Teenagers who take virginity pledges -- public declarations to abstain from sex -- are almost as likely to be infected with a sexually transmitted disease as those who never made the pledge, an eight-year study released yesterday found.
Although young people who sign a virginity pledge delay the initiation of sexual activity, marry at younger ages and have fewer sexual partners, they are also less likely to use condoms and more likely to experiment with oral and anal sex, said the researchers from Yale and Columbia universities.
"The sad story is that kids who are trying to preserve their technical virginity are, in some cases, engaging in much riskier behavior," said lead author Peter S. Bearman, a professor at Columbia's Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. "From a public health point of view, an abstinence movement that encourages no vaginal sex may inadvertently encourage other forms of alternative sex that are at higher risk of STDs."
Rates of Disease
The findings are based on the federally funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey begun in 1995 that tracked 20,000 young people from high school to young adulthood. At the start of the project, the students were 12 to 18 years old and agreed to detailed, sexually explicit interviews. They were re-interviewed in 1997 and again in 2002, when 11,500 also provided urine samples.
Virginity pledges emerged in the early 1990s based on the theory that young people would remain chaste if they had stronger community support -- or pressure -- to remain abstinent. Programs vary, but in most cases teenagers voluntarily sign a pledge or publicly announce their intention to abstain from sex. Often pledgers receive a pin or ring to symbolize the promise and team up with an "accountability partner."
Since it was founded in 1993, the virginity group True Love Waits claims 2.4 million youths have signed a card stating: "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, those I date, and my future mate to be sexually pure until the day I enter marriage."
The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that 20 percent of those surveyed said they had taken a virginity pledge. Bearman and co-author Hannah Bruckner broke them into two categories -- "inconsistent pledgers" and "consistent pledgers" -- to reflect the fact that some changed their status or their responses between interviews. Among those youngsters, 61 percent of the consistent pledgers and 79 percent of the inconsistent pledgers reported having intercourse before marrying or prior to 2002 interviews.
Almost 7 percent of the students who did not make a pledge were diagnosed with an STD, compared with 6.4 percent of the "inconsistent pledgers" and 4.6 percent of the "consistent pledgers." Bearman said those differences were not "statistically significant," although Robert Rector, who studies domestic policy issues at the conservative Heritage Institute, said he interpreted the data to mean that young people committed to the abstinence pledge were less likely to become infected.
The study did not detect major geographic differences but found that minorities were far more likely to have an STD. About one quarter of African American girls in the survey tested positive for at least one STD in 2002.
In terms of high-risk behavior, the raw numbers were small, but the gap was statistically significant, Bearman said. Just 2 percent of youth who never took a pledge said they had had anal or oral sex but not intercourse, compared with 13 percent of "consistent pledgers."
Debate on Abstinence
The report sparked an immediate, bitter debate over the wisdom of teaching premarital abstinence.
Deborah Roffman, an educator and author of "Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex," said youths who take virginity pledges are often undereducated about sexual health. "Kids who are engaging in oral sex or anal sex will tell you they are practicing abstinence because they haven't had 'real sex' yet," she said.
Ralph DiClemente, a professor at Emory University's School of Public Health in Atlanta, compared virginity pledges to adults' efforts to make New Year's resolutions.
"I wish it was that easy. We'd all be a lot healthier," he said. "If we can't do it as adults, why would we expect kids to be able to handle those issues?"
But Joe S. McIlhaney Jr., chairman of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, said the study offers an incomplete picture because it could not say whether sexually active teens who did not take a pledge had been pregnant or treated for an STD before the 2002 testing. The analysis "doesn't prove or disprove" assertions that virginity pledges are flawed, he said.
On the other hand, Bill Smith, public policy vice president for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, said, "Not only do virginity pledges not work to keep our young people safe, they are causing harm by undermining condom use, contraception and medical treatment."
Conservative academics said the paper overlooked earlier important findings about adolescents who take virginity pledges, most notably that they have fewer pregnancies and out-of-wedlock births.
"It's hugely successful on those variables," Rector said. "Bearman has focused in on the one variable he thinks can show they [pledgers] don't do better."
President Bush has requested $206 million in federal funding for abstinence-only programs this year.
Several True Love Waits officials were unavailable Friday, according to a receptionist. Telephone calls to another virginity group, the Silver Ring Thing, were not returned.