The new analysis of data from a large federal survey found that more than half of youths became sexually active before marriage regardless of whether they had taken a "virginity pledge," but that the percentage who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was 10 points lower for pledgers than for non-pledgers.
"Taking a pledge doesn't seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior," said Janet E. Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, whose report appears in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics. "But it does seem to make a difference in condom use and other forms of birth control that is quite striking."
The study is the latest in a series that have raised questions about programs that focus on encouraging abstinence until marriage, including those that specifically ask students to publicly declare their intention to remain virgins.
However, a virginity pledge is a one-time promise, not a comprehensive program designed to give kids enough information to change their minds and enough activities to change their behavior. Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, reports her conversation with Valerie Huber:
The National Abstinence Education Association disputed the whole premise of the study, using this obvious tack. Its executive director, Valerie Huber, remarked to me in an e-mail interview: "The author inaccurately equates the holistic breadth of an abstinence education program to the one-time event of a virginity pledge. A pledge and an abstinence program are not synonymous."
Does that mean we pass out condoms at school because we're not going to change the culture anytime soon? No. It means kids need support and reasons engage in activities other than sex. Abstinence has to be about saying "yes" to something in order to work. We need to focus on the idea that kids can actually think, and should want more from a relationship than sex. We need to be open to programs that aren't all about copulation, but about character education.
Because, as Huber and others have noted, building strong lines of parent-child communication while developing and maintaining a sturdy ethical core helps kids immensely when it comes to keeping their pants on.
IN other words, we need something like comprehensive abstinence education, that does more than yammer about sex, but which helps kids in the whole of their lives.
I actually prefer to think of it as Comprehensive Marriage Education, which prepares kids for married life, and gives them something to look forward to. I've seen communities that create that kind of supportive environment and it does work. I've written about them here and here. Unfortunately, these kinds of communities are too much like cocoons in today's day and age. That kind of overall support system for sexual restraint and marriage preparation needs to be much more wide-spread than it is now.