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.

Yes means know

[Excerpts from]
Yes means know: Respect, ravishment, and the non-con job of being a wanton woman
A conversation with the best in the bizz about consent, slut-shaming and “Guys We F*cked”
By Emily Jordan   Salon

 Of course, James has always been a radical. Or at least, she’s lived what her many loyal fans call her “double life.” Her father is poet and author Robert Bly. After graduating from Harvard University, James got her M.Phil. from Oxford University, a Ph.D. from Yale, eventually becoming a Shakespeare professor. She’s also published a whopping 26 romance novels, 23 of which have hit the bestseller list. Her newest novel, the brightly entertaining “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” about a woman who runs an agency for governesses and against her better judgment, falls for a demanding rake, was just released in January and hit the NYT and USA Today Bestseller lists. Its central plot point, a sexy kidnapping, is the focus of our meeting. How does one write things like kidnappings responsibly and yet still keep the heat? What are the ways that this trope has evolved over time? And whatever happened to the alpha brutes? Are they so 2007?

“Our culture continues to change in terms of eroticism,” James informs me, futzing in her bag. “On one level, it has something to do with economics — we’re all exhausted! It’s the ‘Fifty Shades’ question: how far would you go for someone who’s solvent and owns a car? Because in a contemporary romance, the girl can make love to 15 people. The parameters are defined by her. This is refreshing and fun to see. But in a historical romance, for instance, which is what I write, slut-shaming isn’t a viable thing. Because there’s no space in which you wouldn’t be shamed in the Regency period. It’s like being gay before the Wilde trials. You can’t say ‘gay’ in Shakespeare’s time. These words— slut-shaming, rape, gay— didn’t have the meaning and impact that they do today. You have to remember how culturally specific sex is. When Keats says ‘shagging’ we don’t know what he means. We think of ‘Austin Powers’ but that isn’t it.”

In other words, if you once obsessed about the incestuous flowers in V.C. Andrews’ infamous attic, or followed Luke and Laura over the summer with “General Hospital,” the sticky pickle of soft-pedaling sexual assault has possibly fallen on literary hard times. Or has it?

For starters, if you live in a culture where women are chattel and have no agency, a woman is an entropic force. She is merely a dowry. She can only give birth to the people who get to own the property and then quietly die. She is even not a separate gender, but the absence of maleness defined for and by men. So the assertion, or rather, insertion, of maleness through marriage or, in the worst case scenario, rape or war, is a negation of the woman’s absence by filling her. She can neither grant nor take away consent. This is the rub.

It makes sense, therefore why the honorific ‘Ms.’ was so essential to Gloria Steinem and all the other white second-wave feminists as a redefinition of women’s social identity. It was no longer “who squirted me into my mother?” or “who’s squirting other people into me?” Suddenly, you had your feminism. What’s more, the Pill became widely available. At first glance it would seem that “bodice rippers” (a term no longer in parlance for obvious reasons) were a secret bedroom backlash against the “The Feminine Mystique” and “the Female Eunuch.”


Hutchinson throws in, “I added the tagline, “The Anti Slut-Shaming Podcast” because we like to do comedy with a purpose as often as possible. Using humor is the best way to make a statement and have that statement really sink into your brain to make you think or reassess. I love talking about sex and was always so turned off the the clinical, dry approach most people use when approaching the topic. So many people have a stick up their ass when it comes to talking about sexuality, which makes sense given how little we hear candid, overly honest conversations about it.”

“I feel like ‘slut’ is a very vague concept,” Fisher continues. “Once you really know a human being, it’s hard to think of them as any shitty word and that goes for all words with historically negative connotations. When you hear a person’s story, their actions make a lot more sense — sexual stories are no different. Our intention was to be very honest about what we’ve done without apologizing for it. Slut-shaming is thinking less of someone, usually a woman, for the amount of sex, sexual partners, and kind of sex she has. I also think the real power in slut-shaming comes from creating a cloud of shame around people so they can be controlled. Once a person is free in any way (including sexually), they are less easily controlled. And that’s no good. Especially for women.”

For Sarah MacLean, the idea of “policing women’s kink,” is the worst kind of feminism. Yet the romance writer’s job is still to pepper consent markers throughout any sex scene or even prior. In other words, no means no, but by all means, talk dirty to me! Another method is establishing clearly delineated boundaries and safe words, as in Lilah Pace’s controversial “Asking for It”—a novel in which the protagonist has fantasies of being raped and chooses to enact them safely with a partner— or other romance novels that push the boundaries of sexual consent, (like pretty much all the books on your bookshelf by any Western author, because, rape culture).

[See full article]

About Last Night…

The Real Reason Women Might Regret Casual Sex

A new study reveals sexual regret isn’t about sex itself.
The Guardian / By Jill Filipovic
A UCLA research them found that college-age women are more likely to regret a one-time sexual encounter than men. Photograph: Mathew Sturtevant / Alamy/Alamy

A UCLA research study found that college-age women are more likely to regret a one-time sexual encounter than men. Photograph: Mathew Sturtevant / Alamy/Alamy

The “walk of shame” is a Sunday morning ritual on college campuses (and sometimes beyond) across the United States: young women, hair matted and still in last night’s skirt and heels, trudge home post-hook-up. It’s a uniquely female ritual, and the term itself evokes a singularly female image.

While men also have to go home after sex, often disheveled and exhausted, there’s no shame attached to their commute. In a culture that imbues sexual activity in women with shame and judgment while applauding sexual prolificacy in men, it will surprise no one that women are more likely than men to report regretting sexual encounters. But according to a new study, it’s not cultural views of female sexuality that saddle women with regret; it’s evolution.

The research team found that college-age women are more likely to regret a one-time sexual encounter, whereas men are more likely to regret not taking a sexual opportunity. Women’s biggest sexual regrets are losing their virginity to the wrong partner, cheating on a partner or moving too fast sexually. Men, on the other hand, regretted not making a move on a potential partner, and a lack of sexual adventurousness in their younger or single days. Similar patterns held among gay men and lesbians – women were more likely to regret sexual activity, while men were more likely to regret chances not taken.

Martie Haselton, a UCLA social psychology professor on the research team, said:

One thing that is fascinating about these emotional reactions in the present is that they might be far removed from the reproductive consequences of the ancestral past. For example, we have reliable methods of contraception. But that doesn’t seem to have erased the sex differences in women’s and men’s responses, which might have a deep evolutionary history.

Or a deep cultural one. While evolutionary biology traffics in real, science-backed facts, evolutionary psychology is largely a project of backward-looking guesswork, and often an attempt to chalk up complex social phenomenon to evolution. That’s wildly appealing, because people love having their biases confirmed, and because alleged scientific confirmation of an “evolutionary” reason for social inequity handily gives us an out for having to deal with injustice. If women have actually emotionally evolved to feel sexual shame absent social context, then what’s the point of pushing back on a social context that sexually shames women?

In reality, our emotional and psychological responses to interactions with other human beings are shaped by culture and socialization at least as much as biology. But as sexual mores continue to shift – perhaps more rapidly than many folks are comfortable with – it’s comforting to believe that some evolutionary fact underlies our unease. Human sexual expression has long been widely variable, and social institutions have struggled to reign it in through a variety of mechanisms (outlawing same-sex relationships or premarital sex; valorizing female chastity and reproduction within marriage) for a variety of reasons (economic stability based on a nuclear family model; continuance of male social, political and economic dominance).

We are complicated animals, and even as we study our own motivations and feelings, we are operating within a set of cultural assumptions and values that – being thickly swaddled in them – we cannot fully see. Which helps psychologists who fancy themselves evolution experts to conclude that their own personal preferences, or the current norms of their culture, are universal and explicable by evolution alone.

As cultural norms change, so do sexual behaviors and our responses to them. A recent UK survey found that more women than ever before have had same-sex sexual experiences – four times as many women as two decades ago. And while the vast majority of respondents had sex before marriage, majorities nonetheless said sex before marriage was wrong. That disconnect between a cultural ideal – that sex is best within the confines of marriage – and the biological and social reality – that human beings physically desire sex and that we have had sex outside of the confines of marriage for all of human history – is perhaps a better explanation of any attendant negative emotions attached to premarital sex than an evolutionary guessing game.

The UK survey also found that women bear the brunt of negative sexual experiences, whether that’s sexual assault, sexually transmitted infections or unintended pregnancy. Women will of course feel less positive about sexual experiences that are tainted by assault or fear. And women will of course feel less positive about sexual experiences in a culture that attaches negative attributes to sexually active women.

That so many women are making sexual choices shrouded in shame and regret is a public health problem that policy-makers have an obligation to take on, not just a moral issue suited to public debate and Sunday sermons. Shame and fear are bad positions from which to make healthy, affirming choices – if women believe that one-time sexual encounters are often regretful, there’s little incentive to prepare for them or to negotiate one’s needs within them.

Why bring condoms along on a night out if you believe having casual sex is wrong? Easier to just allow yourself a hormonal or drunken lapse. Why support abortion rights if everyone agrees unintended pregnancy is a deserved consequence of regrettable sex, rather than a relatively common but relatively preventable aspect of the human experience? If men believe that women who have casual sex aren’t worthy of respect and that drunk women are sexually available, it’s easier for everyone else to look the other way or blame women for their own victimization when sexually assaulted.

Women are also much less likely than men to orgasm during casual sex. This is partly biological since more women report having trouble orgasming generally than men, but is also partly cultural and social. It’s not that women need to have commitment to orgasm as much as it’s that we culturally center sex around the male experience: starting with an erection and ending with ejaculation. A female orgasm also often takes more direction and communication, which women may not feel comfortable asserting in a one-time hook-up. Men, too, may simply be sexually selfish in short-term situations, buying the dominant cultural narrative that sex is something women give to men and is fundamentally about male pleasure.

Sexual regret isn’t about sex itself. It’s about all the ideas we attach to sex, and particularly to sexual women. We’d be much better off squaring our sexual ideals with reality rather than pushing a set of social mores that not only put our physical and mental health at risk, but mean too many of us are having bad sex and regretting what should be one of the most fundamentally pleasurable activities.

Jill Filipovic is a lawyer in Manhattan who formerly served as the Gender and Reproductive Justice editor at AlterNet. More of her writing is available online at her blog, Feministe.