A new study led by a University of Massachusetts Amherst sociologist finds that sexually active teenage girls who took a pledge of abstinence were at a higher risk of contracting human papillomavirus (HPV) and having non-marital pregnancies than those who did not take such a pledge.
The study, “Broken Promises: Abstinence Pledging and Sexual and Reproductive Health,” appears on the website of the Journal of Marriage and Family. Anthony Paik, associate professor of sociology at UMass Amherst, is lead author on the report, joined by Kenneth Sanchagrin of Appalachian State University and Karen Heimer of the University of Iowa.
Using data drawn from more than 3,000 teenage girls originally interviewed in 1994-95 who are now adults and part of the ongoing National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, the researchers found that because virginity “pledgers” are more likely to receive cultural messages downplaying the effectiveness of condoms and contraceptives and be exposed to the framing of premarital sexual activity as a form of failure, girls and young women who take abstinence pledges but later break them may be less prepared to manage the risks associated with sexual activity by obtaining condoms and contraceptives themselves, or less apt to initiate conversations about precautions with their partners.
Pledgers who have had more than one sexual partner had a higher prevalence of HPV, with the greatest risk found in women with six to 10 sexual partners, as pledgers in that statistical universe had a 51 percent rate of being HPV-positive, whereas only 33 percent of non-pledgers were found to be HPV-positive.
The study also found that approximately 30 percent of pledgers, but only 18 percent of non-pledgers, experienced a non-marital pregnancy within six years after first sexual intercourse, and that pledging was associated with an increase in the risk of non-marital pregnancy by slightly more than 50 percent.
Paik and his colleagues found that the pledgers included in their study sample were more likely to be Latinas and have parents with lower educational attainment. These pledgers also exhibited higher levels of religiosity, and a larger proportion of them were affiliated with non-mainline Protestant denominations or were Catholic. They also attended schools with higher proportions of pledgers and evangelicals in the student body.
“Our research indicates that abstinence pledging can have unintended negative consequences by increasing the likelihood of HPV and non-marital pregnancies, the majority of which are unintended,” says Paik. “Abstinence-only sex education policy is widespread at the state and local levels and may return at the federal level, and this policy approach may be contributing to the decreased sexual and reproductive health of girls and young women.”
Currently, 25 states still require that abstinence be stressed in sex education, and 19 states mandate content promoting sexual behavior only within marriages. Previous studies have found that 12 percent and 7 percent of female and male respondents under age 25, respectively, reported pledging to remain a virgin until marriage.