Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Researcher Ravages Virginity Pledges

This was originally going to be a post about how stupid or ideological reporters took a study and drew unreasonable conclusions about it. Then I read the original study and realized it was actually a case of a researcher trying to draw conclusions that do not even remotely follow from the results of her study.

It seems that Janet Elise Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins University did a study entitled, "Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers," which was published in the January 1st edition of Pediatrics..

The methodology was to compare teenagers who took virginity pledges with teenagers who were similar in all other respects (religiosity, family life, attitudes towards sex, etc.) but did not take the pledges.
SUBJECTS AND METHODS. The subjects for this study were National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health respondents, a nationally representative sample of middle and high school students who, when surveyed in 1995, had never had sex or taken a virginity pledge and who were >15 years of age (n = 3440). Adolescents who reported taking a virginity pledge on the 1996 survey (n = 289) were matched with nonpledgers (n = 645) by using exact and nearest-neighbor matching within propensity score calipers on factors including prepledge religiosity and attitudes toward sex and birth control. Pledgers and matched nonpledgers were compared 5 years after the pledge on self-reported sexual behaviors and positive test results for Chlamydia trachomatis, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, and Trichomonas vaginalis, and safe sex outside of marriage by use of birth control and condoms in the past year and at last sex.

RESULTS. Five years after the pledge, 82% of pledgers denied having ever pledged. Pledgers and matched nonpledgers did not differ in premarital sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and anal and oral sex variables. Pledgers had 0.1 fewer past-year partners but did not differ in lifetime sexual partners and age of first sex. Fewer pledgers than matched nonpledgers used birth control and condoms in the past year and birth control at last sex.

CONCLUSIONS. The sexual behavior of virginity pledgers does not differ from that of closely matched nonpledgers, and pledgers are less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease before marriage. Virginity pledges may not affect sexual behavior but may decrease the likelihood of taking precautions during sex. Clinicians should provide birth control information to all adolescents, especially virginity pledgers.
Watch the slight of hand here: Previous studies had showed that people who take virginity pledges delay sex longer and have fewer partners, statistically, than those who don't. However those who take virginity pledges are generally much more religious, come from stabler and more religious families, and have more negative attitudes towards premarital sex and birth control than the general population. So this study takes those who have taken virginity pledges and compares their outcomes to people with the same levels of religiosity, family support, and sexual attitudes -- and (surprise, surprise) finds that people who take virginity pledges and those who share their beliefs and lifestyles but haven't taken pledges have very similar outcomes. The piece of paper itself does not prevent premarital sex! Who would have thought?

Now the study author has a point that whereas the number of virginity pledges signed is often taken as a measure of success for abstinence-based programs, it could well be that these programs are simply making more measurable a segment of the population who are already showing a higher than average propensity to delay sex till marriage. Of those in the study who had taken virginity pledges or who had similar characteristics to those who had, roughly 55% had had pre-marital sex by around age 25. By comparison, a 2002 survey found that 75% of all Americans have had premarital sex by age 20. (There's some fuzziness here in that from the working I think the data in the Pediatrics study may only be the pre-marital sex rate for those who are unmarried -- but I would assume that the pre-marital sex rate for those who are married would not necessarily be higher than for those unmarried so I'm assuming that the statistic holds.)

The real question one should ask, if trying to judge the worth of abstinence based sex ed programs in schools, is whether these programs create a larger demographic of young people who have the characteristics of the pledge takers -- or at least reduce defection rates among those who already have those characteristics -- not whether the piece of paper itself is instrumental in keeping people from having sex. This study does nothing to show whether abstinence based programs increase or decrease the number of students with the cultural characteristics that would assist in saving sex for marriage. Indeed, as constituted, the study doesn't really produce any interesting or useful results at all.

My guess, if someone were to ask, is that public school abstinence programs do not actually achieve much of anything (indeed, the evidence is that no kind of sex ed works) because the principles of cultural and religious impartiality at play in our modern public school system preclude giving students much support in developing a worldview in which saving sex for marriage would seem a worthwhile endeavour. However, one would have to conduct a different study to prove that.


Donald R. McClarey said...

Bravo! I was apalled, although not surprised, at the amount of press coverage this hit piece disguised as a scientific study received. The purpose of the study of course was not to advance knowledge but to torpedo a government program that the author of the study clearly does not support.

Maggie said...

The problem with abstinence-only sex ed or "virginity pledges" it's so much more complicated than these researches realize.

As far as I remember (from my teen years, which weren't too long ago), the reason we were encouraged to be abstinent was either 1) "you don't want to get pregnant, do you? you'll never finish college and you'll be cursed to be on welfare your whole life" or 2) "just don't have sex. okay, promise? But once you get married-- woo-hoo! go nuts!!"

Both of these are inherently flawed- just as flawed as a standard public school program of "here's free condoms and birth control! have fun kids!"


Because abstinence, whether religiously motivated or not, is empty. it's cold. it's stupid. it's unsatisfying. Chastity, however, is the opposite. As a "yes" instead of a list of "no's", chastity is beautiful and empowering. It's also not full of empty promises about the romance-novel like bliss that married sex will be. Chastity requires self-sacrifice, both before marriage and after. It's not about "lines you can't cross" like abstinence is, but rather giving up your self-interest for the good of the other partner.

People who scoff at this idea always respond, "yeah, but you can't expect hormone-driven teenagers to believe that. come on! They're gonna do it anyway, so let's give them the tools to do it "safely". BS, I say. We think far too little of our teenagers. If we expect them to act like hormone driven monkeys, they will. If we demand a higher standard of behavior, they're rise to it. Teenagers aren't alien beings. They're humans. They have free will. They might use that free will to make poor choices sometimes, but they also have the freedom to choose the good, and it's a darn shame we automatically assume they can't.

But, the only downside to chastity is that its main motivator is the desire for holiness, which you can't teach in a once-per-week Health class or even Religion class. It has to start at home. A household modeled on chastity will usually produce chaste people. A household modeled on unchastity produces more unchastity (usually).

So what's the answer? It starts at home, of course!

Darwin said...


Yeah, I think you pretty much nailed it.

Which is why I'd tend to think that our public schools should just leave topics like sex alone. They aren't aloud to talk about them in a way that would be in any sense compelling, because we're allegedly religiously and culturally "neutral" in the public schools, they probably should just leave well enough alone.

Anonymous said...

If anything, I kind of wish "they" had taught me to pursue sex more aggresively and effectively in school. I'm jealous that the funding regresses to the more common problem of having sex too early.

Literacy-chic said...

Had I not had *something* in school, I probably would have just been left alone with my mother's anatomy and physiology textbooks, which is not an argument in itself for sex-ed, which I don't think works, either.

But this study is being used as propaganda against abstinence-only programs. I may be repeating myself (sorry), but I don't really know what an abstinence-only program *is.* There was a lot of talk about how Gov. Palin didn't want children to know about contraceptives a few months back. Frankly, I think there's a lot more misinformation floating around out there, and this study at least seems to acknowledge that the abstinence-only curriculum is geared toward persuading teens to abstain from premarital sex, not at concealing from them the fact that people do use artificial means to prevent pregnancy. I'm sure there are extreme versions of abstinence-only ed. that does indeed do the latter, but that's only going to seem disingenuous to teens who have ever been to the drugstore.

I'm not sure I think that schools should really leave sex alone. But I *do* think that the emphasis should be different--more biology and less social conditioning. More facts and less indoctrination (from the secular public schools, which is all I'm qualified to assess).