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Teen Virginity Pledges: Can They Work?

Half of Pledgers Deny Pledge; Other Teens Become Born-Again Virgins
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 2, 2006 - Half of teens who take virginity pledges deny it a year later. But many sexually active teens become born-again virgins after taking the pledge, a new study shows.

Harvard graduate student Janet Rosenbaum analyzed data on a nationally representative sample of seventh through 12th graders collected in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Nearly 15,000 teens were interviewed in 1995 and again in 1996.

In the first survey, 13% of teens said they'd taken a virginity pledge. A year later, 53% of them said, "What pledge?"

On the other hand, about a third of teens said they'd had sex. A year later, 10.5% of these kids said they were virgins.

"Among those who take a virginity pledge, a year later more than half said they had never taken such a pledge," Rosenbaum tells WebMD. "And just over 10% of those who said they had sex later said they didn't have sex."

Rosenbaum's report appears in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Role of Religion

What makes a teen forget a virginity pledge? Sex certainly plays a role. Virgin teens who became sexually active were three times more likely to deny pledging than teens who said they'd remained virgins.

Strong religious messages may also play a role. Kids who said they no longer were born-again Christians were more likely to deny virginity pledges than other teens.

"I found that people who had become sexually active or who were already sexually active were more likely to retract their virginity pledges," Rosenbaum says. "Those who changed from being born-again Christian to other denominations were more likely to retract their pledge."

On the other hand, becoming a born-again Christian -- or taking a virginity pledge -- was linked to teens retracting self-reported sex.

"Looking at people who retracted reports of having sex, those who took virginity pledges in either survey were more likely to retract -- as was becoming a born-again Christian," Rosenbaum says. "So it seems that when social circumstances change, it affects people's reports on surveys of their own behavior."

Teens and Change

Teen changeability doesn't surprise Thomas Smith, PhD, professor of social work at Florida State University, Tallahassee. Smith recently reviewed 14 scientific studies of abstinence education.

"Is the difference in answers one year apart indicating a change in the mood of these kids? Probably not," Smith tells WebMD. "It is probably more about what they had for breakfast on that day. Teens are very labile on what they do or say at any one time."

Smith says that only strong messages get across to teens. That, he says, is why the strong anti-premarital-sex position of fundamentalist Christian religion makes an impression on them.

"The more memorable a message is, the more likely a child will abstain from sex," Smith says. "If you are from a fundamentalist denomination, there is less likelihood your child will engage in premarital sex. That may be because the mores of this religion are so strong. But after they leave the protective nest of their observant household, they may go wild with experimentation. Not just with sex but with alcohol, drugs, whatever."

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