By Scott Alessi
Each year, millions of teenagers participate in programs aimed at teaching them the value of abstaining from sexual activity until marriage, with many students even making a pledge to remain a virgin until their wedding day.
But various research studies have produced mixed results on the efficacy of abstinence education programs, with some claiming the programs fail to make any difference in sexual activity among teens.
More fuel was added to the debate with the publication of a recent study by researcher Janet Rosenbaum, a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Rosenbaum compared teenagers who made pledges to remain abstinent with other teens who shared similar values but did not make a pledge and concluded that a virginity pledge had no impact on whether or not teens had sex.
But a similar study conducted last year by the RAND corporation yielded a different result -- although students who took pledges still became sexually active, they did so at a lower rate than comparable teens who didn't take a pledge. According to Steven Martino, a senior behavioral scientist at RAND and lead author of the study, making a pledge is useful in promoting abstinence because it makes teens feel that they are more accountable to their friends and family to keep their commitment.
"The social pressure of having made the pledge is beneficial," Martino told Our Sunday Visitor. "It is effective in helping you stick to your intentions."
One possible explanation for the difference between the studies, Martino explained, is the age at which students made their pledge. The Rosenbaum study looked at teens age 16 and older, while Martino evaluated younger students.
"There have been studies that have directly compared teens that are younger versus older when they make pledges, and the data seems to suggest that virginity pledges are more effective among teens that make them earlier in adolescence," Martino said. "By the time they are into their late teens or early 20s, most of them have had sex by that point, so it becomes more difficult to see an effect of any intervention."
Abstinence programs first gained attention in the early 1990s in response to rising concern over sexually transmitted diseases among teens and statistics indicating that more and more young people were having sex. One of the first national programs to promote teen virginity pledges was True Love Waits, a Christian ministry launched in 1993.
By having teens sign a "commitment card" indicating that they planned to remain a virgin until marriage, the program's goal was to help young people feel confident in their decision to not have sex, said Jimmy Hester, co-founder of the program.
"At that time, there was just a lot of information about safe-sex practices, and a lot of teenagers were hearing that and thought that what was expected of them was to be sexually active," Hester said. "Our sole purpose was to provide students with opportunities to express their beliefs about sexual abstinence."
Hester told OSV that since the program began at least 3 million cards have been signed worldwide, with many being put on display to show teens that not all of their peers were sexually active. And while the organization has not conducted a scientific study on the effectiveness of the True Love Waits program, Hester said that their success is measured in the feedback they receive from teenagers.
"We hear from students who have expressed thanks for True Love Waits and have shared testimony about how it changed their lives," he said. "Even if I hear from just 50 students who talk about how it has changed their future ... then it is effective."
Another reason for the conflicting reports on the impact of abstinence programs is the large variation in the programs themselves. While some, like True Love Waits, include a religious component, others are administered in secular classrooms to students with very different beliefs and attitudes about sex. Some programs are purely educational and do not require making a pledge, while some that do often miss the important step of teachings teens about the consequences of sexually activity.
Doug Kirby, one of the leading researchers in the field of abstinence education and teen sexual behavior, has evaluated a wide spectrum of studies on abstinence programs. Kirby told OSV that among studies that have followed sound scientific methods, none have found abstinence programs as a whole to reduce the likelihood that teens will become sexually active.
"Consistently, those studies show that abstinence programs have no impact of any kind, either for good or for bad, on sexual behavior," he said.
But in comparing the programs themselves, Kirby explained, it is clear that some are more effectual in their approach than others. For example, programs that focus solely on character building and emphasizing good values are much less likely to succeed than those which teach students about how to react in real life situations, he said.
"[Abstinence programs] need to be skill-building, they need to be interactive, they need to be personalized to the youth, and they need to change peer norms," Kirby said. "If the teacher simply says, 'It is not a good idea to have sex,' that will be much less effective than if the teacher asks the students, 'What are the situations that might lead to unwanted sex?' and then lets the students describe those situations and come up with ways to avoid them or get out of them. And some of the abstinence programs just don't do those things."
And while a brief program on the benefits of abstinence may resonate with some students, there must also be a strong follow-up for the program to make a difference over time. It is at this stage where parents, family and friends will have the most impact on whether a teenager is able to adhere to an abstinence pledge, said Hester.
"We'll tell students that there is nothing magic about signing that card; it is what you do with your life once you make that commitment and how you live that out," Hester said. "For it to be successful requires that students have the support of their peers and of others who've made a commitment, and also parents and other significant adults in their lives to help them remain pure."
Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.