Pledges of no sex until marriage don't work, especially if taken by 15- or 16-year-olds, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics. Despite broken promises, however, virginity-pledging teens were considerably more conservative in their overall sexual behaviors than teens in general—a fact that many media reports have missed cold. In other words, the act of making a virginity pledge doesn't appear to affect a teen's future sexual behavior. But the kind of teen who takes a pledge is the kind who's already likely to be sexually restrained throughout adolescence.
There's an important message here for parents: The focus should be on cultivating the teenager's ongoing home and social environment, rather than on eliciting a one-time, easily-forgotten promise.
In the study, it was only when researchers closely matched the virginity-pledging young people with a subset of nonpledging teens of similar social and attitudinal backgrounds that the two groups' sexual behaviors were similar—and both those groups were more conservative than teens overall. This matchup was important in that it showed that the greater sexual restraint of the pledging teens, demonstrated here and in most other studies, was not due to the pledge per se but rather other virginity-promoting factors in their backgrounds. In fact, most of the pledgers forgot that they had ever made such a promise about sex before marriage.
Approximately three quarters of both pledging teens and the matched group of teens who didn't pledge had had sexual intercourse before marriage, but both groups reported less premarital vaginal sex, as well as less oral and anal sex, and fewer of them had had multiple sex partners when compared with the general population of young people.
The more sexually conservative teens, pledge or not, held more negative views toward condoms and birth control, though half or more used both regularly. Nevertheless, these more conservative teens had less risky sex (for example, more had had only one partner in the prior year). Perhaps most notably, they reported losing their virginity at, on average, 21 years of age. Among most youths today, sexual activity begins closer to age 17.
Waiting until age 21 to have sex may not be waiting until marriage, but it certainly does point to a grand public-health direction that would make teens healthier and parents happier. Although the study shows there is little value to a 15- or 16-year-old's no-sex pledge, the matched group of more sexually restrained young people had certain traits worth noting, including:
1. A greater level of religious beliefs and involvement with religious activities by both teens and their families
2. Greater participation in weekly youth groups
3. Less sexual experience by age 15
4. Old-country values, in that sexually restrained adolescents tended to be foreign born, with a high percentage of Asian births
5. Fewer friends who drank or used illegal drugs
6. More negative feelings about having sex or using birth control
7. Strong sense of guilt about having sex, with a bit of worry about upsetting mom.
Except for their negative attitude about birth control, the restrained teens in the study—both those who took pledges and those who did not—offer some good lessons that go way beyond sex education class.