Although the United States has slowly started to move away from abstinence-only education in the years since George W. Bush left the White House, purity culture remains deeply entrenched in our national society. But mounting evidence suggests that encouraging young adults to abstain from sex until marriage actually poses a threat to their sexual health and overall wellbeing.
“Virginity pledges,” or written statements of commitment to save sexual intercourse until marriage, are a relatively recent phenomenon among American conservatives. A program called “True Love Waits” popularized by the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1990s is largely credited with sparking the widespread movement. Since then, dozens of scientific studies have attempted to analyze virginity pledges’ efficacy, and researchers have found that teens who take those pledges don’t actually follow through.
On top of that, the emphasis on abstinence carries some risks. According to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, men who take virginity pledges may struggle with long-lasting issues with sex, even after they’re married.
The participants in the study — all conservative evangelicals who joined an abstinence support group in their late teens or early 20s, before they got married — remained confused about what constitutes a healthy sexual relationship and how to broach the topic with their wives. Some of them confessed that they wish their church pastors had done a better job preparing them for navigating this aspect of marriage.
“There’s an obsession with virginity in this country,” the lead researcher, Sarah Diefendorf, who plans to present her findings at an upcoming meeting of the American Sociological Association, noted in a statement. “And we forget to have informative, successful conversations on sex.”
Diefendorf’s research is somewhat unusual in its specific focus on men. Most of the previous research into the effects of purity culture have honed in on women, since society’s approach to virginity has an outsized impact on women’s sexuality. Those studies have reported similar findings, particularly when it comes to the inability to openly discuss sex or identify the markers of a healthy or unhealthy relationship.
Anecdotally, one woman who took a virginity pledge as a young girl recently recounted her negative experience in a piece published on xoJane. After pledging her abstinence at the age of 10, she married a man she loved — but she struggled to have a healthy sexual relationship with him because she was taught that sex is dirty. “Waiting didn’t give me a happily ever after. Instead, it controlled my identity for over a decade, landed me in therapy, and left me a stranger in my own skin. I was so completely ashamed of my body and my sexuality that it made having sex a demoralizing experience,” she writes.
Researchers have also found more tangible public health consequences of convincing teens to make virginity pledges. According to some studies, the rates of sexually transmitted infections are even higher among people who pledged their abstinence than they are among the general population. Virginity pledgers may also be less likely to wear a condom or use other types of contraception. Even among the studies that haven’t found these discrepancies, the teens who committed to abstinence don’t actually have lower rates of STDs — suggesting these pledges definitely aren’t the boon to public health that social conservatives typically promise.
Despite the fact that proponents of comprehensive sex ed have been making these arguments for years, the framework behind virginity pledges has infiltrated classrooms across the country. When these pledges are used in abstinence-only curricula, explicit references to religion are typically omitted, but the underlying message is the same.
For instance, one pledge included in the Choosing the Best LIFE student workbook asks students to subscribe to the ABCs of virginity: “Today I commit to Abstinence as a way to make the Best preparation for my future by Choosing to wait until marriage to have sex, because I want to be free: from worry, guilt, pregnancy sexually transmitted diseases, and the feeling of being used by another; to control my life, to like myself, to work towards personal goals, to experience healthy relationships, and to enjoy being a teenager.”
Public health experts have advocated taking a starkly different approach to teen sexuality, acknowledging that the vast majority of young adults are will be sexually active before marriage and pointing out that curricula need to adapt to this reality. Reproductive health researchers recommend that, in order to reduce the rate of STDs and unintended pregnancies, schools need to implement comprehensive sexuality instruction as early as age 10. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also endorse starting sex ed earlier, based on statistics showing that most kids don’t receive any formal instruction until after they’ve already started having sex.