'Virginity pledges' by adolescents may bias their reports of premarital sex

Most adolescents disavowed their pledge within a year

Boston, MA - Adolescents who sign a "virginity pledge" and then go on to have premarital sex are likely to disavow having signed such a pledge, according to an analysis of survey data by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researcher Janet Rosenbaum published in the advance online edition of the American Journal of Public Health's June 2006 issue. Conversely, adolescents who have had premarital sex and then decide to make a virginity pledge are likely to misreport their earlier sexual history. This misreporting of sexual experience will make it difficult to accurately assess virginity pledges' effects on early sexual intercourse, according to the author.

Moreover, the fact that the majority of adolescents recanted their vows within a year may suggest that the virginity pledge programs have a high drop-out rate and that adolescents do not make a strong affiliation with the pledge, said the author.

Rosenbaum, a doctoral student in health policy at HSPH, examined data from 13,568 adolescents who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the only large national study of its kind that has asked questions about virginity pledges, defined as "a public or written pledge to remain a virgin until marriage."

The analysis of this nationally representative sample compared respondents' reports of virginity pledges and sexual histories in an initial 1995 survey with their reports in a follow up survey a year later. The researcher looked for whether participants failed to report either a previously reported pledge or sexual experience during the second survey.

The conclusion was that adolescents inconsistently report their histories of sexual intercourse and that reports from virginity pledgers were less reliable than non-pledgers.

Recanting sexual experience: Almost one-third of non-virgins in the first survey who later took a virginity pledge recanted their experience with sexual intercourse in the second survey. Adolescents who took virginity pledges or who later became born-again Christians were more likely to repudiate their earlier reports of having been sexually active. Of teens who reported a sexual experience at the first survey, those who later took a virginity pledge were four times as likely to retract reports of sexual experience as those who still had not taken a pledge at the second survey.

Recanting virginity pledges: The analysis also found that 52 percent of adolescent virginity pledgers in the 1995 survey disavowed the virginity pledge at the next survey a year later. Additionally, 73 percent of virginity pledgers from the first survey who subsequently reported sexual intercourse denied in the second survey that they had ever pledged. Adolescents who end their affiliation with born-again Christianity or who had sexual intercourse were the groups most likely to deny their virginity pledges.

The author concludes that adolescents' self-reported history of sexual intercourse is an unreliable measure for studies of the effectiveness of virginity pledges. Moreover, the research suggests that teens' pervasive recanting of sex makes general research on teen sexuality of particular difficulty. Most worrisome, said Rosenbaum, is that teens who do not acknowledge their sexually active past may perceive their new history as correct and will underestimate the sexually transmitted disease (STD) risk stemming from their prepledge sexual behavior. On average the retractors had more than two sexual partners.

"It's very tempting to craft stories about what may have been going on in these adolescents' minds as they changed their recollections," said Rosenbaum, "but survey data doesn't give us enough information to substantiate the stories. We can say that evaluating the effectiveness of virginity pledge programs is more difficult and complex than we may have thought. A better and more reliable measure than adolescents' self-reported sexual history might be the straightforward results of medical STD tests."

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The project was funded in part by the Milton Fund of Harvard Medical School in a grant to HSPH Assistant Professor Michael Ganz.

Harvard School of Public Health is dedicated to advancing the public's health through learning, discovery, and communication. More than 300 faculty members are engaged in teaching and training the 900-plus student body in a broad spectrum of disciplines crucial to the health and well being of individuals and populations around the world. Programs and projects range from the molecular biology of AIDS vaccines to the epidemiology of cancer; from risk analysis to violence prevention; from maternal and children's health to quality of care measurement; from health care management to international health and human rights. For more information on the school visit: www.hsph.harvard.edu


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