Saving It For Marriage

For many of today's adults, it is a teenage nightmare that would have scarred them for life: There you stand on the high school stage, telling a packed auditorium that you're a virgin. You star in a play about it. And declare that you won't have sex for God knows how long.

Danae Marquez started doing just that when she was 15. Three years later, the Portland, Ore., teen still talks about virginity on stage, and carries a card bearing her signature under a pledge that she's "saving sex until marriage." "Nowadays people don't put as much faith in promises, but they do mean something to me," Marquez says. "If I made a promise to be abstinent, I'm going to keep that promise."

Since 1993, several million youth have signed such cards and made such pledges. Virginity pledges and virgin clubs have drawn applause and derision. But do they appreciably help kids abstain from sex?

New evidence says yes -- under certain circumstances. The most recent study, published in September, finds that youths who make such pledges delay sexual intercourse (although not necessarily until marriage), that the pledge works best for younger adolescents, and in some settings the power of the pledge weakens if too many kids take it.

"Critics of the pledge movement ... are wrong when they say it does not work. But they are right when they think that it cannot work as a universal strategy," write Peter S. Bearman and Hannah Brückner of Columbia University in their report, "Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges as they Affect Transition to First Intercourse."

The complex findings provide fodder for both sides in the debate over abstinence-only education; but most importantly for youth workers, the study and a look at how pledge programs operate offer insight into how and why this simple tactic for getting youths to delay sexual activity sometimes works.

Pledging in Pubs

Publicly pledging to abstain from something is not new; people pledge to stay away from alcohol, drugs, tobacco, sex and fattening food, among other things. In humanity's battle with temptation, people raise their pledges like shields to resist activities that produce pleasure but can also cause harm.

The most prominent pledge movements involve alcohol: The phrase "taking the pledge" comes from the temperance movements from the late 1700s through the mid-1800s in the United States, the British Isles and northern Europe. In Ireland, priests walked into pubs badgering men to pledge not to drink; in the U.S., Protestant ministers collected pledges from people not to drink, sell or buy alcohol. In the 1840s, groups of women in the U.S. vowed to not marry men who drink, or to withhold sex from husbands who do.

The temperance movements ultimately failed, but pledging is still considered a valuable tactic: Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) asks people to sign pledges not to drink and drive. Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) asks youths to sign a contract to avoid alcohol, drugs and driving with someone who's been drinking, and to always wear a seat belt. Last month, the Minnesota-based Student Pledge Against Gun Violence got an estimated two million youths to sign a pledge to "never use a gun to settle a dispute" and "never carry a gun to school." This month, youths across the country have signed up to participate in the American Cancer Society's Great American Smokeout, when millions of smokers pledge to quit for at least a day. In recent months, anti-drug pledges have been signed by youths ranging from girls in a softball tournament in Schaumburg, Ill., to students in Independence, Mo., whose pledge was a condition for a college scholarship.

No one claims that such pledges work by themselves. But determining exactly what role pledges play is tricky. "It's very hard to prove that something like a pledge" prevents people from doing something, says Mary Lewis Grow, national coordinator of the Student Pledge Against Gun Violence. Yet pledge organizers and participants say pledges help to reinforce a person's commitment to an objective. "It solidified what I already believed," Marquez says.

American society believes in the potential power of public promises: New Year's resolutions. Marriage vows. The Pledge of Allegiance. Studies have shown that "if people make public commitments, they are more likely to actually follow through," says researcher Marvin Eisen of the Urban Institute. He said some drug treatment programs have found that clients who take pledges are more likely to stick with treatment.

But can a tactic that helps people avoid substances like drugs, alcohol or tobacco for a lifetime help control perhaps the most powerful of all human urges -- especially among teens, whose hormones are pushing them to go right ahead?

Cool Caution

Today's virginity pledge movement evolved from the growing moral conservatism of 1990s youth and the religiously fueled abstinence-only movement that grew with it. A poll of 1,000 teens this year by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy found that 93 percent said it is important to give teens a strong abstinence message, and 87 percent said it is not embarrassing for teens to admit they are virgins. The percentage of teens reporting to be virgins has been rising (32 percent of 17-to-19-year-old males in 1995, up from 24 percent in 1988), while teen pregnancies have been dropping. These trends have not completely reversed the build-up of sexual activity that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, the Campaign notes, but director Sarah Brown calls the '90s "the decade when more teens decided to make caution cool."

So the time was ripe for the Southern Baptist Convention to launch its True Love Waits campaign in 1993. Churches and church-based youth groups were flooded with "covenant cards" in which youths committed to "God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually abstinent" until marriage. The flood was returned: In July 1994, 25,000 youths gathered on The Mall in Washington, D.C., for a rally to display more than 210,000 covenant cards. Today, True Love Waits (TLW) says more than 1 million youth have signed the cards.

That would mean TLW accounts for roughly half the virginity pledges taken by youths since 1993, according an estimate in the recent Columbia University study -- although the exact total is far from certain, because many organizations that employ such pledges do not count them. Most are nonprofit sex- or character education programs that operate in schools, largely through the $50 million a year set aside by Congress in 1998 for abstinence-only education under Title V of the Social Security Act. Among the most prominent are Northwest Family Services (the Portland, Ore.-based group to which Marquez belongs); Teen-Aid, based in Spokane, Wash.; Abstinence the Better Choice, Inc., in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio; and Passion and Principles in Arizona, which works through both schools and churches.

Although all of those programs except the last one say they are non-secular, the abstinence movement and pledges have been fueled largely by faith-based organizations and principals -- which bothers people like Barbara Huberman, director of sexuality education at Advocates for Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based sex ed advocacy group. "Abstinence until marriage is a religious value or attitude; it is not a public value," Huberman says. "Most people are not virgins when they get married."

Aside from her objections to abstinence-only education as futile, Huberman says groups that use abstinence pledges are delivering an essentially religious message in schools. "It is an inappropriate setting to inflict on students'" religious values, she says.

"The problem with Advocates for Youth is that they have no faith in anybody," says LeAnna Benn, national director of Teen-Aid. While Huberman worries that youths will feel pressured by teachers or other adults in schools to make such pledges, Benn and others who oversee school-based programs with pledges say that's not how it works.

"We lay these cards in the back of the room and let the kids take enough for themselves and their friends," says Benn (whose program does not directly teach youth, but trains teachers to use its curriculum). More are left in the school counselor's office. Abstinence program instructors say the cards are presented as one option for youths who want to remain abstinent, although some instructors push the value of the pledges more than others. "They don't even have to sign it in front of us," says Pam Haley, who teaches the Responsible Social Values Program (RSVP) in middle schools for Abstinence the Better Choice.

The pledges are typically the size of business cards, so they can be kept in a wallet. Some youths pledge to someone, such as parents, a friend or God; others pledge to themselves. "Sex" usually means intercourse, although the pledge documents usually don't spell that out.

The education programs say they distribute thousands of pledge cards annually but cannot estimate how many youths take the pledge. The 1998 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (known as Add Health) found that out of 90,000 youths surveyed in grades seven through 12, 16 percent of the girls and 10 percent of the boys reported having made virginity pledges.

Even trickier than counting them is figuring out if they work.

Feeling Special

The 1998 Add Health survey found promising results: Youth who reported taking virginity pledges were at "significantly lower risk of early age sexual debut." In fact, such pledging was the highest indicator that a teen would not engage in early sexual behavior.

But was the pledge the reason? One of the study's authors, Michael D. Resnick, director of the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Research Center at the University of Minnesota, noted at the time that, "We expect that young people who indicate they have taken a public or written virginity pledge hold a certain set of beliefs about themselves, about relationships, about adolescent sexual behaviors." This raises the chicken-and-egg question that complicates pledge evaluations: If the kids who make the pledges are already committed to delaying sexual activity, does the pledge boost that commitment or just reflect it?

Columbia University's Bearman, who worked on that 1998 study, believes he found part of the answer in his recent, more detailed analysis of the Add Health survey. The bottom line, the study says: "They do not need to pledge to avoid sex, but pledging helps them not to have sex."

"Pledging decreases the risk of intercourse substantially and independently," the study continues. The delay averages close to 18 months: That's not until marriage for most youths, but it's a significant amount of time for a teenager. With 800,000 teens getting pregnant each year, and close to 4 million contracting an STD, abstinence pledging might at least give a teen another year-and-a-half in school without pregnancy and an STD. The pledge effect stood even when taking into account factors such as family support and religious commitment of the youth (also major factors in delaying sex).

There are qualifiers: The pledge worked best for youths age 15 and under. Furthermore, the researchers found a complex relationship between adolescents and their social environments, which under some circumstances significantly reduced the impact of the pledge and portends limits to how much the pledge movement can grow.

But first, why do the pledges work at all?

Everyone agrees that almost any type of youth pledge works only when it's part of an ongoing education or support program. Grow of the Pledge Against Gun Violence says, "To make it meaningful, it has to be more than a 10-by-12 piece of paper that drops out of the ceiling and kids sign it and they go about their business."

The pledges are usually a small part of abstinence programs that typically run once a week for part of the school year, and that sometimes continue for several years. (They sometimes stop, however, at high school, even though youths become more sexually active then.)

The fact that some kids sign and some don't indicates that youths take the pledge concept seriously. Signing a pledge "implies that they will have discussed it before they sign their names, or they will at least think carefully about what they are doing," says Penny Wells, executive director of SADD.

And that respect for signed documents -- even ones that are not legally binding -- is the power behind the pledge. "Most of us have a code of honor that if we sign something, it's a contract," says Benn of Teen-Aid.

"You have to live with yourself," says Marquez. And with your peers. "I have a constant reminder that people are watching my activities," she adds. Huberman of Advocates for Youth says the pledges play on guilt, which is a bad way to motivate kids and will ultimately fail. But Marquez says, "To me, it's not guilt. It's a self-check." Her sexually active peers have teased her for dressing or flirting in a way that might be overly suggestive. It makes her think of how she wants to behave.

Other peers are supportive. That's why getting a group of youths to pledge is essential, says Fuller of Northwest Family Services; it creates a support network. In an odd way, both the teasers and supporters appear to help youths keep pledges. The Columbia researchers found that a pledge is most successful when it "creates a moral community" that is distinct from the community at large (usually the school). This sense of belonging to a group of like-minded people works for pledge groups just like it works for every other successful school club or clique. No one wants to be their school's only avowed virgin.

When Growth Is Bad

But a funny thing happens to pledge programs as they grow: They appear to weaken. The Columbia researchers found a complex interaction involving the number of same-sex pledgers in the community (usually a school) and the type of community it is. Generally, the more same sex pledgers, the better. But if the school or community is "closed" -- that is, if most of the romantic relationships are within the school -- then "pledging is effective only if pledging is a minority behavior." Once the pledge becomes the norm, "it ceases to have an effect." The threshold for "norm" seems to be 30 percent.

Why? "The pledge works because it is imbedded in an identity movement," the researcher wrote. "Like other identity movements, the pledge identity is relatively fragile" and works only when the youths feel that their pledge makes them out of the ordinary.

There was one troubling finding, regardless of one's view of pledges: When youths who pledge break that pledge, they were less likely than non-pledging youths to use contraception at first intercourse. For most kids, it makes no sense to pledge abstinence and carry a condom.

Which brings up a risk of pledging: Pledging to abstain from drugs, alcohol or tobacco may be a lifelong goal, but almost everyone will eventually have sexual intercourse. And despite the delay in sexual activity brought on by pledging, it appears that most pledgers will still have sex before they're married. "It's extremely unrealistic," Huberman says, to think kids who pledge abstinence at 14 are going to keep that pledge until 26 -- the average age of marriage in the U.S.

If those youths are less likely to use contraceptives at first intercourse, are most of the pledgers putting themselves (ironically) at greater risk of pregnancy or disease? After all, people who've been involved with any type of pledge by a group can tell stories about cheaters: the kids who smoke or drink away from the crowd of pledgers. Marquez says some of the kids whom she pledged with have broken the promise.

Marquez, who now helps instructors teach the classes for Northwest Family Services, says it should not be a major concern: "Most of the kids who are serious about pledging are not going to put themselves in a position where they can't stop themselves."

At a time when polls show that parents want their teens to have more comprehensive sex education (including information about contraception), the pledge advocates might seem naive. But for some kids under some circumstances, pledging abstinence is the best protection. For others, the best protection is Laytex. Perhaps it's too much to expect the ultimate compromise: a condom taped to a pledge card.

Patrick Boyle can be reached at pboyle@youthtoday.org.

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.