Abstinence Proponents Suspicious of New Study
Special Report - December 30, 2008
Abstinence-until-marriage proponents are criticizing a new study published in the January 2009 issue of the journal, Pediatrics, which found that teenagers who take virginity pledges differ little in terms of sexual behavior from closely matched teenagers who do not make a virginity pledge. In a statement, Valerie Huber of the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA) called the study’s findings “suspicious” and questioned the author’s objectiveness. “The author inaccurately equates the holistic breadth of an abstinence education program to the one-time event of a virginity pledge,” Huber said. “A pledge and an abstinence program are not synonymous. Further, the author makes incorrect inferences for the entire population based on very limited research.”
The study, “Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers,” is based on an analysis of data from the annual National Study of Adolescent Health, a federally funded survey of adolescents in grades 7 to 12 conducted in three “waves” (1995, 1996 and 2001). The author, Dr. Janet Elise Rosenbaum, compared the sexual behaviors of 289 teens who reported taking a virginity pledge in 1996 to 645 non-pledging teens who matched the pledgers on 128 factors, including religious beliefs and attitudes about sexual behavior and birth control. According to Dr. Rosenbaum, her study is distinct from previous studies on virginity pledge programs because of how the two groups of teens were closely matched. “We created a group of nonpledgers as similar as possible to pledgers on all prepledge factors that may influence sexual behavior, so outcome differences between pledgers and matched nonpledgers cannot be attributed to preexisting differences,” she writes in the study.
Five years later, the study found that 81.9 percent of teens that had initially reported making a virginity pledge denied ever having made the pledge. It also found that pledgers and nonpledgers did not differ from one another in 12 out of 14 sexual behaviors, including “age at first sex” and “premarital sex, unmarried;” three out of three sexually transmitted disease test results; and four out of four marriage-related outcomes, such as whether they were now married or divorced. On average, pledgers in the study had 1.09 past year sexual partners, which is 0.11 fewer sexual partners than nonpledgers. In addition, it found that “unmarried pledgers were less likely [than unmarried nonpledgers in the study] to report using birth control and condoms in the last year and at last sex.”
“Virginity pledges may not affect sexual behavior but may decrease the likelihood of taking precautions during sex,” the study concludes. “Clinicians should provide birth control information to all adolescents, especially virginity pledgers.”
One of the criticisms of the study raised by the NAEA is that it compared closely matched groups of teens in terms of sexual values and religious participation, rather than comparing pledgers to the general nonpledging population. Huber noted that teens in the sample group began sexual activity, on average, at age 21, which is four years after the average age of the general population and therefore not representative of the average teen. “This study looked only at individuals who have specific skills that are taught or reinforced in an abstinence program, so we are not at all surprised that they abstained about 4 years longer than their peers,” said Huber. “This study simply reinforces the need to continue the skill building practices found in a typical abstinence-centered class.”
Huber also pointed out that the study’s author makes several negative and inaccurate statements about abstinence programs, such as:
- “Virginity pledgers may be less likely to use condoms and contraception because many abstinence programs cause participants to develop negative attitudes about their effectiveness.”
- “More than 90 percent of abstinence funding does not require that curricula be scientifically accurate.”
Huber concluded, “The numerous and serious inaccuracies and deliberate mischaracterizations made by the author regarding abstinence education call into question her objectivity as a researcher and throws suspicion on the entire research she has conducted.”
As we previously reported, a 2008 study by researchers at the Rand Corporation concluded that teens who make a pledge to abstain from sexual activity until marriage are more likely than similar nonpledging teens to postpone sexual activity. The study, which was published in the online version of the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that “adolescents who made pledges to remain virgins until they are married were less likely to be sexually active over the three-year study period than other youth who were similar to them, but who did not make a virginity pledge.” Specifically, 42 percent of the non-pledging teens had become sexually active during the three-year period, compared to only 34 percent of the pledging teens. “Making a pledge to remain a virgin until married may provide extra motivation to adolescents who want to delay becoming sexually active,” said Steven Martino, the study’s lead author and a Rand psychologist, in a press release.
The Southern Baptist Convention started the first virginity pledge program, True Love Waits, in 1993, and since then, millions of young people have participated in similar programs across the United States.
Copyright © 2008. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.