Tuesday, March 09, 2004


Now that I have your attention... (No, don't go all pouty like that; this entry really is about sex.)

This is a bit preliminary, but Peter Bearman and Hannah Bruckner are presenting a study at the 2004 National STD Prevention Conference that shows that "virginity pledges" do delay the onset of sexual behavior, but those that take them show the same STD infection rates as those that do not. The reason being that the pledged virgins are less likely to use condoms when they actually do have sex.

This study hasn't been published yet, and the conference is still on-going, so I can't find much on this particular study. However, in a previous paper of theirs, they make some very interesting points:

  1. Pledging does significantly delay the onset of sexual behavior, although it depends at what age the pledge is taken.
  2. Pledging only works when it is "non-normative," i.e. when there are not very few or very many pledgers.
  3. Those that break the pledge are less likely to use condoms.

I found the second point the most interesting. One would think in a community where everyone was pledging to remain a virgin until marriage, it would be very effective.

The big finding from the study they are presenting today seems to be the fact that STD rates for pledgers and non-pledgers are about the same. This should come as no surprise to anyone. Abstinence-only education stresses that condoms do not prevent STDs, or that they are ineffective (the claimed degree of ineffecacy depending on the program) at doing so. They typically claim that the only method that is 100% guaranteed to prevent pregnancy or STDs is abstinence. [1]

Abstinence-only education is not fault-tolerant. As any engineer knows, everything fails. Parts break. Steel corrodes. You can never eliminate human error. And as any software developer knows, it is important for a complicated system to fail gracefully. That is, you must plan for a failure in critical systems. That's why we have backup systems, uninterruptable power supplies, and emergency stairwells. Not planning for predictable failures is not just careless, it is negligent.

Life long celibacy is not likely to happen for most people. And 88% of virginity pledgers are not virgins on their wedding night; that number goes up to 99% when we're not talking about pledgers. Therefore, it is reprehensible for any sex education system not take into account the fact that every one of its students will eventually have sex, and most likely before marriage. That's why abstinence-only education is a sham. Its purpose is not to keep kids safe or out of "trouble," but to push forward what is essentially a religious agenda. They're not trying to keep kids safe, they're trying to keep them from sin.

I'm not saying that sex education shouldn't teach abstinence. I don't think that 13 year olds should be having sex. We should, as a society, encourage kids to put off sex until they are physically, socially, and emotionally capable of handling it. But when they do -- and virtually all of them will -- they need to be armed with all of the tools necessary to do so in a safe and responsible manner. Seat belts aren't 100% effective, but I still wear mine when driving. Why is a condom so different?

To quote Mary Jo from Designing Women:

I think it really shouldn't matter what your personal views are on birth control, because we're not just talking about preventing births anymore. We're talking about preventing deaths. Twenty-five thousand Americans [2] have died, and we're still debating. Well, for me, the debate is over. More important than what any civic leaders, PTA, or Board of Education thinks about teenagers having sex, or any immoral act that my daughter or your son might engage in..... the bottom line is I don't think they should have to die for it.

For me, too, Mary Jo, the debate is over.

[1] I'm making the big assumption here that virginity pledgers are more likely to take part in abstinence-only education. That's an assumption; I haven't been able to find much on Bearman's study. But it seems likely.

[2] That was in 1987. That number has now grown twentyfold, to 500,000.

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