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.

The Kinky Sex Lives of Insects

From Lehmiller.com

Video: The Kinky Sex Lives of Insects
October 28, 2015

“Sex in insects is more interesting than sex in people.” – Marlene Zuk

birds, bees, & flies

birds, bees, & flies

In this fascinating and humorous TED talk, evolutionary biologist Dr. Marlene Zuk offers a look into the sexual practices of a wide range of insects, from dragonflies to honey bees to kadydids to ants. Zuk reveals that insects break many of the rules we think we know about male and female mating practices. In fact, this video will undoubtedly lead many views to question some of their most fundamental ideas and assumptions about what’s “normal” and “natural” when it comes to sex and mating.

What Is Sex

What Is Sex?

Anna Pulley, Alternet 

Our definitions of sex are all over the place. Why does it matter?

sexybrain In my recent piece, “10 Things Not to Say to a Lesbian,” one of the questions never to ask was “So, how do lesbians do it?” The inside joke is that many of us have actually asked ourselves, though not usually aloud, “Wait, did we have sex?” Since many people consider “sex” to mean penis in vagina, the lines for what constitutes sex for queer women can blur easily and often.

It’s an interesting question, and not just for lesbians: What is sex? The answer is something that nobody can agree on, though many have tried. Planned Parenthood looks to the dictionary for a definition: “People define ‘sex’ in different ways. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as sexually motivated behavior.’ This sounds right to us. But not everyone agrees with the dictionary or with us. People all have their own definitions of what ‘sex’ and ‘having sex’ means.”

Personally, I adhere to the Salt ‘N’ Pepa definition, which counts as anything that makes me want to shoop.

Discussions about what sex is often devolve into increasingly more specific and narrower rules, as people try to pin down a precise explanation. This is evidenced by this humorous Reddit thread: “The number of times a person has had sex with another person in heterosexual relationships represents the number of male completions per unit time,” said one. “I would count each removal of the pants that ends in any number of orgasms,” said another. In the sitcom “Seinfeld,”  Elaine asks Jerry when he believes sex is taking place, and he says “when the nipple makes its first appearance.” So keep your shirts on, folks, and you’re in the clear.

As a Kinsey Institute study proffered, a culturally agreed-upon definition of “having sex” is important for medical research and clinical practice. If “having sex” to me means farting on a cake until orgasm (don’t Google that, Dad), then researchers are going to have a hell of a time gathering accurate data on sexual behavior. The Kinsey study, “Misclassification bias: diversity in conceptualisations about having ‘had sex’,” published in 2010 in Sexual Health, surveyed just under 500 participants in order to figure out what qualifiers and acts people considered “doin’ it.” Or, put more scientifically:

To our knowledge, this is the first study of a representative sample to assess attitudes about which sexual behaviours constitute having ‘had sex’ and to examine possible mediating factors (gender, age, giving/receiving stimulation, male ejaculation, female orgasm, condom use or brevity).

The results were, unsurprisingly, mixed. The highest percentage (90 percent) believed that penis-in-vagina sex was sex. This is the Gold Standard for hetero sex, “reaching home base,” what many talk about when we talk about sex. But that means around 10 percent of respondents didn’t count penis-in-vagina sex as sex. This also excludes gays and lesbians, of course, who would be considered virgins no matter how many orgies or Goddess Circlings they participated in.

Thirty percent thought oral sex wasn’t sex, and 20 percent thought anal sex wasn’t sex, despite the fact that both acts have the word “sex” in the name. Perhaps even more confusing is the orgasm factor. Eleven percent of people said it wasn’t sex if no male ejaculation occurred. Conspicuously absent was any mention of the female orgasm. Maybe they fell asleep before getting around to it. Manual genital stimulation counted more when it was received (48 percent) than when given (44 percent), and among men, “the oldest and youngest age groups were significantly less likely to believe certain behaviours constituted having ‘had sex’.”

Why does age play a factor in all this? Can we blame Bill Clinton? One group of researchers has done just that. Researchers at the University of Kentucky-Lexington think that Bill Clinton’s infamous admission that he “did not have sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky may be the reason so many young people today don’t consider oral sex to be sex. Also published in 2010 in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, the study surveyed 477 college students about their views on sex. Researchers found that 20 percent of those students considered oral-genital contact to be sex, compared with nearly 40 percent of a similar sample surveyed in 1991.

“Our respondents were adolescents after the Clinton-Lewinsky era, which our comparisons of data over time suggest may have been a turning point in conceptualizations of oral-genital contact,” they noted. Pinning all the blame on Clinton would be too much of a low-hanging cigar, however.

Other sources for the changing perceptions in attitudes on sex noted were access to comprehensive sex ed, increasing TV portrayals of sex, and cultural beliefs. Oral sex (and anal sex as well) isn’t tied to the cultural narrative about virginity and purity like penis-in-vagina sex is. The prevailing thought among some misguided evangelical folks is that you can blow or plow whomever you want, as long as no hymen is involved, and still get a thumbs-up from Jesus. Since you’re not really having sex the biblical way, you’re technically still a virgin, the thinking goes. Since a woman’s chastity is tied to her morality and character, the purity stakes are even higher, which in part explains the tendency not to count oral sex as sex, since doing so may boost a woman’s “number” to sluterrific proportions.

Of course, as in such discussions, both online and off, many are quick to point out that no one has real authority over what counts as a sexual act, that the experience is entirely subjective and varies not just from person to person, but culturally as well. The Sambia tribe in Papua New Guinea participate in a ritual where younger men fellate older men in the tribe in order to ingest their manliness and become strong and virile. This isn’t considered sex, but a rite of passage. In certain Latin American cultures, a man who is the insertive partner in same-sex relations isn’t considered to have had gay sex.

Then there’s situational sex, where one is in prison or a single-sex institution. Does that count? What about using sex to curry social favor or protection? What about porn stars and sex workers? Must they count those acts of sex where money was exchanged, even if it’s their job? What of kinky sex and fetish sex? Does a well-placed foot count, or a helpful balloon? Perhaps most importantly, why do we care? Why do we attach such significance to a number or a definition that doesn’t ultimately require any?

Partly, it’s neurological. Our brains categorize and compartmentalize data in order to make sense of the world. For instance, the word “dog” inevitably conjures an image of what a dog looks like, though no doubt my idea of a dog (a black Yorkshire terrier, for some reason) will be vastly different than yours. We have beliefs and ideas of what “real” sex is and we carry those ideas into our relationships, cocktail conversations, and countless all-caps-riddled YouTube comments, sometimes with very little thought about how they might be limiting or even downright silly, as the Reddit pants comment illustrates.

As Greta Christina put it in her essay, “Are we having sex now or what?”:

[Y]ou have to know what qualifies as sex, because when you have sex with someone your relationship changes. Right? Right? It’s not that sex itself has to change things all that much. But knowing you’ve had sex, being conscious of a sexual connection, standing around making polite conversation with someone thinking to yourself, ‘I’ve had sex with this person,’ that’s what always changes things. Or so I believed. And if having sex with a friend can confuse or change the friendship, think of how bizarre things can get when you’re not sure whether you’ve had sex with them or not.

Christina talks at length about her experiences working at a peep show, hosting orgies, about consent and reciprocity and pleasure and sadomasochism, concluding ultimately that she still doesn’t have the answer to the question of what is sex.

But that is also the point, and maybe we should be spending more time enjoying sex than trying to define it in a way that will satisfy every person. Now somebody bring me a cake; I’m feelin’ lucky.