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Virginity vows: back to the '50s

Published March 21, 2004

The virginity pledge, a written promise made by young people to stay chaste until married, which has been pushed by every evangelical preacher and home schooler with a pulse, is a campaign littered with broken vows.

According to a government-backed longitudinal study, 88 percent of those who signed the pledge didn't live up to it. Among the 12,000 teens studied, the pledgers did delay sexual intercourse by about 18 months compared to their nonpledging peers, but then they caught up, acquiring sexual partners and catching sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the process.

Drawing data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, lead researcher Peter Bearman of Columbia University found that pledgers were especially careless when they decided to dump their vows, with male teens using condoms at a 40 percent rate, rather than the 60 percent rate for those who didn't pledge. This explains the significant rate of STDs among pledgers, which is not statistically different than that for nonpledgers.

Moreover, the teens who took the pledge were less likely than nonpledgers to know they were infected with an STD, raising concerns about transmission.

This leads to the intriguing question: Is taking the virginity pledge a high-risk behavior?

The pledge was devised in 1993 by the Southern Baptist Convention and not surprisingly the campaign is steeped in religion and moral judgment. The campaign is titled, rather sentimentally, "True Love Waits," and claims 2.4-million pledgers so far. Young people who go along are set up for failure. One promotional Web site, says the sexual purity expected is in accordance with "Jesus' definition," which means refraining from even thinking about sex unless you are married. And one can't learn about condoms or the prevention of STDs without thinking about sex, can one?

The pledge is pushed by people who seem to want the country to return to the 1950s, when everyone was married by 20 except for those girls who dropped out of high school, allegedly, to live for a while with an aging aunt on a farm.

Well, the world has changed, and for the better. Modern contraception has separated childbearing from sex. No longer is the moral judgment condemning sex before marriage undergirded by the pragmatism of waiting until marriage so as not to have children prematurely. Today, the two are unlinked, freeing young adults to respond to their hormones without having to commit to another person for life at an age when their faces still break out and they can't legally buy a beer.

Virginity pledges or "saving oneself" for marriage is an idea whose time has gone . . . and good riddance.

Americans have rejected it en masse, and not just for men. A poll conducted more than a decade ago by Time/CNN found that only 23 percent of the population completely agreed with the statement that "a woman should be a virgin when she gets married." Without the sexual motivation, we are marrying later in life than ever before - from 20 for women and 23 for men in 1960 to about 25 and 27, respectively, now.

Marriage researchers say there is a strong positive correlation between delaying marriage and a relationship's long-term success. "(A)ge at marriage is one of the strongest and most consistent predictors of marital stability ever found by social science research," say Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in their 2003 report, "The State of Our Unions."

This leads to another disturbing aspect of the virginity pledge: Those who take it are more likely to marry younger than nonpledgers - though, since 88 percent of pledgers engage in sex before marriage, it may not be that they are leaping into matrimony in order to jump into bed. But there might be some lingering pledge psychology that says it is wrong to have sex without benefit of marriage, leading to premature "I do's" and marriages for which the participants might not be emotionally, intellectually and financially ready.

While virginity before marriage still has a nice ring to it for many people, it is worth noting that those places on earth that revere chastity tend to be steeped in religious fundamentalism and patriarchy. In Iran, Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations, a bride's virginity is so vital that some desperate women resort to hymenorraphy, an illegal procedure that restitches part of the hymen enough to induce the all-important bleeding during sex. And still today in that region, young women who are not "untouched" are in danger of being murdered by male relatives in an honor killing.

Thankfully, in our culture the bloodstained sheets are not paraded in public after the wedding night; and a woman's hymen isn't the measure of her and her family's worth.

Now, don't get me wrong. I agree that society should encourage young people - through comprehensive education about human sexuality and honest discussions - to delay sex until they are emotionally mature enough. But a simplistic, moralistic and apparently unrealistic pledge that leaves its takers at risk for undiagnosed STDs and early marriage is not the way to go.

CORRECTION: In my column last week I wrote that the setting of The Fixer was a Soviet gulag. In fact, the story takes place in pre-revolutionary, czarist Russia. I apologize for the inaccuracy.

[Last modified March 21, 2004, 01:35:34]

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