HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (ABP) — Signatures on most sexual-abstinence commitment cards may not be worth the paper they are written on, according to a recent university study.
A survey by Northern Kentucky University revealed 61 percent of students who made abstinence promises broke them. And of those who said they kept their pledges, 55 percent indicated they participated in oral sex.
The survey queried 527 Northern Kentucky students, 16 percent of whom made pledges not to have sex until marriage.
The study noted, however, that pledge breakers delayed sex for a year longer than non-pledging teens — until an average of 17.6 years old. But pledge-makers who became pledge-breakers were less likely to use protection, such as condoms, when first having sex.
While the survey represents only a small segment of the population, it offers some of the earliest research into the effectiveness of virginity pledges.
Angela Lipsitz, a professor at Northern Kentucky University who was involved in the study, said the information should serve as a warning sign. But further study is needed before nationwide conclusions can be drawn, she said.
“To me it sends up cautions,” she said. “I would say we need to be skeptical at this point. It is only one study. I would say this is showing some interesting things, but I would like to see them replicated.”
Richard Ross, a spokesman for the grass-roots abstinence effort True Love Waits, indicated the survey's findings did not surprise him.
Following the enormous popularity of True Love Waits, the government started funding more than 200 abstinence programs that are used in the majority of school systems across the country. Often these efforts consist of a short lecture about reasons for abstinence and a request for students to sign a piece of paper in a notebook, he said. There is sparse follow up and the pledge carries little weight, he said.
“Even though I am very supportive of any programs that talk about abstinence, I think many of the pledges signed lack the power to shape long-term decisions,” Ross said.
Ross said True Love Waits is more effective because it adds an element secular efforts lack — God. The addition of the supernatural gives the promise more power. “Promising a notebook means almost nothing,” Ross commented. “Promising to God is extremely important to most young people.”
True Love Waits works through local churches and with families, a key element in providing accountability, support and encouragement that differs from secular programs, said Ross, who started the movement at Tulip Grove Baptist Church in Nashville in 1993.
Additionally, large True Love Waits events — like stacking the pledge cards up to the roof of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta or collecting pledges at the upcoming Olympic Games in Athens — provide celebratory occasions that help teens know they are not alone in their commitments, Ross said.
These celebrations create a bond among students and encourage them to be proud of their stance, said Ross.
David Hager, director of the obstetrician and gynecology training program at Central Baptist Hospital in Lexington, Ky., affirmed Ross' belief in the necessity of continuous support for a pledge to be successful.
Supportive friends and family are key to encouraging young adults to stick to their promises, Hager found. When an individuals support group becomes less supportive of a sexual purity pledge, the chances of keeping that oath drop drastically. “The teaching of abstinence and abstinence education is no a one-time event,” he said. “It has to be a continuous thing.”
Joe McIlhaney, director of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, a nonprofit educational group based in Austin, goes even further to say that the pledges should be renewed to keep them fresh on the teen's mind. “The kids are really asking for help staying sexually abstinent,” he said. “They just aren't receiving the support.”
Such support will not guarantee all teen pledges will be followed, McIlhaney said, but the longer young adults delay their first sexual encounter, the less likely they are to contract sexually transmitted diseases.
Ross said the effort to create a virginal community through True Love Waits has worked so well that it helped account for a statistical national drop in teen sexual activity during each year of the program's large-scale work. Slightly more than 50 percent of middle and high school students are virgins, he said.
“Behavior is changing,” Ross stated. “It has not changed for every teenager.”
Other research suggests large-scale abstinence events — such as a majority of students in one school signing abstinence pledges — may actually limit success, according to the U.S. government's 2001 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. As the number of pledges in a school increases, the study found, compliance decreases.
When the pledges are successful, the report said, it's because students get a sense of community apart from their peers.
In spite of these findings, Ross contends the government must continue to fund secular abstinence programs. They not only are morally right, he said, they also save the government money on social services every time they prevent a teenager from getting pregnant.
Ross opposes condom distribution in schools as an alternative to abstinence because, he said, condom distribution encourages sex.
“I grieve [that] a teenager breaking a promise might be at a higher risk of pregnancy and disease, but the implications of that are not as dangerous as parents and church leaders telling them, 'We want you to always carry protection because we expect you to fail.' That would be self-fulfilling prophecy,” Ross said.