Abstaining from abstinence coverage

herpes shirtSo we all know the accepted consensus on abstinence programs: They don’t work. Right? A few months ago, the CDC issued a really shoddy survey claiming that one in four teenage girls had a sexually transmitted disease. The relative standard error was so high (greater than 30 percent) as to render the survey useless.

But that didn’t keep reporters from running with the story and using it to argue that it proved abstinence programs didn’t work. The study didn’t measure anything at all to do with sex education, much less abstinence-specific programs. The media circus that surrounded the survey was advocacy at the expense of the truth. Even after the study was discredited, major papers kept running with the statistic and what it supposedly meant about sex education. The “consensus” that abstinence programs don’t work is firmly entrenched, it seems.

So along comes a survey that actually does measure the effectiveness of an abstinence program and where is the mainstream media coverage? Almost non-existent. I would have completely missed the story unless a reader had sent in a brief blog item that ran on a New Jersey Star-Ledger site:

“Virginity pledges” in which adolescents swear to abstain from sex until marriage, do seem to work, for a while anyway, according to a new study by the RAND Corp.

The study interviewed nearly 1,500 teenagers who said they were virgins in 2001, 2002 and 2004. The teenagers shared similar backgrounds with regard to religion, parenting and friendships; about one-fourth of the group reported they had made a virginity pledge.

At the end of the three years, 42 percent of the teens who didn’t make the pledges said they were sexually active. Only one-third of teens who made pledges said they’d had intercourse, according to the study, published by the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The study’s lead author, psychologist Steven Marino, said the pledges should not be a substitute for comprehensive sexual education. But they did delay the onset of sexual activity in some teens.

People who delay sex until they are older are less likely to have unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, the researchers said.

That’s the whole blog post and I actually think it’s pretty good. It gets all the key details and explains them in a very straightforward manner. Good work. The key here is that RAND Corp. — which is one of the best research outfits around, in my opinion — controlled the study for various sociological factors. They didn’t compare homeschooled religious children with unchurched teen mothers or something like that. They compared the effect of virginity pledges by looking at teens with similar backgrounds.

Anyway, so unlike that silly CDC report, here we have a legitimate study that shows that abstinence pledges “work” and where is the mainstream coverage? All I could find was that blog post and a sidebar mention accompanying an uncritical story in The Columbian (Wash.) about the purity movement:

Did you know?

* Teens who make a pledge to not have sexual intercourse before marriage are more likely to postpone sexual activities than their peers who do not make the pledge, according to a Rand Corp. survey. In comparing those who made pledges with those who didn’t, researchers found that during a three-year period, 42 percent of nonpledgers had begun having sexual intercourse compared with 34 percent of those who had made the pledge.

* Teens who make a purity pledge are not more likely to engage in nonintercourse activities such as oral sex, compared to those who didn’t make the pledge, the survey found.

It really doesn’t make sense how little coverage this study received. Purity events are all the rage right now. Teen sex stories are always bound to sell papers. What gives?

If you want to read the study that the mainstream media deemed less important than that shoddy CDC concoction from a few months ago, here’s a link. And here’s the RAND press release from last month.

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  • Stephen A.

    SURELY, you’re not implying that there’s BIAS in the newsrooms against these abstinance programs, Mollie?

    Because we all know that there’s no such thing as liberal bias or agenda-pushing in the media. (/sarcasm)

    And people wonder why conservatives see bias everywhere. Probably because it’s THERE.

    But it’s not all bias. Contributing to the lack of coverage, of course, may include a poor PR effort by the RAND Corporation. If they don’t make their people available to the networks and newspapers for interviews, a group may not have the same exposure as the CDC, which always does.

  • Jerry

    This is more in the lines of a generic comment, but google turned up a thought for the day yesterday about journalism. This particular story highlighted some of the principles behind the following quotes from http://www.quotationspage.com/subjects/journalism/

    People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news.

    A. J. Liebling

    Trying to be a first-rate reporter on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach’s ‘St. Matthew’s Passion’ on a ukulele.

    Bagdikian’s Observation

    Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.
    Ben Hecht

    I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.

    Thomas Jefferson

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    By all means, we will be a much more informed and tolerant society in Americans get their news from talk-radio, blogs and Comedy Central.

  • Stephen A.

    I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.

    Thomas Jefferson

    This one was mislabeled. George W Bush said that. (What? No? It really *was* Jefferson? Huh. Well then, I dare you to call Jefferson stupid. To his face.)

  • Tor

    Hi Mollie:

    I’m the Managing Editor at the Journal of Adolescent Health. Thanks very much for your interest in the Journal.

    I actually felt that the Martino paper received quite a bit of press coverage, but I’m coming from the perspective of a small niche journal that doesn’t usually attract a lot of mainstream attention.

    In any case, those of us who study adolescent sexual behavior have known for quite some time that, for some kids, virginity pledges certainly do delay sexual debut. Peter Bearman’s work in the late 90s showed noncompulsory virginity pledges are associated with a 18-month delay in sexual debut, which of course is a huge amount of time for teens.

    However, from a public health perspective, the virginity pledge is only one tool in a broad arsenal of tactics for protecting kids from the adverse effects of early sexual debut. Some kids are just unwilling to take or abide by virginity pledges at all. And, while the aforementioned delay is extremely important, most people, including pledgers, do initiate sexual activity prior to marriage.

    So the argument is not against virginity pledges, per se, but against abstinence-only sex education, and in favor of comprehensive sex education.

    Ideally, comprehensive programs encourage kids to wait and teach them the benefits of delaying sexual debut until they are mature enough to deal with it responsibly, while at the same time defining responsible sexual relationships and helping develop contraceptive knowledge and skills that will protect them from unwanted pregnancy and and sexually transmitted infections later in life. Steve Martino at RAND said as much when he was interviewed for the story you quoted.

    Again, thanks very much for your attention. This is really a critical issue for adolescent health care.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I thought the one media report I saw — the NJ Star-Ledger blog post — did a good job of explaining that these virginity pledges do have a positive effect on delayed sexual activity but aren’t a cure-all for all teens or all teen sex problems.

    ANyway, was there other mainstream coverage of the report? I saw some niche publications but no major media.

  • Chris Bolinger

    I realize that this strays from the topic of media coverage of religion, but I can’t help but juxtapose two quotes from Tor.

    Quote 1:

    …noncompulsory virginity pledges are associated with a 18-month delay in sexual debut, which of course is a huge amount of time for teens.

    Quote 2:

    Ideally, comprehensive programs encourage kids to wait and teach them the benefits of delaying sexual debut until they are mature enough to deal with it responsibly

    How long does the average teen believe that it will take for him or her to become mature enough to deal with the consequences of being sexually active? If 18 months is “a huge amount of time for teens”, then it follows that the average teen feels that he or she already is mature enough or will be mature enough in less than 18 months. Of course, the grim reality is that neither is true.

    So-called comprehensive sex education suffers from several very broken premises, one being that youth, while not mature enough to deal with being sexually active, are mature enough to handle this message:
    * You shouldn’t have sex until you are “mature enough”
    * We know that you are going to anyway
    * When you do, be really careful

  • Tor

    Mostly what I have seen has been local papers — Desert News, Evening Bulletin, the Columbian. But again, relatively speaking, that’s a lot of coverage for JAH. I’m awaiting my Lexis/Nexis report, which will probably come next week.

    The other thing I should mention is that Martino’s paper has not technically been published yet. It’s available as an In Press paper on the Journal’s web site, but probably won’t be published until the November 2008 issue. A lot of mainstream news organizations won’t cover scientific research until it has appeared in a print issue for fear of violating any media embargo. RAND did jump the gun a bit with its press release.

  • Tor

    Hi Chris:

    One of the really interesting aspects of adolescent behavior is that they are a) really bad at evaluating their own actions and b) unable to predict significant life events. For instance, fully 1/5 of teens do not believe they will live past 20, when of course, nearly all of them do.

    Also, the 18 months that Bearman came up with is a statistically generated average. So it seems unlikely that kids think that way: “I’m going to take this pledge and break it in 18 months.” The purpose of pointing out this average delay is that a lot of psychosocial development takes place over 18 months of adolescence. So if you can get kids to delay by any means, they will naturally be better equipped to deal with sexual relationships, simply by virtue of the maturation process.

    So the virginity pledge is certainly very helpful for some kids in preventing some adverse aspects of premature sexual debut. But the “for some kids” is crucial. Even in the Martino study, which studied kids who were already inclined to make the pledge, 1/3 were sexually active after three years. Studies that include kids who are not inclined to pledge show lower rates of compliance.

    So yes, some kids are going to anyway, whether they pledge or not. And its unethical, unwise, and unhealthy to just give up on those kids that don’t delay simply because we’ve been successful with the minority that do delay.

  • Jerry

    By all means, we will be a much more informed and tolerant society in Americans get their news from talk-radio, blogs and Comedy Central.

    There’s a distinction between bad and worse, of course. But some blogs are better than others. Don’t get too complacent, but I find out much more about what’s going on in the world of religion by reading this blog than any newspaper. And sometimes as we discussed, Comedy Central does a better job than the MSM.

    And I think Jefferson’s comment was not to imply that we’re better off being ignorant, but that reading the paper can make you unhappy.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Tor, I have been doing youth work for nearly 20 years and know quite a bit about this topic. I won’t bore the rest of this board with opinions or stories, because this blog is supposed to be about how the press covers religion. Let’s just say that you and I have some very strong disagreements about “comprehensive” sex education.

  • Dave

    Two notes:

    What’s missing from the blog post is the error level of the study or, failing that, the size of the sample. We can’t tell the meaning of the difference between 42% and 34% unless we know how the eight percentage point difference between those numbers compares with the intrinsic error.

    Also, we get a bit sidetracked in any view of sex education that focuses on the ability to induce abstinence in teens. These are education courses, and the people taking them are future adults. A proper perspective on them should include how well the courses are preparing them for the rest of their lives, not just the rest of their adolescence.

  • Nicholas

    The other flaw, either in the study or the stories about it, is of course the fact that STDs aren’t only spread by sexual intercourse itself, and “sexually active” is a vague label, especially if the study asked teens to self-identify.

    Not all teens, even those who pledge to remain “virgins” until marriage, count oral sex as ending virginity or even as “sex” (they do have prominent role models in this regard), which is a major flaw in all these studies.

  • http://www.GetReligion.org Mollie

    The study did analyze both intercourse and other sexual activities . . .

  • Nicholas

    “Among those who did not have sex during this period, pledging was unassociated with engagement in noncoital sexual behavior.”

    This seems to suggest that pledging had no affect on whether or not the teeens engaged in noncoital sexual behavior, which, as it can still spread STDs, is part of the reason I think studies like these and the way they are handled in the media is misleading.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Here’s what the RAND study said:

    “Some researchers have speculated that abstaining from intercourse might increase participation in other sexual activities, like oral sex. But the RAND study found that those who pledged were no more likely to engage in non-intercourse behaviors than comparable youth who did not take a pledge.”

  • Nicholas

    Right, I wasn’t trying to suggest that the abstract was misleading in the way it was worded. I was trying to suggest that regardless of the reduction of intercourse, the study itself admits that pledging or not does not appear to have an effect on other sexual behaviors. Even if the pledges work to prevent intercourse (and obviously if they do they would reduce unwanted pregnancies), this does not mean they are effective for the prevention of STDs or sexual behavior in general.

    Sorry, this is getting a bit off-topic.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Sure, but if the accepted consensus is that virginity pledges lead to *increases* in non-intercourse sexual activity rates, then it’s certainly noteworthy if a study shows that assumption is incorrect.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    check out THIS article on HIV:

    “..The United Nations report said that in Rwanda and Zimbabwe, changes in sexual behavior had led to declines in the number of new H.I.V. infections…”

    This might not mean monogamy: a report from Zimbabwe shows many businessmen are merely keeping mistresses instead of one night stands. The “modern” equivalent of faithful polygamy…

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