WASHINGTON, JUNE 15, 2005-For critics of
federally funded abstinence education, it was a dream come true: an
article in a scientific journal claiming that teenagers who took
virginity pledges were just as likely as non-pledgers to have a
sexually transmitted disease (STD) and more likely to engage
in oral or anal sex.
in the April 2005 issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health,
the article, by professors Peter Bearman and Hannah Bruckner, drew
widespread media attention and helped fuel a campaign to slash
federal funding of abstinence education.
But in a pair of papers presented at a research conference today,
Robert Rector and Kirk Johnson, researchers at The Heritage
Foundation, find that the data Bearman and Bruckner used show just
the opposite: Virginity pledgers are less likely than non-pledgers
of the same social and economic backgrounds to engage in any form
of sex or contract an STD.
The Heritage researchers are presenting their findings today at the
Eighth Annual National Welfare Research and Evaluation Conference
in Washington. The conference is run by the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services' Administration of Children and
The problem with the Bearman/Bruckner article, Rector and Johnson
say, is that it focused on small subsets of data within the
National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health)
rather than considering the data as a whole. The claim, for
example, that pledgers are more likely to have anal and not vaginal
sex is based on only 21 persons out of the entire 14,116 Add Health
sample-a group representing less than 1 percent of the total. By
looking at the remaining 99 percent of pledgers, Rector and Johnson
find that pledgers as young adults are less likely to engage in any
form of sex (vaginal, anal or oral).
Bearman and Bruckner avoided making any statement about risky
sexual behaviors for virginity pledgers as a group.
"They have described a subset in detail and implied that it
reflects the group as a whole," Rector said. "This is like finding
a small island in the middle of a vast ocean, describing only it
and not the surrounding water, and then using that description to
make people think the ocean is dry and rocky. This is junk
Specifically, Rector and Johnson found that pledgers are:
Less likely to engage in vaginal intercourse (75 percent, compared
to 90 percent of non-pledgers).
Less likely to engage in oral sex (62 percent versus 73
One third less likely to engage in anal sex (15 percent versus 22
Almost half as likely to resort to prostitution or have sex with
prostitutes (2.9 percent versus 5 percent).
Rector and Johnson also found that pledgers are 25 percent less
likely than non-pledgers to have an STD. In all cases, the Heritage
researchers note, virginity pledging is a better predictor of STD
reduction among young adults than condom use.
Although most pledgers do not sustain their adolescent vow to
remain virgins until marriage, they still have dramatically
improved life outcomes, the Heritage researchers found. Compared to
non-pledgers from identical backgrounds, pledgers are less likely
to have children out of wedlock, become pregnant as teens, give
birth as teens or young adults, engage in non-marital sex as young
adults or have sex before age 18.
Rector and Johnson also challenge the conclusion that virginity
pledgers are ignorant about contraception. Although virginity
pledgers were less likely to use contraception at the first
occurrence of intercourse, differences in contraceptive use between
pledgers and non-pledgers disappear quickly, they found. In young
adult years, sexually active pledgers are as likely to use
contraception as non-pledgers.
The full conference papers are online at
heritage.org/Research/Welfare/whitepaper 06142005-1.cfm and