Monday, December 29, 2008

Abstinence pledges worse than ineffective

The Washington Post reports this morning

Teenagers who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence and are significantly less likely to use condoms and other forms of birth control when they do, according to a study released today.

The findings indicate that pledges are not only ineffective at stopping premarital sex but counter-productive in discouraging teens from taking reasonable precautions.

One explanation for the findings may be that pledges convince teens that they don't need to take precautions. After all, you don't need condoms or other forms of birth control if you're not going to have sex in the first place. However, in the instances when sex does happen, the teens are unprepared. As the study indicates, the "instances" seem to be as frequent for the pledged teens as for the unpledged teens.

Another explanation is that pledges put up barriers between teens and responsible adults who might help arrange for contraception. It is difficult enough for a teen to start the "I need protection" conversation with a parent; imagine how much harder it is when the teen has pledged chastity.

Yet another explanation may be that parents become less vigilant regarding their children's behavior once a pledge has been made.

Pledges and abstinence programs generally are based on the unrealistic notion that we shouldn't send "mixed messages" to teens. However, the mixed message seems unavoidable. We should discourage teenagers from engaging in sex, but if they do, we want them to take precautions against pregnancy and disease.

The good news seems to be that teens as a group are getting the mixed message despite the actions of some adults. Teen birth rates and pregnancy rates are at relatively low levels. More comprehensive programs that recognize the inherent mixed message may help to reduce these rates more.