Lies and abstinence pledges

Color me shocked: Teens who promise to wait for marriage more likely to deny sexual history

Teenagers who take pledges to remain virgins until marriage are likely to deny having taken the pledge if they later become sexually active. Conversely, those who were sexual active before taking the pledge frequency deny their sexual history, according to new study findings.

(Continued below)

The research paper is published in this month's American Journal of Public Health (which is a special issue devoted to HIV/AIDS); the article is here. The meat from the abstract:

Among wave 1 virginity pledgers, 53% denied having made a pledge at wave 2; after control for confounders, pledgers who subsequently initiated sexual activity were 3 times as likely to deny having made a pledge as those who did not initiate sexual activity (odds ratio [OR] = 3.21; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 2.04, 5.04). Among wave 1 nonvirgins who subsequently took virginity pledges, 28% retracted their sexual histories at wave 2; respondents who took virginity pledges were almost 4 times as likely as those who did not to retract reports of sexual experience (OR=3.88; 95% CI=1.87, 8.07).

Conclusions. Adolescents who initiate sexual activity are likely to recant virginity pledges, whereas those who take pledges are likely to recant their sexual histories. Thus, evaluations of sexual abstinence programs are vulnerable to unreliable data. In addition, virginity pledgers may incorrectly assess the sexually transmitted disease risks associated with their prepledge sexual behavior.

This is yet another problem when judging whether abstinence-only education programs work: people lie. And these lies can have consequences. From the Reuters article:

In the initial survey, about 13 percent of adolescents reported that they had taken a pledge of virginity. Just one year later, however, more than half of this group said they had never taken such a pledge, Rosenbaum reports in the American Journal of Public Health.

In addition, more than 1 in 10 students who reported being sexually active in 1995 said that they were virgins in 1996. Students who reported they were sexually active in second survey were more than three times as likely as their peers to deny they had taken a pledge of virginity.

So, imagine you're in a relationship with one of these latter students, who'd had sex and then became a "born-again" virgin. You think they're actually a virgin. You have sex. You don't use protection ('cause, hey, you learned in your abstinence-based education class that two virgins can't have STDs). You get an STD because your "virgin" partner was already infected due to their prior sexual activity. Whoops.

I think abstinence is a smart thing and the safest way to go, but I'm also a realist. Discuss abstinence, but teach about protection. This study is yet another to reinforce that idea, but I won't be holding my breath waiting for the abstinence-only crowd to acknowledge it.


Rosenbaum JE. 2006. Reborn a Virgin: Adolescents' Retracting of Virginity Pledges and Sexual Histories. Am J Public Health. 96:1098-1103.

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"Abstinence only" philosophies are always undone by the simple fact that people like sex...a lot. If you force them to choose between dangerous sexual practices ( trying to deny birth control) and abstinence, thinking they'll surely go for the latter, you'd be wrong in many cases. They would choose the danger, just like Bones McCoy in Star Trek IV, The Voyage Home. That's why nations like what-could-be-more-liberal-and-permissive The Netherlands have much lower rates of abortion, teen pregnancy, STD's, and a higher age of first sexual contact than the US. It's education baby.

Like Tara, I am not shocked by this either. I recently noticed that AIDS researchers no longer discussed the epidemic amongst gay men. Instead they used the term MSM, men-having-sex-with-men. When I asked why I was told that many men who have sex with other men don't consider themselves homosexual or even bisexual. The considered themselves heterosexual. This was messing up the AIDs epi data. So, they came up with a new term. If adults can lie to themselves why not teens.