Teens who pledge to remain virgins until marriage have the same rates of sexually transmitted diseases as those who don't pledge abstinence, according to a study that examined the sex lives of 12,000 adolescents. Those who make a public pledge to abstain until marriage delay sex, have fewer sex partners, and get married earlier, according to data gathered from adolescents ages 12 to 18, with whom the study followed up six years after the initial round of questioning. But the STD rates of those who pledged abstinence and those who didn't were statistically similar, mostly because abstinent teens are significantly less likely to use condoms if they do decide to have sex.
The study found that about 99% of youth who do not pledge to remain abstinent and 88% of those who do pledge to refrain from sex until marriage ultimately have premarital sex. Fifty-nine percent of males who do not pledge abstinence reporting using condoms during sex. Only 40% of young males who pledged abstinence used condoms when they decided to have sex. About 28% of female nonpledgers had been tested for an STD in the previous year, compared with 14% of pledgers who later began having sex.
"It's difficult to simultaneously prepare for sex and say you're not going to have sex," said Peter Bearman, the chairman of Columbia University's Department of Sociology, who coauthored the study with Hannah Bruckner of Yale. "The message is really simple: 'Just say no' may work in the short term but doesn't work in the long term."
Critics of abstinence-only education saw the findings as evidence that adolescents benefit from sex education. "It's a tragedy if we withhold from these kids information about how not to get STDs or not to get pregnant," said Dorothy Mann, executive director of the Family Planning Council, an organization dedicated to reproductive health services. "It is the combination of hidden sex and unsafe sex that creates a world where people underestimate the risk of STDs," Bearman added.