Why Abstinence Pledges Don’t Work

Why Abstinence Pledges Don’t Work

Girls who take virginity pledges have more risk for STIs and unplanned pregnancy

Justin J Lehmiller Ph.D.     04.04.2017        Psychology Today

123RF.com/Sergejus Bertasius

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

Students are 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 recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family suggests that they may do precisely the opposite!

In this study, researchers utilized data from a nationally representative, longitudinal survey of adolescents (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 publication, researchers focused on two subgroups. First, they looked at how taking a virginity pledge was associated with likelihood of being diagnosed with HPV specifically 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 previous 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 previous virginity pledge.

So what did they find? 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 compared to 33% of those who had not taken a pledge.

In addition, pledge takers were significantly more likely than non-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 how do we explain this pattern of results? 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 with their partners.

Whether the same could be said of men who do and don’t take virginity pledges remains unclear because they were not considered in this study. Also, it’s important to note that virginity pledges probably don’t increase the 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, therefore, may actually 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.

Sexual Science

Science Confirms the Existence and Purpose of Rebound Sex

Study shows that the recently-dumped are more likely to use sex with someone new to cope with negative feelings.

Science can teach you new things, or it can provide official validation for things you’ve long known to be true. And with things like love and sex, it’s sometimes nice, comforting even, to impose a structure on the chaos, to realize that every lap you take around the track falls into the well-worn groove of humanity—that a lot of the time, we do the same things, for the same reasons. Over and over again. Like having rebound sex to get back at your ex. For example.

They say to get over somebody, you need to get under somebody else. By “they,” I mostly mean “best-friend characters in romantic comedies.” Though such questionably helpful bon mots abound in our interpersonal relations and pop culture, there wasn’t much scientific evidence to back them up. Until now.

In a study published recently in Archives of Sexual Behaviorresearchers at the University of Missouri had 170 heterosexual undergrads who had gone through a breakup in the past year keep online diaries over the course of a semester. They submitted weekly “distress reports” and “self-esteem and sex reports.”

The study gathers some canonical definitions of “rebound sex” from Yahoo Answers (“Rebound sex is when you’ve just gotten out of a relationship—typically a serious one, and you have sex with another person to either stick it to the one who dumped you or try to quiet your emotional hurt… or both!”) and of “revenge sex” from the website Lemondrop (“random, meaning- less hook-up just to make the ex jealous”).

Over the course of the semester, the researchers found that—lo and behold—people were using sex to cope with their anger and distress, or to get back at their ex. Those who did were also more likely to keep having sex with new partners over time, “suggesting that they may be slower to recover from the breakup,” the study reads. Overall, participants’ distress decreased and then leveled off. Distress was at its lowest about 25 to 28 weeks after the breakup. “The average person also reported higher levels of coping, rebound, and revenge motives for sex immediately after the breakup, which then declined over time,” the study says.

The nature of the relationship and the breakup had an effect on participants’ behavior, unsurprisingly. A “dumpee” was much more distressed at first, and therefore more likely to have revenge or rebound sex than a “dumper.” The researchers also looked at how long the relationship lasted before it ended, and how committed the person was to it, but those results were more complex. For example, it seemed that someone who was more committed to their prior relationship was less likely to have sex in its aftermath, but if they did, it was more likely to be motivated by a desire to cope with negative feelings.

Interestingly, self-esteem was the attribute that changed the least, “suggest[ing] that self-esteem…is a relatively stable property of the individual and, as such, may be relatively unaffected by relationship loss.” So that’s something to hold onto in the dark and lonely night.