Does "No" to sex mean fewer STDs?

You might think that pledging not to have sex before marriage would reduce a young person’s chances of contracting a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Think again.

Hannah Bruckner and Peter Bearman analysed urine samples and questionnaire results provided by 11,471 participants aged 18 to 24 as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. They found that although the 20 per cent of the sample who had made a virginity pledge were more likely to have sex later and with fewer people, that didn’t protect them from STDs – their rates of diseases like Chlamydia, Gonorrhea and Trichomoniasis were no lower than among young people who hadn’t made a pledge.

Possible reasons for this include the fact that 61 per cent of the virginity pledgers had had pre-marital sex, despite their promise not to (compared with 91 per cent of non-pledgers), and that many of them engaged in alternative forms of sex as a substitute for intercourse. In fact, virginity pledgers were six times as likely to have had oral sex as non-pledgers. Moreover, abstinence-based sex education often omits advice on using contraception. Consistent with this, virginity pledgers were less likely to report having used a condom the first time they had intercourse.

All this led the authors to conclude: “…a careful evaluation should accompany the generous federal and state funds that abstinence-only programmes have enjoyed”. Meanwhile, National Abstinence Clearinghouse President Leslee Unruh described the study as “junk science” and “politically charged”.

Bruckner, H.B. & Bearman, P. (2005). After the promise: the STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges. Journal of Adolescent Health, 36, 271-278.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.