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Study reports: Teens who say ‘no’ to sex are less likely to have it

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Teenagers who pledge to remain sexually abstinent until marriage are 34 percent less likely to have sex than those who do not take virginity vows, according to a study to be published in the American Journal of Sociology.

“Pledging decreases the risk of intercourse substantially and independently,” the study’s authors, Peter S. Bearman and Hannah Brückner, wrote. Bearman is professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Social and Economic Theory and Research at Columbia University, and Brückner is assistant professor of sociology at Yale University.

“This is great news,” said Paul Turner, co-coordinator for True Love Waits, an international campaign that challenges teenagers and college students to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. The campaign is sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“Since the beginning of True Love Waits in 1993, we have believed pledges do make a difference,” Turner said. “We have witnessed the leveling off and decline of teen pregnancy since then because the latest CDC [Centers for Disease Control] report told us so. This study provides us with strong data that prove pledges do actually make a difference.”

The study, “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges as they Affect the Transition to First Intercourse,” is expected to appear in the January 2001 issue of the American Journal of Sociology, and was reported Jan. 4 in The New York Times and USA Today.

In his 1999 study, Bearman reports that 2.5 million teens in the United States have taken public virginity pledges; however, he believes that figure is closer to 3 million by now. His data was taken from a mid-1990 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (popularly referred to as Add Health). By “weighting up” the number of teens who reported they had taken virginity pledges in the Add Health study, Bearman said, “it’s got to be over three million now. I think that’s a good number.”

Bearman pulled his research question from the earlier Add Health study that found teenagers who take pledges of virginity, have loving parents and regard religion and prayer as important are the least likely of all adolescents to report engaging in early sexual behavior.

The earlier research was conducted to identify risks to adolescent health and to pinpoint specific factors that might guard against those risks.

Bearman said he wanted to study how taking a virginity pledge alone would affect a teen’s sexual behavior.

“The biggest predictor to [having] sex is being in a romantic relationship,” he said. But teens who are in relationships and take abstinence pledges are less likely to have sexual relations than teens who don’t take the pledge, Bearman’s study found.

“A ‘pledger’ with four romantic partners has the same relative risk of sex as a ‘non-pledger’ with no romantic partners. That’s a huge effect,” he said.

The delayed effect of sexual intercourse is substantial and almost impossible to erase, he reported. “Taking a pledge delays intercourse for a long time.”

In fact, Bearman said by age 15, half the teens in the study had already had sex. Those who took virginity vows, however, usually held off for 18 more months.

While this particular finding may not elicit a sigh of relief from many Christian parents, Turner reminds them that, in addition to taking a public stance on abstinence, a teen who takes a True Love Waits pledge is making a vow to God.

The covenant cards signed by teens state: “Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.”

“True Love Waits is more than just a pledge to remain abstinent,” Turner said. “At the heart of the pledge, these kids are committing to God to live a life of purity. We have told teens that there is nothing magic about signing a pledge card.

“But when a teenager seriously takes into account the pledge he or she is making and to whom the pledge is made, a lifestyle emerges that is true to the biblical standards established by God for sex,” he explained.

The next national True Love Waits campaign is set for Wednesday, Feb. 14, Turner said, when teenagers all over the world are being asked to sign an online commitment card to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. Students can sign the card by visiting the True Love Waits Internet site at www.truelovewaits.com. (See sidebar.)

Meanwhile, Bearman reports pledging may not work for all ages (younger, rather than older adolescents are more likely to keep their vows) or in cultures where nobody’s pledging or everybody’s pledging. Too few making pledges do not offer the social support needed, and too many negate the uniqueness of the movement, he said.

“If every teenager in the world took the pledge, the pledge wouldn’t be as important or as meaningful,” he reported.

Bearman said he believes virginity pledges are an excellent way to give teens a way to say “no.”

“… Even if pledging works only to delay intercourse, and even if pledgers eventually have sex before they marry, pledging may be a way to bridge some of the difficult years in early adolescence without [unwanted] sexual activity,” Bearman wrote in his paper.

Turner said: “Many students have shared how making a pledge to abstinence has kept them out of trouble even before it became an issue. It has given them a reason they can fall back on when they are tempted to engage in premarital sexual activity.

“The result has been fewer teens experiencing unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. The pledge also has been liberating for those students who had previously been sexually involved and have committed to remain abstinent ‘from this day forward’ as the commitment card states.”

Other cultural indicators in Bearman’s study that suggested teens would hold off longer on engaging in premarital sex included:

— Teens living in two-parent homes are less likely to have sex earlier than teens living in single-parent or step-parent homes.

— Perceived parental disapproval of sex has a strong delaying factor throughout adolescence.

— Teens who are more religious are more likely to delay sex. This is not denomination-specific, but most likely results from the fact that a connection to peer/community/church helps delay sex.

— The combination of academic achievement and sports participation (for non-African American girls only) have the strongest delay effect in early and middle adolescence

— In late adolescence, girls with high self-esteem are less likely to engage in premarital sex than girls with low self-esteem.

The complete paper is expected to appear in the January issue of the American Journal of Sociology, a journal for social science scholars since 1895.
(BP) file photo posted in the BP Photo Library at www.bpnews.net. Photo title: PLEDGING.

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  • Terri Lackey