demonstrate that condom use does not reduce STDs.
One problem is that Bearman and Bruckner examined only one of several STD measures available in the Add Health data file. Analysis of the remaining measures reveals that adolescent virginity pledging is strongly associated with reduced STDs among young adults. These results are statistically significant in four of the five STD measures examined and are very near significance on the fifth measure. With all the STD measures, the allegedly ineffective virginity pledge is actually a better predictor of STD reduction than is condom use. On average, individuals who took virginity pledges as adolescents were 25 percent less likely to have STDs as young adults than non-pledgers from identical socioeconomic backgrounds.
Further, Bearman and Bruckner's suggestion that virginity pledgers are ignorant about contraception is also inaccurate. Although virginity pledgers were less likely to use contraception at the very first occurrence of intercourse, differences in contraceptive use between pledgers and non-pledgers disappear quickly. In young adult years, sexually active pledgers are as likely to use contraception as non-pledgers.
Of course, virginity pledge programs are not omnipotent. Many years will pass between the time an adolescent takes a pledge and the time he or she reaches adulthood. These years will be full of events and forces that either reinforce or, more likely, undermine the youth's commitment to abstinence. Despite these forces, taking a virginity pledge is associated with a broad array of positive outcomes. Although most pledgers fall short of their goal of abstaining until marriage, in general, they still do a lot better in life. Compared to non-pledgers from the same social backgrounds, pledgers have far fewer sex partners. Pledgers are also less likely to engage in sex while in high school, less likely to experience teen pregnancy, less likely to have a child out-of-wedlock, less likely to have children in their teen and young adult years, and less likely to engage in non-marital sex as young adults.
Overall, virginity pledge programs have a strong record of success. They are among the few institutions in society teaching self-restraint to youth awash in a culture of narcissism and sexual permissiveness. They have been unfairly maligned by two academics who should know better.
Robert Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies, and Kirk Johnson, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Data Analysis, at The Heritage Foundation. These findings are based on research presented by Rector and Johnson at the Eighth Annual National Welfare Research and Evaluation Conference in Washington, D.C., on June 14, 2005. The conference was run by the Administration of Children and Families of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The full conference papers " Adolescent Virginity Pledges, Condom Use and Sexually Transmitted Diseases Among Young Adults" and " Adolescent Virginity Pledges and Risky Sexual Behaviors," both by Robert Rector and Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., are available on heritage.org.