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Just Saying No: Study Shows Virginity Pledgers Have Same STD Rates as Non-Pledgers

In the latest study to show that simply telling young people to say "no" to pre-marital sex is an insufficient public health policy, Dr. Peter Bearman, of Columbia University, and Dr. Hannah Brückner, of Yale University, have concluded that young people who take so-called "virginity pledges" have the same rates of sexually transmitted disease (STD) as young people who do not pledge abstinence. Virginity pledges, promises to abstain from all sexual activity until marriage, are the cornerstone of many federally-funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs (both domestic and international), and President Bush has proposed doubling the federal budget for such programs, to approximately $270 million, in Fiscal Year 2005.

For their study, Bearman and Brückner culled data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health on a nationally representative group of 12,000 young people, ages 18-24. While Bearman and Brückner found that pledgers delayed initiation of sex, married earlier than non-pledgers, had fewer sexual partners, and were exposed to STD risk for shorter durations than non-pledgers-all statistics that should reasonably lead to lower STD rates for pledgers-in fact, STD rates for pledgers are "not statistically different than [those] for non-pledgers."1 Bearman presented these findings at the National STD Prevention Conference in Philadelphia, PA, on March 9, 2004.

According to the study, condom usage, or lack thereof, played an important role in STD acquisition rates. Only 40% of males who took virginity pledges used condoms compared to 60% of their non-pledging peers. Similarly, 55% of non-pledging females used condoms, compared to only 47% of pledging females.

Young adults who took virginity pledges were also less likely than non-pledgers to consult a doctor because of STD concerns or to get tested for STDs. Therefore, they were less likely to know they were infected, and thus at greater risk of both unknowingly infecting a partner and themselves by creating a situation for increased infection by another pathogen.

The study also reaffirmed earlier findings that young pledgers often break their promises to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. While 99% of non-pledgers have sex before being married, 88% of young people who do take a virginity pledge also engage in premarital sex.

"This study clearly demonstrates that it is critical for us to provide all our young people with open, honest, and medically accurate information to protect themselves against STDs," said Tamara Kreinin, President and CEO of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS). "It is time for lawmakers, including President Bush, to stop using young people for political purposes and stand up for their health and their futures."

Proponents of virginity pledges responded to the study by saying that "virtually no one in the abstinence movement advocates virginity pledges as an end in themselves; pledges are simply a first step in a much longer and more involved educational process."2

"Signing a pledge card does not mean you are magically protected," said Jimmy Hester, a spokesperson for the abstinence-only-until-marriage program True Love Waits. Hester also suggested that the religious foundation of the True Love Waits virginity pledges fosters a stronger commitment to abstinence. "True Love Waits is more effective than most abstinence programs that use the signing of commitment cards because it adds an element they lack-a commitment to God," Hester said. "True Love Waits would support any program that promotes abstinence, but [it] also would question the power of these types of pledges to shape long-term decisions."3

True Love Waits estimates that 2.4 million young people have signed their commitment cards, which state, "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship."4

While Bearman and Brückner did not look at the religious context of virginity pledges, they did uncover a relationship between the number of young people pledging in a community and STD rates. Their previous work showed that if either too many, or too few, adolescents took virginity pledges within a community, then those pledges were not effective in helping young people delay sexual intercourse. This most recent study showed that in communities where there are too many pledgers, overall STD rates were significantly higher than in other settings. According to the study, in communities where more than 20% of young adults had taken virginity pledges, STD rates were 8.9% (for pledgers and non-pledgers) compared to 5.5% in communities with few pledgers.5

According to Bearman, "Where there are too many pledgers, people misperceive risk…Because pledgers make a public pledge, the sex that they have is more likely to be hidden. It is also more likely to be unsafe. The combination of hidden sex and unsafe sex fuels the absence of knowledge that pledgers and others have about the real risk of STDs."6

Bearman concluded, "In this regard, just saying no, without understanding risk or how to protect oneself from risk, turns out to create greater risk and heightened STD acquisition than should be the case. Pledging does not protect young adults from STDs; in fact, in some contexts it increases their risk and the risk for others."7

Read the study

  1. P. Bearman and H. Brückner, "The Relationship Between Virginity Pledges in Adolescence and STD Acquisition in Young Adulthood. After the Promise: The Long-Term Consequences of Adolescent Virginity Pledges." Portions of the study were presented at the National STD Prevention Conference in Philadelphia, PA, March 9, 2004, p. 10.
  2. R. Manus, "Youths who pledge abstinence show similar STD rates to peers," Associated Baptist Press, March 11, 2004, Vol: 04-26.
  3. E. Curry, "Leaders: True Love Waits ‘different’ from other programs," Baptist Press News, March 10, 2004.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Study, p. 19.
  6. Study, p. 21.
  7. Study, p. 21.

* The study reaffirmed earlier findings that few young people who took a pledge actually remained abstinent until marriage. In fact, 88% of young people who pledged engaged in premarital sex (compared to 99% of their non-pledging peers).