Teen ‘virginity pledges’ fail; Colorado shuns federal abstinence-only funds

(Photo/cobalt123, Flickr)

(Photo/cobalt123, Flickr)

Abstinence-only education takes another hit in a new study that finds that not only do teens who vow chastity until marriage have premarital sex on par with non-pledgers but that they’re much less likely to use condoms or other forms of contraception.

The “virginity pledge” — a central tenet of premarital abstinence-only education programs and purity balls — has been assailed by reproductive health advocates as a dangerous and ineffective method of protecting teens from unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

Johns Hopkins University researcher Janet E. Rosenbaum’s analysis takes previous studies of teen sexuality a step further by comparing teens who pledged virginity with those who did not and combines that information with a new factor — all the subjects share similar views on sex, birth control and 100 different variables. Her study will appear in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics.

In a story reported by The Washington Post on the ineffectiveness of virginity pledges, Rosenbaum found that over the study’s five-year period:

…82 percent of those who had taken a pledge had retracted their promises, and there was no significant difference in the proportion of students in both groups who had engaged in any type of sexual activity, including giving or receiving oral sex, vaginal intercourse, the age at which they first had sex, or their number of sexual partners. More than half of both groups had engaged in various types of sexual activity, had an average of about three sexual partners and had had sex for the first time by age 21 even if they were unmarried.

“It seems that pledgers aren’t really internalizing the pledge,” Rosenbaum said. “Participating in a program doesn’t appear to be motivating them to change their behavior. It seems like abstinence has to come from an individual conviction rather than participating in a program.”

Most disturbing is the trend that 82 percent of those who pledged to remain chaste denied making the promise five years later. That result is consistent with a 2006 study on virginity pledges by Rosenbaum that found more than half of the adolescents had recanted and engaged in sex.

For young people who break their abstinence vow, the report finds that they are 10 percent less likely to use condoms and 6 percentage points lower in other contraception use than their sexually active counterparts.

Rosenbaum attributes the lower contraception use to abstinence-only education programs that “tend not to give accurate information about condoms and birth control.”

According to Mark Salley, spokesman for the Colorado Dept. of Public Health and the Environment, the state has not reapplied for federal abstinence-only funding since 2006 through the three primary funding mechanisms — Title V, Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) and Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) — when the state won a total of $3.5 million.

Why? In the summer of 2007, Colorado declined to submit requests for federal abstinence-only education funds after warring camps of reproductive health advocates delayed congressional allocations to the Title V grant-making program on three separate occasions until it was quietly slipped into an appropriations bill months later.

CDPHE’s chief medical officer Dr. Ned Calonge told The Colorado Independent then that the state chose not to renew its Title V funding because the postponed grant application process timing was off kilter for state budgeting purposes. Though Calonge also acknowledged the decision to forgo funding was also influenced by opponents’ claims that abstinence-only programs are ineffective at reducing teen pregnancies.

But that doesn’t mean that the federal government has abandoned those exclusively teaching local youth to abstain from sex until marriage despite the overwhelming evidence that this approach alone doesn’t work.

Community organizations may apply directly to the U. S. Dept. of Health and Human Services for continued support. None of the current Colorado-based abstinence-only programs could be reached for comment to discern how they are faring without state pass-through dollars.

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About the Author

Wendy Norris