Virginity Pledges (Still) Don’t Work, Unless You’re Really Religious

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Virginity pledges, alongside abstinence-focused sex ed in general, are a favorite punching bag of those who favor comprehensive sex ed. In addition to being unrealistic, say their detractors, abstinence pledges promote an "all or nothing" approach to sex that may well lead to unhealthier behaviors. A new study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies bolsters these critiques by taking a nuanced look at how people with different levels of religious commitment react to purity pledges.

The researchers had 1,380 students at a "large, public Southeastern state univeristy" fill out a survey about their behavior. More than a quarter of them had signed pledges to not have sexual intercourse until they were married,which is about in line with national statistics among young people.

The researchers, controlling for a number of other variables previously correlated with sexual activity (family structure, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and so on), found that for students with genuinely strong conservative religious beliefs, the pledges did seem to have an effect, albeit one that depended rather significantly on the degree of religious commitment of the pledger. (They still, however, tended to delay premarital intercourse and oral sex rather than eliminate them entirely.)

The problem was everyone else, including students with high levels of religious "participation" but not belief (think people who are socially pressured into a lot of church events): Virginity pledges didn't work for them, and in some cases led to riskier behaviors among people without high levels of religious commitment.

Take oral sex, for example:

The finding that pledge signers with low religious commitment have more oral sex partners than non-pledge signers is consistent with previous research suggesting that virginity pledges encourage risky noncoital sexual behavior as a way for pledgers to "preserve" their virginity.

Elsewhere, the researchers point out that these pledges, once broken, may leave kids little incentive not to keep having risky sex if they haven't been given comprehensive sex ed alongside the virginity pledge ("I already went back on the deal, so why not?").

The takeaway here seems to be that for true believers convinced that premarital sex is immoral, these pledges may delay their first intercourse a bit. But for everyone else, they could have undesirable side effects — especially in the absence of comprehensive sex ed, which, let's face it, is often the context in which people pledge to remain "pure" until marriage.