Based on a study of 1,461 adolescent virgins age 12 to 17 who shared similar characteristics of religiosity, parenting and friendship, the RAND Corporation finds that teens who made a virginity pledge were significantly less likely to have sex before marriage within a three year period after making the pledge. According to Scientific Blogging:

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,” [study author Steven] Martino said. “The act of pledging may create some social pressure or social support that helps them to follow through with their clearly stated public intention.”

Some researchers have speculated that abstaining from intercourse might increase participation in other sexual activities, like oral sex. But the RAND study found that those who pledged were no more likely to engage in non-intercourse behaviors than comparable youth who did not take a pledge.

The abstract of the study concludes, “Making a virginity pledge appears to be an effective means of delaying sexual intercourse initiation among those inclined to pledge without influencing other sexual behavior; pledging does not appear to affect sexual safety among pledgers who fail to remain abstinent.” As reported at Scientific Blogging, Martino puts forward some important caveats:

Martino said virginity pledges are unlikely to be a viable means to encouraging all adolescents to delay the initiation of sexual intercourse.

“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 … But virginity pledges may be appropriate as one component of an overall sex education effort.”

And:

“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.”

I’m glad Martino is so careful. But I have doubts that, say, the Bush Administration, culture war conservo-pundits, and parents obsessed with their children’s virginity (usually the daughter’s) will cut such fine distinctions. Four years ago, some of the BushAdmin’s favored abstinence-only programs were found to be promoting disinformation about HIV/AIDS and the causes of pregnancy. Today ABC News reports that J. K. Flores, the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, funneled $500,000 toward a golfing youth program –passing over more deserving sex education programs for at-risk youth– because, according to his former assistant, he “favors programs that promote sexual abstinence.” Paul Peete at the Huffington Post adds that Flores “refused to consider any grant application that dealt with gay/lesbian teens — presumably trashing their applications.”

And lastly, I think the headline for this Bloomberg article says it all:

Teen Sex Didn’t Decline as Abstinence Spending Rose

Mind you, I’m not criticizing the RAND report. I just have doubts that something as creepy as a “virginity pledge” will be truly effective –or, for that matter, desirable– when filtered through the politics of the real world.

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