Even abstaining teens need comprehensive sex education

I give a lot of credit to the West Des Moines Valley High School students who have started a support group for peers planning to abstain from sex. Probably most high school students are not ready for sexual intimacy, but few would be willing to admit it like the teenagers who participate in this group.

However, I hope that these Valley students, along with all teenagers who take virginity pledges, still receive medically-accurate and comprehensive sex education.

A study released by the National Institutes of Health in 2001 showed mixed results for virginity pledges:

Teens who pledged to remain a virgin until marriage began sexual activity much later than their peers who did not take such a pledge, according to an analysis of data from a study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and several other Federal agencies. On average, teens who took a public or written pledge to remain abstinent until marriage delayed having sex about one-third longer than comparable teens who had not pledged, the analysis showed. However, the effectiveness of pledging depended on the student’s age. Among older teens (18 and older), pledging had no effect. Among 16 and 17 year olds, pledgers delayed sex significantly compared to non-pledgers. Among the youngest teens, the effect of pledging depended strongly on the social environment of the teen’s school.

Although the analysis showed that pledgers delayed sexual intercourse, it also indicated that among those teens who eventually did begin to have intercourse, pledgers were less likely to use contraception than were non-pledgers. […]

The researchers found that the effectiveness of pledging among the youngest teens depended on the characteristics of their school. In socially “open” schools – those in which students had a large number of friends and romantic ties outside the school – the effectiveness of pledging increased with the number of students who pledged. In fact, each one percent increase in the proportion of students pledging resulted in a two percent increase in delaying sexual intercourse. Pledgers appeared to need the social support of fellow pledgers in order to remain abstinent.

The researchers observed a very different effect in socially “closed” schools. In these schools – where most friendships and romantic ties occur within the school – a higher percentage of pledgers actually decreased the pledge’s effectiveness. If comparatively few adolescents in these schools pledged, pledging was effective in delaying sexual intercourse. However, if 30 percent or more of the students pledged, pledgers were no more likely to delay sexual intercourse than were non-pledgers.

I have no idea whether Valley would be considered an “open” or “closed” school. It is so large that presumably most students have friends within the school. However, when I was at Valley in the 1980s, a significant number of students had friends at other high schools whom they knew through church groups or extracurricular activities.

Whether or not Valley’s social networks tend to remain within the school, it is critical for the abstinence pledgers to understand how to protect themselves whenever they do decide to have sexual relationships. An eight-year study released in 2005 also underscored this point:

Teenagers who take virginity pledges — public declarations to abstain from sex — are almost as likely to be infected with a sexually transmitted disease as those who never made the pledge, an eight-year study released yesterday found.

Although young people who sign a virginity pledge delay the initiation of sexual activity, marry at younger ages and have fewer sexual partners, they are also less likely to use condoms and more likely to experiment with oral and anal sex, said the researchers from Yale and Columbia universities.

“The sad story is that kids who are trying to preserve their technical virginity are, in some cases, engaging in much riskier behavior,” said lead author Peter S. Bearman, a professor at Columbia’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. “From a public health point of view, an abstinence movement that encourages no vaginal sex may inadvertently encourage other forms of alternative sex that are at higher risk of STDs.”

Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa’s website has tons of information and links for teenagers here.

The topics covered include developing sexuality, preventing unplanned pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases, as well as this page on why “It’s OK to say, ‘No Way!’” to teen sex.

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