WASHINGTON — A study conducted by Columbia and Yale universities claims abstinence-until-marriage pledges are rarely kept and have no noticeable impact on reducing sexually transmitted diseases.
The study, details of which were released March 6, was immediately critiqued by abstinence advocates and pro-family organizations.
Pia de Solenni, director of life and women's issues at the Washington-based Family Research Council, said it's important to distinguish between a young person simply signing a pledge at a rally and someone being involved in ongoing abstinence education.
The study, based on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which has been tracking 12,000 teens since 1994, found that signing an abstinence pledge is not an effective deterrent against pre-marital sex. Ninety-nine percent of non-pledgers have sex before marriage, the study says. That number only dips to 88% with an abstinence pledge.
The study notes, however, that an abstinence pledge delayed the onset of sexual activity by 18 months.
Peter Bearman of Columbia University's sociology department wrote the study with Hannah Bruckner of Yale. He said their work demonstrates the limits of abstinence pledges in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
“The expected STD rate would be lower with fewer partners and shorter time [between first sexual encounter and marriage],” Bearman said. “It's not lower.”
The difference, he says, is in condom usage.
He noted that 59% of males who took no pledge used a condom during premarital sex. Only 40% of male pledgers used a condom during premarital sex.
The researchers did not examine whether those who pledge abstinence until marriage are more likely to date those who also take pledges and therefore are not as sexually active.
But they did track the number of sexual partners. Those who broke the pledge had multiple partners over time, though fewer than nonpledgers, Bearman said. In addition, pledgers wait a little longer to become sexually active but then “make up for lost time,” he added, leaving less time between adventures.
Need a Course
The study asked the question: “Have you ever taken a public pledge to remain a virgin until marriage?”
Bearman noted that answering Yes to that question didn't lower STD rates, but it did have other noticeable effects.
“They delay sex. They're marrying earlier. They have fewer sexual partners,” he said.
Nationally syndicated Catholic columnist Maggie Gallagher found good news embedded in the study. She noted that Bearman and Bruckner had looked at teens aged 12-18 in an earlier study and now looked at 18- to 24-year-olds.
“The amazing thing is that, six years later, the pledge taken years ago in high school appears to still have an effect: Pledgers were still less likely than non-pledgers to have initiated sex, and they were more likely to marry, too,” Gallagher wrote April 6. “Pledgers were 12 times more likely to be virgins when they married.”
Another study released in March, also based on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, gave more positive news for the abstinence movement.
Heritage Foundation researchers Robert Rector and Kirk Johnson found that young women who pledge abstinence are 40% less likely to have a baby out of wedlock than those who do not take such a pledge.
Critics of abstinence-only programs heralded the Columbia-Yale study as proof that sex education must include information about the use of condoms.
“It's a tragedy if we withhold from these kids information about how not to get STDs or not to get pregnant,” said Dorothy Mann, executive director of the pro-abortion Family Planning Council in Philadelphia.
But Leslee Unruh, founder and president of the Abstinence Clear-inghouse, says condoms aren't the answer that sex-education advocates claim they are.
“Their program is to get kids to pledge to always use condoms. But only 15% to 20% follow that 100% standard,” Unruh said. “They call it ‘comprehensive sex ed.’ We call it ‘contraceptive sex ed.’”
Unruh acknowledged that a onetime pledge of abstinence at a public rally was no reliable prevention against premarital sex.
“It might be at a park. They might have a band. It's not a program,” Unruh said. “They talk about the dangers of drugs. They mix abstinence in. It's not intended to be evaluated.”
She applauds such gatherings but says such events should be the start of abstinence education. She recommends a course of at least six to eight weeks in which parents become directly involved.
While Bearman said he recognized a difference between a onetime pledge for abstinence and an eight-week program, he insisted that even abstinence-only programs are insufficient. Those who pledge abstinence but later decide to have sex are left unprepared, he said.
“Most people take the pledge at 15, but the average age men get married today is 26. You're looking at 11 years [of waiting],” he said.
Unruh said the release of the Columbia-Yale study was timed to influence federal funding of abstinence-only programs. President Bush, in his State of the Union address in January, asked that funding for federal abstinence programs be doubled now and tripled by 2005.
Unruh noted that a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey showed a significant drop in teen-age sexual activity during the 1990s. Back in 1991, the percentage of students who had sexual intercourse stood at 54.1%. By 2001, that number fell to 45.6%.
“The numbers coincide with the advent of the abstinence programs all across the country,” Unruh said. “We've got programs and they're working. That's why they're so mad.”
Joshua Mercer writes from Washington, D.C.
- April 25-May 1, 2004