The Price of Abstinence

A much-heralded study in the January issue of the journal Pediatrics has concluded that the premarital “abstinence pledges” so beloved by evangelical Christians are ineffective. Teenagers who sign up for religious programs such as True Love Waits or Silver Ring Thing, in which participants pledge to remain abstinent until marriage, are just as likely to have premarital sex as nonpledgers, and significantly less likely to use contraception when they do. They also contract STDs at the same rates as nonpledgers, have their first sexual encounter at the same average age as nonpledgers, and have the same average number of sexual partners as nonpledgers. In short, in every way that can be measured, these programs are completely useless and may be actively harmful. (Also, note that all the “abstinence pledge” programs are specifically Christian in nature and content – which has led to First Amendment lawsuits when their advocates try to get them taught in public schools.)

However, we do have a contrary view from William McGurn in the Wall Street Journal, which has some fallacies to be dispensed with. McGurn first points out that:

…the only way the study’s author, Janet Elise Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins University, could reach such results was by comparing teens who take a virginity pledge with a very small subset of other teens: those who are just as religious and conservative as the pledge-takers.

He treats this as if it were a dirty trick, when in fact it’s basic statistics: to eliminate confounding factors from your results, the best method is to compare two populations that are similar in every respect except the variable you want to study. That’s exactly what Rosenbaum’s study (full text online here) did, choosing two groups of teenagers with similar social and religious backgrounds, except that one group took virginity pledges and the other did not. McGurn apparently does not dispute the conclusion that the pledges made no difference in behavior. Nevertheless:

…virginity pledging teens were considerably more conservative in their overall sexual behaviors than teens in general — a fact that many media reports have missed cold.

…Let’s put this another way. The real headline from this study is this: “Religious Teens Differ Little in Sexual Behavior Whether or Not They Take a Pledge.”

McGurn cites no studies in support of this conclusion, and I’d very much like to see his evidence. Needless to say, most of the studies I’m aware of have found precisely the opposite: the most religiously conservative areas of the country have the highest rates of STDs and teen pregnancy, and abstinence-only sex ed does nothing to reduce these problems. A recent article in the New Yorker by Margaret Talbot, Red Sex, Blue Sex, cites a study by the sociologist Mark Regnerus:

Regnerus argues that religion is a good indicator of attitudes toward sex, but a poor one of sexual behavior, and that this gap is especially wide among teen-agers who identify themselves as evangelical.

…On average, white evangelical Protestants make their “sexual début” — to use the festive term of social-science researchers — shortly after turning sixteen… Another key difference in behavior, Regnerus reports, is that evangelical Protestant teen-agers are significantly less likely than other groups to use contraception.

The article goes on to observe that socially conservative, more religious “red” states also have higher teen pregnancy rates, higher rates of STD infection, and higher rates of divorce, the latter probably because of their lower median age of marriage. The abstinence-only programs so popular in those states have done nothing to deter this. In fact, it’s made the problem worse by ensuring that teens who do have sex are ill-equipped to protect themselves. The evidence is clear that comprehensive sex ed programs which teach accurate information about contraception have proven superior every time they’re put to the test. If we expect teenagers to act like adults, we need to treat them like adults.

But abstinence-only programs exact a higher price than this. Consider their impact in Africa, which is still battling a massive AIDS epidemic. In countries like Uganda, abstinence-only programs championed by Christian pastors like Martin Ssempa, who’s a close friend and ally of Rick Warren, have reversed the success of comprehensive sex ed programs, leading to a rise in new HIV infection rates among the rural poor. (Ssempa followed up his success in the abstinence-only campaign by spearheading a political initiative to imprison homosexuals.)

It’s unlikely that religious advocates of abstinence-only programs will be deterred by any of these facts. Pleasing their notion of God matters more to them than the lives or well-being of real people, and so in their minds, as long as we’re teaching the “right” things, the results are beside the point. This makes it all the more important that we in the reality-based community, who value human welfare more highly than obedience to dogma, do not give up the push to ensure that all people have access to accurate information about sex and contraception.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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