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Teen Virginity Pledges: Can They Work?

Half of Pledgers Deny Pledge; Other Teens Become Born-Again Virgins

Teens and Change continued...

Strong religious attitudes toward sex also may make teens more reluctant to admit to having begun sexual activity, says obstetrician-gynecologist Sylvana Bennett, MD, of the University of California, San Diego Medical Center. Bennett studies teen pregnancypregnancy-prevention programs.

"Demonizing sexual activity makes it hard for teens to be honest," Bennett says. "So the teen goes into the doctor with a genital rash but says, 'No, I have never had sex.' There is where the real health problem comes in. It creates a barrier to open communication to have that expectation of abstinence."

Bennett also notes that religious teens who say they are virgins -- even though they previously said they'd had sex -- aren't hypocrites.

"When kids come into religion, they are actually told that if they take the virginity pledge they are born-again virgins. God wipes their sex away," Bennett says. "Sexually experienced teens who say, 'I have never had sex,' aren't lying -- they go into denial."

Can Abstinence Education Work?

The unreliability of teen's self-reported sexual behavior makes it nearly impossible to evaluate abstinence education programs, Smith says.

"Given the lack of consistent responses, and given the difficulties of interpreting study results, it is hard to say if abstinence education is effective or not," he says. "Would I bet my money that a teen of 16 is really going to be affected by an abstinence message? No way. She is probably already having sex."

But even though Smith is pessimistic about evaluating these programs, he does believe they can have an impact.

"You can't really prevent risky behavior by adolescents completely. But if you can delay it as long as possible, the better the chance a kid will maintain safe sexual behavior going into adulthood," he says. "It is an uphill battle. By the time most kids are in their later teen years, sexual abstinence or delay already is a lost cause."

Bennett finds that both abstinence-only education and abstinence-plus-sex education work. However, when kids do have sex, those who got the abstinence-plus education are better off.

"Both types of program seem to work, but in teens already having sex or those who start sex, those exposed to abstinence-plus were much more likely to use contraceptioncontraception," she says. "Both abstinence-only and abstinence-plus programs seem to decrease sexual activity, but in teens that do end up having sex, they are worse off without safe-sex information."

Parents, Smith and Bennett each note, are very likely to think that teens interpret sexual education as permission to have sex. This isn't the case, Bennett says.

"In 27 studies I reviewed, kids in abstinence-plus programs are not more likely to initiate sex," she says. "The idea kids will take safe-sex information and have wild, rampant sex -- that is not supported in the scientific literature at all."

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