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Virginity Pledges Can Mean Less Protection

By Lisa DeNike

The notion of fresh-faced teens pledging chastity until marriage through abstinence-promoting programs such as "True Love Waits" may be comforting to many adults. But it may be false comfort, at least according to a new study by Janet Rosenbaum, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Population, Family and Reproductive Health.

Earlier studies, using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, had shown that pledgers start having sex later than their nonpledging peers. Rosenbaum used that same data but analyzed it in a different way, comparing teens who took virginity pledges (overall, a very religious group) to nonpledging teens who were similarly religious and conservative.

What she found: Not only are religious teens who took virginity pledges just as likely as "nonpledging" religious teens to have sex before marriage; they also are significantly less likely to protect themselves and their partners against pregnancy and STDs with birth control pills and condoms once they start. The results of the study appeared in the January issue of Pediatrics.

"What we did was create a group of nonpledgers who were as close as possible to the pledgers on all factors that may influence sexual behavior, so that the outcome differences between pledgers and matched nonpledgers could not be attributed to pre-existing differences," says Rosenbaum. "This way, we were comparing two groups that were likely to delay having sex, so we could measure the difference—if any—that the virginity pledges were making."Both groups had similar rates of vaginal, oral and anal sex and, on average, delayed their first sexual encounters until age 21, four years later than the average American adolescent. Those studied also had similar rates of STDs, and reported an average of three lifetime sexual partners. The majority, more than 50 percent, had premarital sex. (The study tracked adolescents from about age 16 to 22.)

But when it came to using condoms and other forms of birth control, the two groups parted ways.

"Teens who took the virginity pledge were 10 percent less likely to use condoms than were similar nonpledgers, and also less likely to use birth control. Fifty-four percent of nonpledgers used condoms most of the time or always, but only 42 percent of the pledgers did," says Rosenbaum. She attributes this difference to abstinence-only sex education programs that "tend to be very negative and disseminate inaccurate information about condoms and birth control."

This is a serious concern from a public health point of view, Rosenbaum says. "Some people still worry that teaching adolescents about safe sex is the same as encouraging them to have sex, and dozens of studies show that doesn't have any basis in reality," she notes. "It's absolutely critical that parents talk to their kids about sex and about safe sex."

Just as troubling, she says, is that measurements of the "success" of abstinence-only sex education programs are often based, at least in part, on how many adolescents take virginity pledges. This can create a false sense of security, she says, leaving many teens unprepared and uneducated about safe sex practices.