Mixed Messages: Good News on Abstinence vs. Parents’ Advice to Teens

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An encouraging report, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Sociology, will release the results of extensive research on the effectiveness of so-called “virginity pledges,” popularized in recent years by organizations like True Love Waits, an abstinence campaign sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention. The study, “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges as They Affect Transition to First Intercourse,” relied on data collected through the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health (AddHealth), the most comprehensive long-term study ever conducted of adolescent behavior and the factors which influence and reduce risk-taking by teens.1

According to one author of the study, Peter S. Bearman, a professor of sociology and director of the Institute for Social and Economic Theory and Research at Columbia University, some 2.5 million adolescents had taken virginity pledges at the time the findings were compiled in 1999. By now he estimates that the number is closer to 3 million.2

The results were very positive. They indicate that, on average, adolescents who pledge to abstain avoid sex one third longer (up to 18 months) than their peers who make no such pledge.3 Of course, the goal of the True Love Waits campaign is to help teens remain abstinent until marriage. Nevertheless these findings are significant because they indicate that at least some of the teens participating are not only delaying pre-marital sex but are saving sex for marriage. This is important, because there is overwhelming evidence of the emotional, psychological and spiritual benefits of reserving sex for marriage. Even social science supports this view. A comprehensive University of Chicago study of the sexual lives of Americans found that the group who had sex most often and who were most satisfied with their sex lives were monogamous married couples.4

The study results are also extremely important from a medical point of view, because teenagers who begin engaging in sexual intercourse at an early age are at greater risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and for having an unintended pregnancy. This is true because early intercourse is associated with a greater number of sexual partners, and the more sexual partners, the greater the risk of STDs and pregnancy. In addition, sexual intercourse during the teenage years is often unplanned, and therefore often unprotected.5

Advocates of the “safe sex” approach to sex education tend to prescribe increased condom usage by teenagers as a solution to the problem, but this is wrongheaded for at least two reasons: First, it focuses on intervention for an existing problem rather than on the prevention of teen sexual activity. This approach assumes that teens will be sexually active no matter what, an assumption that the Bearman/Brkner study at least calls into serious question. Second, the “safe sex” approach puts enormous faith in the effectiveness of condoms and the ability of teenagers to use them consistently and correctly-100 percent of the time. Whether they are used consistently and correctly depends on a number of factors. Even so, condoms offer little or no protection against certain STDs, especially chlamidia and human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes some 90 percent of cervical cancers.6

There is further evidence that teenagers are getting the message about abstinence. In a poll conducted in April 2000 by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (NCPTP), some 58 percent of adolescents surveyed agreed that sexual activity among high school-age teens is unacceptable, even if precautions are taken against pregnancy and STDs. Further, a whopping 93 percent of teenagers surveyed agreed they should be given a strong message that they abstain from sex. And 87 percent of teens-including 83 percent of boys-did not think that it is embarrassing for teens to admit to being virgins.7

Meanwhile, there appears to be a certain inconsistency between the message that teenagers would like to hear and the one they are getting from their parents. The same NCPTP survey found that some 36 percent of teenagers said they had not had even a single helpful conversation with their parents about sex.8

A poll conducted in 1999 by Time magazine and Nickelodeon questioned young teenagers (ages 12-14) and found that 76 percent of them consider it “very” or “somewhat” important to delay sex until marriage. When they questioned the minority, who believed pre-marital sex might be okay, and asked them at what age they thought pre-marital sex is appropriate, most said 23. Their parents, on the other hand, thought that age 18 was appropriate.9

In a poll conducted in January and February 2001 by Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates, parents were given a choice between the following three messages and asked which one they would wish to convey to their teenagers:

  1. Sit down with him/her and talk about the benefits of abstinence and encourage him/her not to have sex until he/she is married.
  2. Sit down with him/her and talk about the need to have safe sex and talk with him/her about his/her birth control options.

Have a stern conversation with him/her and forbid him/her from experimenting with sex until after he/she leaves your home or is married.

The results indicated that parents continue to uphold the double standards of previous eras, which assumed that boys will and even should sleep around and that girls should not. Still, less than half (48 percent) of parents would encourage their daughters to be abstinent, while 50 percent would want their sons to have “safe sex.” A rather insignificant minority-2 percent of parents of boys and 6 percent of parents of girls-have strict rules forbidding sexual experimentation by their teenagers.10

This reluctance on the part of many modern parents to convey a strong abstinence message is perhaps not all that puzzling, considering that parents themselves are often casualties of the sexual revolution, who either (a) would prefer that their teens remain abstinent until marriage, but feel they lack the moral authority to exhort their children to behave more responsibly than they did; or (b) still believe in the false promises of sexual freedom, and believe that their duty is not to inhibit sexual experimentation by their children but, rather, to ensure that they practice “safe sex.”

No doubt all parents feel a certain measure of discomfort in discussing sex with their children, especially if they feel guilty about their own past behavior. But parents who would prefer that their children remain abstinent should take encouragement. It is greatly to their children’s benefit, physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, to remain abstinent until marriage. In addition, it appears that, in general, their children are willing and even eager to hear a clear abstinence message. In short, parents should not be afraid to be grown-ups. They may be pleasantly surprised when their children respond to a message that is intended to protect them and to help them have a happy, healthy life.

End Notes

  1. Peter S. Bearman and Hannah Brkner, “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges as they Effect Transition to First Intercourse,” American Journal of Sociology (forthcoming).

Terri Lackey, “Virginity Pledges are Highly Effective, Study Says,” Ture Love Waits News Media Center (February 2001). Bearman and Brkner, 2000. Edward O. Laumann, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Stuart Michaels, The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). Trends in the Well-Being of America’s Children & Youth 1998, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation; cited in America’s Youth: Measuring the Risk, ed., Shepherd Smith and Anita M. Smith (Washington, D.C.: The Institute for Youth Development, 1999), 81. Cervical Cancer: NIH Consensus Development Statement, National Institutes of Health, 43, no. 1 (1-3 April 1996): 1-30; American Social Health Association “Sexually Transmitted Disease in America: How Many Cases and at What Cost?” (Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation, December 1998). The Cautious Generation: Teens Tell Us about Sex, Virginity and “The Talk,” April 27, 2000, National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Ibid. Claudia Wallis, “The Kids are Alright,” Time Magazine (July 5, 1999), 56-58. Fabrizio, McLaughlin & Associates, poll released March 15, 2001; survey of 2,400 registered voters in January and February 2001.

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