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Debate: Virginity Pledges

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Do virginity pledges do more harm than good?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Nicholas Tan. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.

Background and context

For about a decade now, a surprising number of large organisations (such as ‘True Love Waits’ and “The Silver Ring Thing”) around the world have embarked on significant efforts to encourage young people not to have sex. In some countries these campaigns have had the explicit support of the government and have even benefited from state funding. As part of these programmes, youths are encouraged to make a verbal or written promise to abstain from sex until marriage. These pledges are known as virginity pledges. By 1995 at least 2.5 million people had made them; the figure is probably closer to 10 million now. Underlying the controversy over whether virginity pledges ‘work’, is the controversy over what objective virginity pledges should be working towards. The topic also links closely to related arguments about sex education, the age of consent, state funding for family planning advice and contraception, and about the prevention of HIV/AIDS.

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Argument #1

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Yes

Every life and every child is precious, whether born to a married woman or to a single mother who had pre-marital sex. It is insulting to the very notion of human life for society to treat children born out of wedlock as a ‘problem’, to pass policy on the basis of that they are less desirable than ‘normal’ children, and ultimately to seek to eliminate their existence by encouraging young people not to have sex until marriage. Even if we can accept the reduction of out-of-wedlock births as a legitimate goal, it is far from clear that virginity pledges achieve this – given that such pledges are hardly even ever kept. Research shows a stunning 88% of those who pledge to remain virgins until marriage admit breaking the pledge and having pre-marital sex. Moreover, those who pledge tend to already differ from those who do not in important ways such as socio-economic status, ethnic origin, and religiosity. It may well be that these background values or factors are responsible for any difference in the rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing between pledgers and non-pledgers – rather than the pledge per se.

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No

The twin problems of teen pregnancy and out-of-wedlock births are legitimate concerns of public policy. Teenagers are rarely emotionally and financially-equipped to cope with the difficulties of giving birth and raising a child. Children raised by single parents are more likely to suffer from a wide range of social troubles, much more likely to be a burden to welfare programmes, and seven times more likely to live in poverty than children raised by married parents. Encouraging youths to abstain from sex until they marry, therefore, makes sense. A virginity pledge does this by making young people think about how they wish to behave sexually, and enabling them to make a choice and articulate a commitment to that choice in a non-pressuring environment. They also often create a sort of “moral community", distinct from the community at large, forming a support network that allows like-minded people to feel a special sense of belonging which helps them to stick to the pledges the have made. Unsurprisingly, research shows that the out-of-wedlock childbearing rate among young women pledgers is a huge 30% to 50% lower than non-pledgers (after ‘multivariate logistic regression analysis’ is done to control for other background factors).

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Argument #3

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Yes

Taking the virginity pledge is itself harmful because it is a ‘risk amplifier’ – it makes teenagers less prepared for the (somewhat inevitable) eventuality of first and subsequent sexual intercourse, and thus less shielded against the pregnancy and STD risks that (somewhat inevitably) come with that those sexual encounters. There is also a third type of harm – a psychological one. Researchers who examined the consequences of breaking a pledge have found that girls who did so and began having sex experienced a decrease in their self-esteem and sense of self-worth. This is yet another risk which is entirely unnecessary for young women to have to put up with.

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No

Having sex as a teenager is also scientifically established to be strongly associated with a variety of psychosocial risks. Such adolescents are significantly more likely than virginal teens to engage in risky behaviour. They are 10 times more likely to have use marijuana and 6 times more likely to have attempted suicide. In other words, the problem is not just STDs or unwanted pregnancies. Teen sex itself is a problem, and to the extent that virginity pledges help youths to abstain from teenage sex they are useful. While it is true that female pledgers who begin having sex experience lower self-esteem, this is also true of female non-pledgers when they begin having sex. It is not the result of having broken the pledge, but rather of the experience of having sex too young.

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Argument #2

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Yes

The most positive research shows that rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are similar among young people who make virginity pledges and those who do not. The least positive research shows that pledgers may in fact be significantly more at risk of contracting STDs than non-pledgers. This is because pledgers often develop the view that, since they are not going to have sex, the need not (or worse, that is would somehow be hypocritical to) pay attention to STD education: if someone is to ‘just say no’ they cannot at the same time ask how she can say yes safely. Several indicators demonstrate that this is a serious danger with pledging. For example, only 14% of pledgers, compared to 28% of non-pledgers, know their STD status or have been tested for STDs. Pledgers are much less likely to use contraception, or to know how to use contraception properly, the first time they have sex. Yet, obviously, STD awareness and education is crucial in the fight against STDs – especially since 9 out of 10 pledgers will break their pledges before marriage. This danger is worsened by the fact that many young people interpret ‘virginity’ to mean only not having vaginal intercourse. This leaves pledgers feeling free to explore alternative sexual contact like ‘outercourse’, oral sex and anal sex – all of which put both partners at risk of STD infection, especially since pledgers are likely to do so without using a condom properly or without using a condom at all.

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No

In the U.S. alone 4 million teenagers contract an STD every year, amounting to $16bn in direct and indirect costs per year. Preventing sexually transmitted infections is a legitimate and urgent goal of governments and organisations everywhere in the world, and the virginity pledge is one important tool in this battle against STDs. The key and incontrovertible fact about virginity pledges is that they have been highly successful in delaying (even if not preventing) sexual intercourse: pledgers who eventually have sex do so on average a very significant 18 months later than non-pledgers. This puts pledgers at a lesser risk of STD infection for three reasons. First, a later age of sexual debut is linked to a smaller number of smaller partners, and a smaller number of partners is linked to smaller STD risk. Second, a later age of debut is linked to fewer sexual encounters and especially fewer casual sexual encounters, which again is linked to a smaller STD risk. Finally, a later age of sexual debut is associated with a more careful attitude towards partner selection and a more mature attitude towards STD prevention methods. It is misrepresentation to say that abstinence pledges simply tell teenagers to ‘just say no’. In reality these many organisations encourage pledging in conjunction with sensitive and informative programmes that educate teens on the risks of STDs, and how to protect against them.

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Argument #4

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Yes

Perhaps the most important point is that the choice to have sex is so fundamentally a personal matter that others, in particular the state, should have no business interfering in it. Once it is shown that virginity pledges accomplish none of the ‘public policy’ objectives they purport to, the state is left with no justification for, among other things, spending millions on supporting such pledge movements. In the U.S. about $100 million in federal and state funds is spent supporting chastity and abstinence education. Government money and effort can be spent much more efficaciously on, for example, facilitating and encouraging STD testing among sexually active youths. Government support for a movement that formalises marriage as the benchmark for when sex becomes ‘acceptable’ is also confusing if not offensive to young lesbian and gay people who, in virtually every country in the world, are not allowed to marry.

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No

It is apt that public money is spent on matters that concern the public – such as the interlocking problems of teen pregnancy, out-of-wedlock births, and STDs. Over and above financing the operations of pro-abstinence organisations, government funds have, for example, enabled state and independent researchers to conduct sophisticated, detailed, and large-scale nationwide studies on the outcomes of virginity pledging. Such research has discovered, for example, that the pledge works best for younger adolescents – which enables pro-abstinence movements to target their audiences more effectively in their efforts to promote pre-marital virginity, which in turn helps society to address many of the sex-related problems we currently face.

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Yes

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No

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Motions

  • This House has no confidence in the virginity pledge
  • This House believes in education over abstinence
  • This House believes that protecting children from sex now harms them later
  • This House wants to have it ‘like a virgin’

See also

External links and resources:

Books

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