WASHINGTON — Remaining a virgin until marriage can be a daunting task for a young person in today's “sexually saturated” society.

That's the assessment of John Grabowski, associate professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

“It is a toxic environment for young people who are trying to grow up chaste,” said Grabowski. Movies, television and the Internet trivialize and commercialize the marital act, he said.

That is one reason why he sees value in virginity pledges. So do many young people, according to a report from The Heritage Foundation. The Washington, D.C.-based research organization found that young people who take virginity pledges are less likely to engage in any type of sexual activity.

The June 14 report, authored by Heritage staffers Robert Rector and Kirk Johnson, used the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health to draw its conclusions. Among Heritage's findings is that 81% of virginity pledgers had engaged in some form of sexual activity by the time they became young adults, compared with 92% of non-pledgers. Girls who pledge were one-third less likely to become pregnant before their 18th birthday when compared to non-pledgers. The lower levels of sexual activity put virginity pledgers at lower risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases compared to non-pledgers.

The results, Rector said, show that over a five- or six-year span — from the time a person took a pledge to the final survey — the pledge had “a measurable effect by the time they [children] became adults.”

Rector, Heritage's senior research fellow in Domestic Policy Studies, added that there is approximately 90% “parental support for teaching a solid abstinence message to young kids. There is universal support for delaying sexual activity, which is a really good thing.”

Motivating Factors

What is motivating young people to take virginity pledges is their sense of “religious and moral conviction,” said The Catholic University's Grabowski. “Some young people simply want to give a more public form of witness, so taking a step like this is a way of articulating that witness — putting their faith and moral convictions into practice.”

Grabowski encouraged young people to remain chaste by developing themselves completely by participating in the Church's sacraments, helping the poor through soup kitchens and other programs, and praying the Rosary at an abortion clinic.

“For St. Thomas Aquinas, the virtues are a unity,” Grabowski said. “You can't have one virtue and not have at least an openness to the others; they grow together. You can't have a person who is genuinely just, if they are not also chaste or not also prudent.”

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, however, does not believe virginity pledges are the definitive solution. The organization advocates sexual education programs that include information on contraception as well as abstinence.

The council cited a study from Columbia University sociology professor Peter Bearman, which concluded young people who take pledges are 30% less likely to use contraceptives when they become sexually active and are less likely to be tested for a sexually transmitted disease.

“All of that, as it relates to virginity pledges, is a very bleak picture,” said Adrienne Virrelli, spokeswoman for the council. “We know that young people who delay sexual activity are more likely to use contraception, when they do become sexually active, and have fewer partners. Teenagers can talk about abstinence and contraception and not feel as if they are getting a mixed message.”

In the Heritage report, Rector and Johnson state that virginity-pledge programs are “not omnipotent,” and in the years between the time a child takes a pledge and the time he reaches adulthood, there will be thousands of “events and forces that either reinforce or, more likely, undermine the youth's commitment to abstinence.”

Because of that influence, Rector opined that abstinence programs are “quite remarkable.”

Young people “are seeing 10 hours of intervention over the course of a year, whereas they are spending 2,000 hours in front of a television set with the opposite message,” he said.

The Heritage Foundation lauded organizations that actively encourage young people to abstain. Mary Beth Bonnacci, founder and president of Real Love Inc., based in Denver, has been promoting abstinence for 19 years. She said that pledges “absolutely are making a difference,” as they create “positive peer pressure.”

While health issues certainly are important, warnings of risks in having sex “don't motivate teenagers because they don't adequately assess risk,” she said. A pledge is motivated by the desire for “real love” and by religious faith.

“It is when they know they are called to a higher standard — in every faith … — that they respond,” Bonnacci said. “When we present chastity as God's way of finding and living love and giving them what they are hungry for, they respond.”

Additional money may be on the way for federally funded abstinence programs in fiscal year 2006, beginning in September. The government allocated $167 million in the current fiscal year, with community-based abstinence education programs receiving $104 million of that amount.

The House of Representatives is considering an $11 million hike in the budget to $178 million, with community-based programs receiving the entire increase, lifting their allotment to $115 million. The budgets for the Title V and Adolescent and Family Living programs would remain at 2005 funding levels of $50 million and $13 million, respectively.

“The goal should be to help as many young people as possible commit to being sexually abstinent preferably until marriage,” said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for the Administration of Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“We know that abstinence education can help young people delay onset of sexual debut,” he added. “That's important because … the longer someone waits to become sexually active, the fewer lifetime sexual partners they will have; and fewer sexual partners is related to reduced risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”

Wayne Forrest is based in Providence, Rhode Island.