Teens who take "virginity pledges" are just as likely to have sex as those who do not, and they are less likely to use condoms or other forms of contraception when they become sexually active, according to an analysis in the January 2009 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics. Because virginity pledge programs do not reduce the number of young people becoming sexually active, the number of pledgers they enlist should not be used to measure the effectiveness of abstinence-only sex education programs, the study concludes.

The findings could have an impact on the current debate over federal support for abstinence-only-until-marriage education and the Obama administration’s support for comprehensive sex education. A wealth of evidence—including findings published in 2007 from a congressionally mandated study, conducted over nine years at a cost of almost $8 million—has demonstrated that abstinence-only programs have no beneficial effect on young people’s sexual behavior. Nevertheless, the U.S. government allotted $176 million for FY 2008 to support programs that exclusively promote abstinence-only outside of marriage, including virginity-pledge programs.

For this new analysis, Janet E. Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins University used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a nationally representative sample of middle and high school students who were interviewed in 1995, 1996 and 2001. Unlike previous evaluations of virginity pledges, this study matched a group of teens who had pledged to remain abstinent until marriage with adolescents who had not taken such a pledge but who had comparable characteristics, such as similar views about premarital sex and contraceptive use.

The study found that after five years, more than half of both pledgers and nonpledgers had engaged in sexual activity, and the two groups had similar rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Pledgers, however, were less likely to use contraceptives or to use them consistently. For example, 34% of nonpledgers who had had sex said they had always used condoms during the past year, compared with 24% of pledgers. In addition, 82% of pledgers denied having taken a pledge.

These findings underscore the need for young people, particularly virginity pledgers, to receive information about condoms and other forms of contraception, Dr. Rosenbaum concludes. She also comments that adolescents who have taken virginity pledges may be less likely than others to use contraceptives because abstinence-only programs foster negative attitudes about birth control. The importance of contraceptive use was highlighted in an analysis by the Guttmacher Institute that found that 86% of the decline in teen pregnancy between 1995 and 2002 was due to teens’ increasing, and increasingly effective, use of contraceptives; only 14% was the result of teens’ delaying sex.

Dr. Rosenbaum’s findings build on past research showing that while virginity pledges may help some teens to delay sexual activity, most young people who take them break their pledge, and pledge breakers are less likely to use condoms, are less likely to get tested for STIs and may have STIs for longer periods of time than nonpledgers.

For more information:

Click here for Guttmacher data on teen sexual and reproductive health.

Click here for information on Congressional hearings on abstinence-only programs.

Click here for information on strategies that work.

Click here for information on the origins of and past findings from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.