Study Finds Abstinence Pledges Not Working

Conscientious parents, whether or not they’re religious, hope their teenagers will avoid sexual activity as long as possible. The dangers of teen sex are obvious: emotional upheavals, unplanned pregnancies, STDs. For Christians, premarital sex also violates teachings against what the Bible calls fornication.

In an effort to forestall adolescent sex, parents and youth pastors sometimes pressure teenagers to sign abstinence pledges and wear abstinence rings.

Sadly, it continues to appear that such well-intentioned programs have little effect in preventing teenage sexual involvement. In the newest study, Janet E. Rosenbaum, a post-doctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found that teens who sign abstinence pledges are, in the words of a December 29 Yahoo! News article, “just as likely to have sex as teens who don’t make such promises–and they’re less likely to practice safe sex to prevent disease or pregnancy.”

Rosenbaum’s research, published in the January issue of Pediatrics, compared teenagers who had taken a pledge with teens who hadn’t made an abstinence vow but for other reasons were likely to delay sexual involvement.

Rosenbaum found that after five years of follow-up with 934 students, “those who had taken a pledge did not differ from teens who hadn’t taken a pledge in rates of premarital sex, oral or anal sex, or sexually transmitted diseases,” Yahoo! News said.

She also found that those who had signed pledges were 10 percent less likely to use condoms or other birth control, putting them at greater risk of diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

I’ve always been skeptical of any promises teenagers make to stay abstinent, especially when their vows are gained under religious pressure from parents and ministers.

In my little corner of the world, I’ve encountered true horror stories. There’s the girl who, to preserve her virginity and stay technically true to the vow she’d given her pastor-father, engaged regularly in anal sex. I know another girl who didn’t use birth control because she rationalized that using it would mean she’d planned ahead to sin, which to her was a worse offense than simply going astray in the heat of passion. The result: she got pregnant and had a secret abortion.

If urging kids to swear they’ll remain abstinent doesn’t help them actually behave, what can parents do? Here are a few suggestions:

1) Communicate, don’t preach. Explain the pitfalls of early sex in a calm, rational manner. Don’t threaten. Don’t beg. Just talk. If it’s obvious your teens are sexually active or are about to become active, give them accurate information about birth control. I find no contradiction in saying, “Look, I don’t want you to have sex, but I realize it’s a huge temptation. If you’re about to fall off the wagon, at least protect yourself and the unplanned baby you could otherwise bring into this world.”

2) Don’t make sex the mother of all issues (so to speak). Recognize teenage sex for what it is: one of countless unwise behaviors. It’s bad, but arguably no worse than pride, stinginess, drunk driving and the like. The bigger a deal you make of sex, the larger it may loom in your kids’ minds.

3) Be a role model. If parents live circumspectly, children may learn by example.

4) Narrow the kids’ windows of opportunity. Be good-natured about it, but make it your business to know where your teenagers go and who they’re with. Encourage them to entertain their friends at home, where you can supervise them.

5) Keep them busy. The more time your teens spend helping the elderly, working a part-time job, playing ball, marching in the band or going to youth-group meetings, the less time they’ll have to fool around.

6) Remember that grace produces better results than shame does. Tell your teens how much you love them. Assure them that even if they mess up, you’ll never turn your back on them. Tell them that God loves them even more than you do.

7) Pray. A lot.

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