The Problem With Abstinence Pledges

In the U.S. today, 37 states mandate that information on abstinence be provided in sex education courses. In those states, it is not uncommon for students to be asked to take “purity” or virginity pledges as part of the curriculum.

Students are often encouraged to take these pledges in order to both reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections and to prevent unintended pregnancies. As it turns out, however, abstinence pledges don’t necessarily accomplish either one of these things. In fact, a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Marriage and Family suggests that they may do just the opposite!

In this study, researchers utilized data from a nationally representative, longitudinal survey known as Add Health. Data were collected at several intervals between 1994 and 2008, and all participants were adolescents in grades 7-12 at the time the study began.

For this particular paper, researchers focused on two subgroups. First, they looked at how taking a virginity pledge was associated with likelihood of being diagnosed with HPV among sexually active women who provided urine samples in 2001-2002 that were tested for this virus. There were 3,254 women in this analysis, of whom 15% reported having taken a virginity pledge.

Second, they looked how taking a virginity pledge was associated with becoming pregnant outside of marriage among girls who were in grades 7 and 8 when the study began and who had not yet had intercourse at that time. There were 1,335 women in this analysis, of whom 23% reported having taken a virginity pledge.

The results revealed that, among women with two or more sex partners, those who had taken virginity pledges were more likely to have tested positive for HPV than those who hadn’t taken such pledges. The biggest difference was among women with 6-10 partners—in this group, 51% of pledge takers had contracted HPV versus 33% of non-pledge takers.

In addition, pledge takers were significantly more likely than non-pledge takers to become pregnant outside of marriage within six years of their first sexual intercourse—30% vs. 18%, respectively. In both groups, the vast majority of these pregnancies were unplanned (75-80%).

So what’s going on here? The authors of the research argued that “both sets of results are consistent with the notion that pledge breakers were less likely to be consistent users of condoms; as their exposure risk increased, they had increased risk of negative health outcomes.”

It seemed that those who took virginity pledges were less prepared when it came to practicing safe sex, perhaps because abstinence-only sex education courses have a tendency to downplay the effectiveness of condoms and contraceptives. However, it could also be that perhaps these folks were simply less prepared to communicate about sex in general.

Whether something similar happens in men remains unclear because they were not considered in this research. Also, it’s important to clarify that virginity pledges may not increase risk of STIs and unintended pregnancies for everyone. Some folks, particularly those with a high degree of religious commitment, may be less inclined to break pledges of this nature and, consequently, may have better sexual health outcomes. 

That said, it appears that abstinence pledges often have unintended consequences. Indeed, when these pledges are broken, women's risk of negative outcomes is higher than it would be if they had never taken such a pledge in the first place.

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To learn more about this research, see: Paik, A., Sanchagrin, K.J., & Heimer, K. (2016). Broken promises: Abstinence pledging and sexual and reproductive health. Journal of Marriage and Family, 78, 546-561. 

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