Virginity pledges may help postpone intercourse among youth


SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Teen virginity pledges—a movement first started by Southern Baptists 15 years ago—do help some young people delay sexual activity, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

The study, released June 10, was the second positive one involving teen abstinence issues in recent weeks. The second other study researched whether teens engage in oral sex as a way to preserve their virginity.

To try to get a clearer picture on the role of virginity pledges, the RAND study selected teens with similar backgrounds, but whose main differentiation was whether they made such a vow.

The study started in 2001 with 1,461 adolescent virgins, who were resurveyed one year and three years later.

Forty-two percent of those who did not make virginity pledges but were otherwise similar to those who did started sexual intercourse within three years, while just 34 percent of those who made virginity pledges reported having sexual intercourse within the same period.

"Making a pledge to remain a virgin until married may provide extra motivation to adolescents who want to delay becoming sexually active," Steven Martino, the study's lead author and a psychologist at RAND, said in a news release. "The act of pledging may create some social pressure or social support that helps them to follow through with their clearly stated public intention."

That social pressure could also backfire, the researcher warned.

"Virginity pledges must be made freely for them to work," Martino said. "If young people are coerced or are unduly influenced by peer pressure, virginity pledges are not likely to have a positive effect."

No endorsement
Despite the significant findings, Martino stopped short of endorsing virginity pledges for all teens.

"These findings do not suggest that virginity pledges should be a substitute for comprehensive sexual education programs, or that they will work for all kinds of kids," Martino said. "But virginity pledges may be appropriate as one component of an overall sex education effort."

Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association, warned, however, that virginity pledges should not be confused with abstinence-only education, which her group advocates.

"A lot of people would say a virginity pledge is an equivalent to an abstinence-education program. It's certainly not," she told USA Today. "It's a single event with a personal commitment, but there's often no follow-up.

"We think abstinence education is a natural reinforcement of this personal decision they have made."

As a result, abstinence supporters believe teens benefit most from ongoing abstinence instruction, especially to counter a culture that promotes sexuality at increasingly younger ages.

The RAND study also searched to see if virginity pledgers were more likely to engage in other sexual activity as a way to skirt their vows. They found, however, that those who pledged were no more likely to engage in non-intercourse behaviors than comparable youth who did not take a pledge.

"Waiting until you are older to have sex is good for teens from a health standpoint," Martino said. "There are lots of reasons for more kids to wait until they are older."

Skirting intercourse?
His findings dovetailed with a broader look at virgins and oral sex conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, a research arm for Planned Parenthood. Their findings are published in the July edition of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The institute's analysis of a federal survey of more than 2,200 males and females age 15 to 19 found that 55 percent reported having oral sex. But those who described themselves as virgins were far less likely to say they had tried it than those who had engaged in intercourse, The Washington Post reported.

"That suggests that oral and vaginal sex are closely linked," Rachel Jones of the Guttmacher Institute said. "Most teens don't have oral sex until they have had vaginal sex."

Huber, of the National Abstinence Education Association, said the study invalidates the suggestion that "technical" virgins—those who pledge virginity but participate in sexual conduct except intercourse—account for the rise in oral and anal sex among the nation's youth.

"Sexually experienced teens were almost four times more likely to engage in oral sex and 20 times more likely to engage in anal sex than their peers who were virgins," Huber told The Post.

Redouble efforts
The abstinence-based association called on health professionals and educators to address the risk of sexually transmitted diseases associated with oral and anal sex by redoubling abstinence education efforts in light of the study.

"Teens are confronted with the dominant cultural message that says that sex, in all its varieties, is expected behavior and without consequence," Huber said. "It's a message young people receive not just from mainstream media but in classrooms that teach so-called comprehensive sex education.

"This research shows that risk begets risk, so the risk-avoidance approach of abstinence-centered education remains the healthiest message for teens to receive," Huber said.

BP News Service contributed to this report.