Youth who took a virginity pledge reported a similar level of sexual intercourse to that of closely matched nonpledging youth in a longitudinal study that assessed outcomes five years after pledging.1 Three-fourths of both pledgers and nonpledgers had had intercourse by the five-year follow-up, and the mean age at first sex for both groups was 21. Smaller proportions of pledgers than of nonpledgers said that in the past year, they had always used a condom (24% vs. 34%) and always used some birth control method (46% vs. 52%), and had used a method at last sex (67% vs. 72%). Furthermore, 82% of pledgers denied having ever taken a pledge.
The study used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which surveyed a sample of students in grades 7–12 over three waves (1995, 1996 and 2001). Students who in 1995 were 15 or older, had never had sexual intercourse and had never taken a virginity pledge, and who had been interviewed in all three waves, were included in the analysis. In contrast with earlier studies, which used regression analysis to compare pledgers and the general population of nonpledgers, this study was unique in matching 289 youth who had pledged in 1996 with 645 nonpledgers on 112 prepledge factors that may influence sexual behavior (e.g., pubertal development, religiosity, and attitudes toward sex and birth control). Outcomes, measured in 2001, were self-reports of sexual behavior and of contraceptive use within the last year and at last sex, as well as STD diagnoses (from urine tests). Outcomes for the two groups were compared using t tests, and Cohen's effect size was computed for significant differences.
After matching, the mean age of both pledgers and nonpledgers at the 1995 interview was 16, and 61% were female; six in 10 lived with both biological parents. Nearly six in 10 respondents were white, and the rest were evenly divided among Latino, black and Asian backgrounds. At Wave 1, two-thirds of the youth attended weekly church or youth group meetings, and four in 10 were born-again Christians. About half said they would not have sex without using birth control, and two-thirds said they would feel guilty if they did have sex.
In 2001, similar proportions of pledgers and matched nonpledgers reported having had sexual intercourse either before or after marriage (73% and 76%, respectively), and having had premarital intercourse and still being unmarried (53% and 57%, respectively). They did not differ on most measures of sexual behavior (e.g., number of times they had had intercourse in the past year, experience of anal or oral sex, and number of lifetime partners) or on any STD diagnosis, and the mean age at first sex for both groups was 21. Pledgers reported slightly fewer partners in the last year than did nonpledgers (1.1 vs. 1.2), and were less likely to have ever been paid for sex (1% vs. 3%), but these differences were small and possibly attributable to random error.
Among respondents who were unmarried and sexually experienced in 2001, lower proportions of pledgers than of nonpledgers reported always having used a condom in the past year (24% vs. 34%) and having used one at least half the time (51% vs. 62%); a higher proportion of pledgers than of nonpledgers had never used a condom over this period (28% vs. 20%). Pledgers were also less likely to have always used any birth control method in the past year (46% vs. 52%) or to have used one at least half the time (70% vs. 76%). Similarly, pledgers reported a lower rate of birth control use at last sex than did nonpledging youth (67% vs. 72%). Notably, five years after taking a virginity pledge, 82% of pledgers denied that they had ever made such a commitment.
The researcher points out that this study has several possible limitations. At Wave 1, the matched sample was more religious and sexually conservative than the general adolescent population, and consequently at Wave 3, the sample reported more conservative sexual behavior than did most adolescents. Additionally, pledgers may have underreported their sexual activity, and some youth classified as nonpledgers at Wave 2 reported having taken a pledge at the last interview. Furthermore, the analysis did not assess whether taking a pledge had any causal association with later sexual activity. Given that pledgers were less likely than comparable nonpledgers to use birth control, the researcher recommends that federal abstinence-only funding "be shifted to evidence-based sex education programs that teach birth control and have been demonstrated to delay sexual initiation and increase safer sex practices," and that virginity pledges themselves "not be used as a measure of abstinence…program effectiveness."
1. Rosenbaum JE, Patient teenagers? a comparison of the sexual behavior of virginity pledgers and matched nonpledgers, Pediatrics, 2009, 123(1):e110–e120.