The Value of Teen Virginity Pledges Continues to be Questioned ~ Praxis Habitus - On Race Religion & Culture

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Value of Teen Virginity Pledges Continues to be Questioned

It's no surprise that conservative Christians promote sexual abstinence among teenagers, but many have found interesting they have been fairly effective at drawing their teens into various rallies to make "purity pledges." The program "True Love Waits," for example, gets enthusiastic support from parents and church leaders who hope to keep their kids out of trouble. And there has been government support.

But the effectiveness of such programs has always been questioned.

Today, I found a study published in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics. Using sophisticated data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Janet E. Rosenbaum (post doctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) matched students who had taken a virginity pledge with those who hadn't.

Basically, the study indicates that teens who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have all forms of premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence. Also, because of what the study reports as "negative views on sex," these teens are less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do.

The study also finds that 5 years after taking "virginity pledges" teens say they never made such pledges. This "disavowal" and "disaffinity" seems to indicate that parents and churches have been more effective at getting kids into programs, not in making lifelong commitments.

So, rigorous research does not seem to support that abstinence programs slow the rate of sexual activity. This will again call into question the federal funding of these programs because the stated goals are not being met. But the research I read fails to look at other choices these kids are making as a result of these programs.

My guess is that while critics of these programs may be right in the devastating finding that on average what these programs were supposed to do actually doesn't happen. On the other hand, I would be very interested to know more about the "unintended consequences" of participating in these programs (more so than lack of condom use). How do these programs affect friendship networks? Later church attendance? Identity as "Christian"? And later, what will their attitude be towards parenting? How about suicide rates or grade point average?

Finally, we might be spending more time looking at middle averages and not enough on the outliers. What happens to the "super-pledgers", young people who take up the cause of sexual purity? And what about the "anti-pledgers," those who end up fighting against a program they initially supported?

Findings like this will ultimately be a struggle over values. Perhaps the power of these programs lies in unexpected places. If we can get to understanding what these programs actually do in the lives of teens--and the variety of responses by young adults to these programs over time--then church ministries will change again, maybe focusing less on sexual abstinence and more on sexual identity, personal relationships, and reflections on self-worth.

More on the study can be found reported at the Washington Post, and The New York Times.

Also, for an excellent and up-to-date study on the sexual lives of American teenagers, please see my friend Mark Regnerus' new book:

Interesting and easy to read, this book goes well beyond looking at just abstinence to give a full picture of the relationship between sex and religion among teens.

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