American teenagers who take virginity pledges promising they will not have sex before marriage are just as likely to be sexually active as non-pledgers and moreover are less likely to protect themselves against pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases said a scientist who recommended that all teenagers, especially pledgers, should receive birth control advice.

The new study was the work of Janet Elise Rosenbaum from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland and is published in the 1 January 2009 issue of Pediatrics.

In her background information Rosenbaum explained that the US government spends more than 200 million dollars a year promoting abstinence, including virginity pledges, and this study uses more robust methods than previous studies have in comparing the sexual activity of teenagers who take pledges and those who do not.

Rosenbaum analyzed data from a nationally representative set of respondents taking part in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health which included middle and high school students who reported never having had sex or having taken a virginity pledge at the start of the study. The start of the study was 1995 and all 3,440 surveyed teenagers were over 15 at the time.

289 youngsters who reported taking a virginity pledge in the survey one year later, in 1996, were then matched with 645 non-pledgers on over 100 different factors including religious belief and attitude toward sex and birth control. Rosenbaum then compared the results taken five years later, which included what the two groups reported about their sexual behaviour, age at first sex, and their partners, plus the results of medical exams for sexually transmitted diseases.

The results showed that:
  • Five years after the pledge, 82 per cent of the pledgers denied ever having made a pledge.

  • There was no difference in self-reported premarital sex, anal and oral sex, and incidence of sexually transmitted diseases between pledgers and non-pledgers.

  • Pledgers had 0.1 fewer past-year partners but did not differ in age at first sex and lifetime sexual partners.

  • Compared to matched non-pledgers, fewer pledgers reported using birth control and condoms, both in the past year and the last time they had sex.
Rosenbaum concluded that there was no difference in sexual behaviour among virginity pledgers and non-pledgers, and pledgers were less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases before marriage.

"Virginity pledges may not affect sexual behavior but may decrease the likelihood of taking precautions during sex," she wrote, and recommended that healthcare professionals should offer birth control information to all teenagers, and to virginity pledgers in particular.

Rosenbaum told the press that:

"Taking a pledge doesn't seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior."

"But it does seem to make a difference in condom use and other forms of birth control that is quite striking," she said, according to a report in the Washington Post.

She said that her research was more robust than previous studies because they were comparing " a mixture of apples and oranges", whereas in this study she "tried to pull out the apples and compare only the apples to other apples".

"Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers."
Janet Elise Rosenbaum
Pediatrics 2009; 123: e110-e120
Published online 29 December 2008.
doi:10.1542/peds.2008-0407

Click here for Abstract.

Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics, journal abstract, Washington Post.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD