Virginity pledges may not affect sexual behavior

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Teenagers who officially pledge to save sex for marriage may be no more likely than their peers to do so — but they may be less likely to take precautions during sex, a new study suggests.

The findings, published in the journal Pediatrics, are based on a comparison of so-called virginity pledgers and non-pledging teens from similar backgrounds.

“The results suggest that the virginity pledge does not change sexual behavior,” researcher Dr. Janet Elise Rosenbaum, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, concludes in her report.

Virginity pledges are often part of abstinence-only sex education programs, with hundreds of churches, schools and colleges in the U.S. now advocating them. However, based on the current findings, Rosenbaum writes, virginity pledges “should not be used as a measure of abstinence sex education program effectiveness.”

For the study, Rosenbaum used data from a long-term national health survey of U.S. adolescents. She focused on 289 teens older than 15 who, in 1996, said they had taken a virginity pledge; she compared them with 645 non-pledging teenagers who were matched to the pledgers for a number of key characteristics — including religious beliefs and general attitudes toward sex.

When the teenagers were surveyed again five years later, 82 percent of pledgers denied ever taking a virginity pledge, Rosenbaum found, and they didn’t differ much from non-pledgers in sexual behavior.

On average, about three-quarters of study participants in both groups said they had had sexual intercourse, and teens in both groups reported an average of three sexual partners in their lifetime.

Teens who’d taken a virginity pledge did have lower rates of birth control and condom use, however. Just 24 percent said they had “always” used a condom in the past year, for example, versus 34 percent of non-pledgers.

According to Rosenbaum, it’s possible that abstinence-only sex education causes some virginity pledgers to doubt the effectiveness of condoms and contraception.

“Clinicians should provide birth control information to all adolescents,” she writes, “especially virginity pledgers.”

SOURCE: Pediatrics, January 2009.

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