In the United States, the teen pregnancy rate is higher than in any other western industrialized country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At the same time, a growing number of American teens and young adults have been diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). While individuals aged 15 to 24 make up 27 percent of the U.S. population that is sexually active, the CDC estimates that they account for half of the 20 million new infections occurring annually.
Teen pregnancy and STDs have a range of health, social and financial consequences, which is why many policymakers support efforts to prevent them. Public money is often used to run programs aimed at educating young people about sexual health and the prevention of STDs and pregnancy. However, the design and function of these initiatives, which often are offered through public schools and after-school programs, can be controversial. In many parts of the country, community leaders have resisted following the CDC’s guidelines for sex education, at least partly because they recommend teaching adolescents how to get and use condoms. A December 2015 report indicates that fewer than half of U.S. high schools and one-fifth of middle schools provide sexual health education that meets CDC criteria.
Sex education programs, especially those that focus on abstinence-only education, have been heavily scrutinized in recent years. So has the trend of youth taking abstinence pledges, also known as purity pledges – a commitment to refrain from sexual intercourse until marriage. Over the past decade, a number of academic studies have examined the trend to gauge whether taking pledges has encouraged teens to delay sex and resulted in lower rates of pregnancy and STDs. A 2005 study by scholars at Yale and Columbia universities suggests that young adults who took abstinence pledges while they were in middle school or high school do end up delaying sex. But the vast majority of pledge-takers — 88 percent — have sexual intercourse before they get married. The study found that pledgers were just as likely to get STDs as those who never made a pledge of virginity.
An April 2016 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family looks at abstinence pledges among girls and young women to determine whether those who take pledges are less likely to become pregnant outside of marriage or acquire STDs. For the study, “Broken Promises: Abstinence Pledging and Sexual and Reproductive Health,” a group of researchers analyzed data collected through Add Health, a nationally representative, longitudinal study of adolescents. The researchers, led by Anthony Paik of the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, focused on data collected during the first wave of the study in 1994 and 1995, when 20,745 students in grades 7 to 12 were asked about such things as their health, romantic relationships and whether they had taken abstinence pledges. Paik and his colleagues also focused on data collected in 2001 and 2002, when 15,197 of those individuals were re-interviewed as young adults. Female study participants were asked about pregnancies and a sample of them were tested for human papillomavirus (HPV), a common STD. The study’s authors examined the HPV test results of 3,254 women. Boys and men who had participated in the Add Health study were excluded from this analysis.
Among the findings of this 2016 study:
- As a whole, young women who did not take abstinence pledges and those who did but broke them were equally likely to acquire HPV. Approximately 27 percent of each group tested positive for HPV.
- Of the young women who had two or more sex partners, pledge breakers were more likely to have HPV. The difference was largest among women who had between six and 10 sex partners. One-third of women who had not taken a pledge and had six to 10 sex partners tested positive for HPV. Meanwhile, 51 percent of pledgers who had six to 10 sex partners acquired HPV.
- About 30 percent of pledgers and 18 percent of non-pledgers became pregnant within six years after they began having sexual intercourse outside of marriage.
This study highlights some of the unintended consequences of promoting abstinence-only programs. Girls and young women who take abstinence pledges may be less prepared to handle the risks of sexual activity because they “are more likely to receive cultural messages downplaying the effectiveness of condoms and contraceptives as well as to be exposed to the framing of premarital sexual activity as a form of failure,” the authors state. Sex education programs should help prepare young adults to manage their sexual and reproductive health once they become sexually active. According to the authors: “If adolescents either are provided inaccurate information about condom use or contraception or are socialized to be hostile to these practices, they could be in a bind when they break pledges, as almost all of them do.”
Related research: A 2014 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, “Why Virginity Pledges Succeed or Fail: The Moderating Effect of Religious Commitment Versus Religious Participation,” considers how religiosity influences the decision to take an abstinence pledge and adhere to it. A 2015 paper published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, “Changes in American Adults’ Sexual Behavior and Attitudes, 1972–2012,” examines trends in areas such as premarital sex and number of sexual partners.
Keywords: sex ed, STI, sexually transmitted infection, virginity pledge, True Love Waits, Silver Ring Thing, purity ring, Bristol Palin