Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Open letter to the virginity pledge creators

For my research, I got some useful information from the creators of the virginity pledge. I don't know if I am the only virginity pledge researcher to contact them, but they were extremely helpful and responsive to my requests for information. I have a great deal of sympathy for their goals to encourage abstinence, and I wanted to update them on the outcome of my research so that they heard it from me rather than from the media to maintain open relations.

I sent them the following note.

Dear Rev. Hester and Rev. Ross,

Thank you for your help with my virginity pledge research. My study is coming out on Dec. 29 in the journal Pediatrics and also received an award from the public policy association APPAM. The results are positive about the behavior of evangelical Christian teenagers, but not positive for the virginity pledge itself. I wanted to let you know a productive angle that you can take if you are asked about the study.

The year before taking the pledge, pledgers are more religiously and socially conservative than non-pledgers, and would be predicted to abstain more even without the pledge, so I compared pledgers only with similar non-pledgers rather than the American adolescent population as a whole. I found that pledgers and similar non-pledgers do not differ in sexual behavior, but unmarried virginity pledgers are less likely to use condoms and birth control. The difference in condom use may be because other studies have found abstinence programs present information that is not supported by scientific evidence and cause participants to have negative views of condom effectiveness. I use the same data as the original pledge studies, but an improved statistical method, so my results likely mean that the earlier studies' findings were due to the pre-existing differences between pledgers and non-pledgers rather than the pledge itself. My conclusion is that all adolescents should be taught accurate information about birth control and condom use. [The evidence indicates teaching birth control does not contradict an abstinence message; every well-designed study that I'm aware of has found that presenting birth control information does not affect students' sexual behavior, and in fact the only programs ever found in well-designed studies to cause teens to delay intimacy are programs that teach birth control.]

You do have two pieces of good news to report on the research, and I wanted to make sure you knew them.

1. The paper finds that the religious and conservative lifestyle of the both pledgers and similar non-pledgers includes much more conservative sexual behavior than the general American adolescent population. For example, they wait until an average of 21 to initiate sex as opposed to about 17 in the general population, although a majority do have premarital sex.

Quoting from the results section of the paper, "The pledgers and matched nonpledgers together are a highly religious group of adolescents and would be expected to be more sexually conservative. Pledgers and matched nonpledgers together reported substantially more conservative sexual behavior at wave 3 than the general population of adolescents --- with fewer reporting premarital vaginal sex, oral and anal sex, birth control and condom use, and multiple sex partners and more reporting being married --- but did not differ in 2 of the 3 STD tests: fewer had positive test results for Neisseria gonorrhoeae but did not differ in the proportion testing positive for Chlamydia trachomatis or Trichomonas vaginalis compared with the general adolescent population in Add Health wave 3 (data not shown)."

2. Earlier studies that found pledgers were substituting other sexual activities for intercourse are not upheld in this study. This study uses more rigorous statistical methodology than the previous studies, and finds no important difference in any sexual behavior.

Thanks again for your help. Like many researchers of adolescent health, I consider delaying intimacy as distinctly preferable to safer sex for teenagers for health and perhaps psychosocial reasons. It seems that the virginity pledge does not encourage teens to delay intimacy, but some abstinence-plus programs have been found effective in causing teens to delay and also teach the information that many of them need; hopefully such proven-effective programs can be adopted to be acceptable and appropriate for the wide range of traditional religious communities that comprise our country.

I hope you and your families have a happy Christmas.

Janet Rosenbaum, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Fellow, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

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