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New analysis nulls claims that virginity pledges don’t work

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Disputing claims to the contrary, researchers Robert Rector and Kirk Johnson have found that, overall, adolescents who make virginity pledges are less likely to engage in any form of sexual activity.

Earlier this year, a study by Hannah Bruckner of Yale and Peter Bearman of Columbia published in The Journal of Adolescent Health reported that most teenagers who make pledges to abstain from sex until marriage do not keep their commitments and end up acquiring sexually transmitted diseases through risky behaviors at nearly the same rate as those who make no pledge at all.

But Rector and Johnson — for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research and policy think tank — examined the same national survey by the Department of Health and Human Services, using different methods of statistical analysis than those utilized by Bruckner and Bearman. The new results, released in June, show that young people who pledge virginity until marriage have lower rates of STDs and engage in fewer risky sexual behaviors, such as oral sex.

“This finding contradicts previous research because the present article describes the behavior of pledgers and non-pledgers as a whole. By contrast, the previous article in the Journal of Adolescent Health described risk behavior only among minute sub-groups of pledgers,” Rector and Johnson wrote.

“For example, the central contention in the prior research that pledgers are more likely to engage in anal sex without vaginal sex relates to only 21 persons out of the total Add Health sample of 14,116.”

That risk group amounts to less than one percent of all virginity pledgers, but Bruckner and Bearman “severely misled” readers by stating that a small sub-segment of pledgers were more likely to engage in risky sex while “deliberately” failing to inform readers that pledgers as a whole were substantially less likely to engage in the behavior, according to Rector and Johnson.

Richard Ross, co-founder of the True Love Waits abstinence movement, told Baptist Press he fears the Bruckner and Bearman study already has filtered out among abstinence promoters, causing them to question the validity of the method they advocate.

“In my travels, it is clear that our faithful base of True Love Waits supporters has been taken aback by the reports that pledging does not work,” he said.

As an example of how one poor study can be taken as truth even among the Christian press, Ross cited the July/August edition of “New Man,” a leading Christian men’s magazine, which carried an article called “Your Teenager Is Having Sex.”

The Q&A with Eric and Leslie Ludy, authors of “Teaching True Love to a Sex-at-13 Generation,” mentioned the study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, which cast a dim light on virginity pledges, to show that Christian teens are no different than the general population when it comes to sexual behavior.

“Even in a mostly conservative, Christian publication, these flawed numbers are starting to take on a life of their own,” Ross said. “Public sentiment is beginning to shift. I am certain that was the goal of the latex lobby in Washington. Now that a more conservative administration is cutting off their gravy train, their only hope is to convince the public that a strong focus on abstinence is a flawed approach. We expect that to play well to secular ears, but I am concerned that our church leaders are picking up the refrain.”

Ross, professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, was quick to say he is thankful for any attention that is given to the issue of abstinence and purity and is grateful that New Man magazine and the Ludys are helping teenagers and families make wise decisions.

“At the same time,” he said, “we need all Christians who have a public voice on this issue to base their messages on factual information.”

Letting false information weaken the resolve of those who promote abstinence among teenagers can have widespread consequences, Ross said.

“For two decades, those who embrace ‘comprehensive’ sex education had unlimited access to the schools and to government funds,” he said. “In each of those years, teenage sexual activity, pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and abortions increased. Since True Love Waits came on the scene in 1993, rates of teenage sexual activity, pregnancies, diseases and abortions have fallen for 12 unbroken years. And yet, the ‘comprehensive’ crowd tries to say with a straight face, ‘Abstinence is not working so we need to be in charge again.'”

Even though the Heritage Foundation was able to rebut the previous study and show that the picture is not so grim, Ross warned against parents and leaders becoming complacent in their efforts to warn young people of the dangers of sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage.

“Every teenager who becomes sexually active represents an affront to the holiness of God and represents a personal and family tragedy,” he said. “In addition, we always stand on the brink of the statistics heading up again. If parents, churches and communities weaken their voices calling teenagers to God’s way of living, then our broken culture quickly will pull teenagers down in percentages reminiscent of previous eras.”
To locate the Heritage Foundation study on virginity pledges, visit www.heritage.org.

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  • Erin Curry