Recent studies published by Drs. Hannah Brückner and Peter Bearman in the Journal of Adolescent Health (2005) and American Journal of Sociology (2001) indicated that taking a virginity pledge can help some young people to delay sexual initiation for up to 18 months, but that once these young people break their pledge, they are less likely to use contraception or condoms, thus putting them at risk for unintended pregnancy and HIV or other STDs.
Brückner and Bearman's newest findings were derived from following pledging and non-pledging youth for six years, to assess the impact of the pledge on subsequent behavior. Brückner and Bearman found that among sexually experienced youth, more than 88 percent of pledgers had broken their pledge and had had sex before marriage. Brückner and Bearman also found that, once pledgers began to have sex, they had more partners in a shorter period of time and were less likely to use contraception or condoms than were their non-pledging peers. Rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among youth who had taken a virginity pledge varied little from rates among those who had never pledged.
Further, data showed that among those who reported having only oral and/or anal sex, pledgers were over-represented, possibly to "keep their virginity intact."
Kirk Johnson and Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation recently released a paper at the Eighth Annual Welfare Research and Evaluation Conference, sponsored by HHS, claiming that Brückner and Bearman's findings were faulty and taking umbrage at the researchers' methodology.
Below, Drs. Brückner and Bearman respond.
"FIRST, The authors argue that using biomarker data to measure current STD status of individuals is a poor measure and instead propose using self-report data. Our analyses showed that pledgers are less likely to get tested for STDs, be diagnosed as having an STD, and to see a doctor because they are worried about having an STD. Most STD infections are asymptomatic, and therefore, people don't know that they have an STD unless they get tested. The use of self-report data for STDs is therefore extremely problematic."
"SECOND, The authors ignore the fact that HPV acquisition rates for pledgers are slightly higher, though not statistically different, than those of non-pledgers. This confirms our evidence that STD rates for other diseases do not differ by pledge status."
"THIRD, The authors fail to note that most of the data presented in our article shows that pledgers report fewer risk behaviors than non-pledgers."
"In contrast to the work of Mr Rector, we try to present a balanced description of the health outcomes of virginity pledges."
"FOURTH, as Mr. Rector emphasized in his paper we never said that pledgers are more likely than others to engage in risky behavior. In fact, many newspapers across the country reported what we said correctly, namely, that pledgers are over-represented in a small group of young adults that avoids vaginal intercourse but reports oral and anal intercourse. Mr. Rector criticizes that these findings are based on a small group of respondents."
"This is the case for anal sex but not oral sex, a fact that Rector doesn't even mention in his critique. We also emphasized in the article that this applies to a small group and by itself cannot not explain the STD finding, although it may be one piece of the puzzle."
"FIFTH, as background, the authors fail to remind readers that among sexually experienced respondents, 88% of the consistent and 94% of the inconsistent pledgers have sex before marriage (here again, vaginal intercourse), compared 99% of the non-pledgers."
"FINALLY, Mr. Rector suggests that we deliberately mislead the public. That is an offensive statement. Our experience with individuals who engage in personal attacks is that the attack is designed to draw attention away from something. In this instance it seems clear that the goal is to draw our attention away from the fact that many young adults, pledgers and non-pledgers alike, have STD rates that are too high. Scientific studies like ours help us understand how to help all adolescents."