September 21, 2004 | WebMemo on Sex Education and Abstinence
Adolescents who take a virginity pledge have substantially lower levels of sexual activity and better life outcomes when compared with similar adolescents who do not make such a pledge, according to recently released data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health survey). Specifically, adolescents who make a virginity pledge:
In addition, making a virginity pledge is not associated with any long-term negative outcomes. For example, teen pledgers who do become sexually active are not less likely to use contraception.
Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which is funded by more than 17 federal agencies, show that the behavior of adolescents who have made a virginity pledge is significantly different from that of peers who have not made a pledge. Teenage girls who have taken a virginity pledge are one-third less likely to experience a pregnancy before age 18. Girls who are strong pledgers (defined as those who are consistent in reporting a virginity pledge in the succeeding waves of the Add Health survey) are more than 50 percent less likely to have a teen pregnancy than are non-pledgers.
Teens who make a virginity pledge are far less likely to be sexually active during high school years. Nearly two-thirds of teens who have never taken a pledge are sexually active before age 18; by contrast, only 30 percent of teens who consistently report having made a pledge become sexually active before age 18.
Teens who have made a virginity pledge have almost half as many lifetime sexual partners as non-pledgers have. By the time they reach their early twenties, non-pledgers have had, on average, six different sex partners; pledgers, by contrast, have had three.
Girls who have taken a virginity pledge are one-third less likely to have an out-of-wedlock birth when compared with those who have never taken a pledge. Girls who are strong pledgers (those who are consistent in reporting a virginity pledge in the succeeding waves of the Add Health survey) are half as likely to have an out-of-wedlock birth as are non-pledgers.
Girls who make a virginity pledge also have fewer births overall (both marital and nonmarital) as teens and young adults than do girls who do not make pledges. By the time they reach their early twenties, some 27.2 percent of the young women who have never made a virginity pledge have given birth. By contrast, the overall birth rate of peers who have made a pledge is nearly one-third lower, at 19.8 percent.
Because they are less likely to be sexually active, pledging teens are less likely to engage in unprotected sex, especially unprotected nonmarital sex. For example, 28 percent of non-pledging youth reported engaging in unprotected nonmarital sex during the past year, compared with 22 percent of all pledgers and 17 percent of strong pledgers.
One possible explanation for the differences in behavior between pledgers and non-pledgers is that the two groups differ 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 sexual behavior and birth rates.
To investigate this possibility, the authors performed multivariate regression analyses that compared individuals who were identical in relevant background factors. These analyses show that, although the magnitude of the differences was reduced somewhat, differences in the behavior of pledging and non-pledging teens persisted even when background factors such as socioeconomic status, race, religiosity, and other relevant variables were held constant.
Overall, making a virginity pledge is strongly associated with a wide array of positive behaviors and outcomes while having no negative effects. The findings presented in this study strongly suggest that virginity pledge and similar abstinence education programs have the potential to substantially reduce teen sexual activity, teen pregnancy, and out-of-wedlock childbearing.
Read the full study: Teens Who Make Virginity Pledges Have Substantially Improved Life Outcomes by Robert Rector, Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., and Jennifer A. Marshall.
Robert Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy, Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Data Analysis, and Jennifer A. Marshall is Director of Domestic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
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 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 West Franklin Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27516-2524 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
A recent study using Add Health data concluded that teens who did not make virginity pledges were no more likely to experience infection with a sexually transmitted disease (STD) when compared with teens who did pledge. See Lawrence K. Altman, "Study Finds That Teenage Virginity Pledges Are Rarely Kept," The New York Times, March 10, 2004. This is an unusual finding, given that teens who make pledges are less likely to be sexually active, have fewer sexual partners, have fewer years of sexual experience, and are as likely to use contraception as are non-pledging teens. In fact, the Add Health data show that pledging teens do have lower rates of STD infection than non-pledgers, but the base rates for all groups are so low that the differences are not statistically significant. The difficulty lies in the way the Add Health survey measures STD infection; the survey does not measure whether a teen has ever been infected by an STD, but simply whether the teen is currently infected with three specific diseases. The low rates of infection that were found greatly reduce the usefulness of this variable in analysis.