Teenagers' responses to questions about their sexual intentions and behavior often are inconsistent over time, possibly because of changes in young people's social circumstances and identities, according to an analysis of data collected in two waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health).1 Half of youth who reported in Wave 1 that they had committed themselves to remaining abstinent until marriage reported no such commitment when interviewed again roughly a year later. The odds of such a reversal at Wave 2 were elevated among adolescents who had initiated intercourse between interviews and among those who repudiated born-again Christianity in the second interview. Similarly, one in 10 teenagers who initially reported being sexually experienced claimed never to have had sex when asked in the second interview; the odds of this change were raised among those who had taken a virginity pledge and those who said they had been born again since Wave 1.
Add Health is based on a nationally representative sample of youth who were in grades 7–12 at Wave 1 (in 1995). The analyst examined data collected in Wave 1 and Wave 2 (conducted in 1996) from two subsamples of participants. The first comprised 1,966 teenagers who reported in both waves on whether they had "taken a public or written pledge to remain a virgin until marriage," and whose answer in Wave 1 was affirmative; the second consisted of 5,156 respondents who answered a question about sexual experience in both interviews, and who reported in Wave 1 that they had had intercourse. After conducting bivariate analyses, the analyst used logistic regression to identify demographic, socioeconomic and psychosocial characteristics associated with retracting reports of virginity pledges and sexual experience.
In initial interviews, 13% of youth reported that they had taken a virginity pledge. However, more than half of this group—7% of all teenagers studied—denied having taken a pledge when questioned for the second wave. In the multivariate analysis, the odds of retraction were significantly elevated among males (odds ratio, 1.8), blacks (1.6), youth who had reported sexual experience at Wave 1 (3.2) and those who had experienced first intercourse between survey waves (3.2); the odds were reduced among adolescents who said that they answered sensitive survey questions honestly (0.5). Additionally, teenagers who considered themselves born-again Christians at Wave 1 had reduced odds of retracting a virginity pledge (0.3), and youth who repudiated born-again Christianity at Wave 2 had elevated odds of doing so (2.8).
Thirty-three percent of teenagers reported in Wave 1 that they had ever had intercourse, but the following year, one in 10 of these (4% overall) said that they were sexually inexperienced. When all covariates were controlled for, males, participants younger than 15 and those who did not speak English at home had about twice as high odds of retracting their initial report of sexual experience as females, older respondents and those living in an English-speaking household (odds ratios, 2.0, 2.4 and 2.3, respectively). The odds also were about doubled for youth reporting only one sex partner (1.9) and for teenagers who said in Wave 2 that they recently had been born again (2.0); they were more than doubled among respondents who reported in Wave 1 having pledged to remain abstinent until married (2.4) and those who reported in Wave 2 having recently taken such a pledge (3.9). Participants who said at either time that they did not answer sensitive survey questions honestly had reduced odds of retracting a report of sexual experience (0.6).
For comparative purposes, the analyst examined the proportions of teenagers retracting Wave 1 reports of less sensitive information than their sexual intentions and behavior. Notably, fewer than 1% gave inconsistent responses about demographic characteristics; fewer than 4% changed their responses about ear piercing or menstruation.
According to the analyst, it is important for researchers exploring adolescent health to "account for the fact that sensitive information [provided by teenagers] is less reliable than other data and the fact that reliability varies according to social context." She further notes that "if [teenagers] who deny their sexual pasts perceive their new history as correct, they will underestimate the STD risk stemming from their prepledge sexual behavior." Consequently, she concludes that health care providers should explicitly ask youth who have taken virginity pledges if they had had sex before taking the pledge, and programs that encourage virginity pledges should "ensure that pledgers know they bear the risks of previous sexual behaviors."—D. Hollander
1. Rosenbaum JE, Reborn a virgin: adolescents' retracting of virginity pledges and sexual histories, American Journal of Public Health, 2006, 96(6):1098–1103.