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Study: Virginity Pledgers More Likely To Avoid Risky Sex, Have Lower STD Rates

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.

Published 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 Families.


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 science."


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 percent).

·      One third less likely to engage in anal sex (15 percent versus 22 percent).

·      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 heritage.org/Research/Welfare/whitepaper06142005-2.cfm.

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