The news outlets are covering the release of a report that purports to show that teens who took "purity pledges" have the same likelihood of engaging in pre-marital sex as teens who did not take the pledge. With their usual balance and candor, the main-stream-media is covering the story with little detail or explanation. It makes good print to say that all those smarmy religious kids are just as dirty as the rest of us.
Only one outlet - Fox News - mentions the methodology used in this test. It turns out the test uses the same data as a previous study that showed that teens that took such pledges actually did have lower incidence of pre-marital sex. This new study juggles the data differently. The analysts for this new study only used teens that were "similar" demographically to teens that took the pledge.
The study used a method called "matched" sampling, in which the analyst can isolate a single factor in the course of a study using varied data. Through a bit of data juggling, the analysts in this study created a pool of respondents who were similar to the "pledgers" in every respect - except that they didn't take the pledge. This similarity includes a number of religious variables. So in a way, this new analysis is more apples to apples. But it fails to account for the fact that "purity pledges" are in fact taking place in a religious context. It makes sense that kids whose responses to religion-related questions is similar to "pledgers" would have similar incidence of pre-marital sex.
Here's a revealing quote from the abstract to this article (emphasis mine):
CONCLUSIONS. The sexual behavior of virginity pledgers does not differ from that of closely matched nonpledgers, and pledgers are less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease before marriage. Virginity pledges may not affect sexual behavior but may decrease the likelihood of taking precautions during sex. Clinicians should provide birth control information to all adolescents, especially virginity pledgers.If we were looking for an agenda, I think we may have found it. The entire article reporting the results of the study can be viewed here.
The point is the religious context. Religion comes in a package; you can't take it apart according to what you find helpful or according to purely practical standards. I don't think anyone is saying that resisting the temptation to engage in pre-marital sex is easy. It usually takes a strong religious commitment, supported by multiple cultural elements to make it possible. I'm pretty sure that this Pediatrics study would show that fact exactly, if the facts were re-shuffled a bit. What do you think the correlation is between religious activity and sexual activity? I'm betting it's pretty strong. It was at least strong enough to bend the data back from previous studies when the comparison of non-religious kids to "pledgers" without matching showed lower incidence of pre-marital sex amongst "pledgers".
I had a friend who went to a physical exam before college and was asked whether she wanted birth control. She told the nurse (who was a parishioner at her church) "No, I'm saving myself for marriage." The nurse told her, "Sweetheart, a lot of girls say that and then find that they just can't keep their promise. You really ought to take a prescription for birth control."
Thanks, Nurse Ratchet. What is happening here is the defection of a large portion of the medical industry from the degree of cultural support and holistic attention that these girls need. It's also a commentary on the college dating scene. Kids need to be told that a) purity is a goal that is worth fighting for and b) it's going to be really hard but you can do it with help. They're gonna fail sometimes, often in proportion to the support that they got before and during their college experience.
Really what this study has to say is this: sometimes kids say something, even promise something, and then don't follow through with it. We could jump to the conclusion that they will never, ever keep the pledge so we should medicate them to prevent them from becoming pregnant. The rest of the story is this: it is possible to abstain, and it's a lot easier with religious formation. That may or may not include a purity pledge. Boys and girls that do abstain from sex until marriage are usually healthier, happier, and better prepared for the challenges they will be facing later in life. And we need a lot more of them. I'd love to see a study on that.