The virginity hoax

A federal study reveals the terrible failures inherent in teen vows to chastity.

Published January 8, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Whomp, there it is: a 63-page report on teen sex and virginity derived from the survey of nearly 100,000 adolescents at 145 schools by a handful of researchers funded with money from 19 federal agencies. Talk about tasty media chum. Toss out words like "sexual behavior of teenagers," "virginity" and "highly effective" and the parents of adolescents claw their way to newsstand and keyboard in a panicky search for enlightenment, looking, always, for relief from the kind of angst they heaped on their own elders just long enough ago not to remember.

So what did they -- we -- learn from the study of "virginity pledges" by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development?

Nothing new -- all of it depressing. And the stuff that wasn't there, the data between the lines? So infuriating, so heartbreaking, that it makes me want to cry.

Not that the titles, subtitles, conclusions and comments by interested parties in this report won't flirt with the vulnerable sensibilities of parents in denial and their poor, innocent children. The big news, the juicy part of the recently released study, was very high-concept. The virginity pledge movement, brainchild of the Southern Baptist Church and favorite fad of teen mags ("Virginity is hot," said Young and Modern magazine in an issue featuring the 100 secrets of Leonardo DiCaprio), has been a resounding success, according to the study's chief researchers. This in an introduction that opens with a line from the Madonna song "Like a Virgin." Pledgers, announces the study, postpone first-time sexual intercourse for an average of 18 months longer than non-pledgers.

This is heavenly news for Jimmy Hester, coordinator of the True Love Waits campaign. He told the New York Times last week that the report was great news since it proves that pledges do make a difference. On first reading -- if it is a quick skim with frequent interruptions -- there is a hint of the positive for those who might disagree with Hester about sex out of wedlock. "Surely," even the most liberal parents will mutter, "it is best if a teenager postpones sex for as long as possible, even if true love doesn't wait for the sanctity of marriage."

Ah, but this wishful thinking must die -- gruesomely -- in a hail of caveats, I'm afraid, once the report is fully digested.

The first, elephant-in-the-corner type caveat concerns why teenagers take, or don't take, the virginity pledge. According to the report, kids will only pledge to stay virgins until marriage if it is "cool," which usually means that other kids are taking the pledge. But kids won't take the pledge if so many other kids are pledging virginity that it is "uncool." Say the researchers: "The pledge works because it is embedded in an identity movement. Consequently, like other identity movements, the pledge identity is relatively fragile and meaningful only in contexts where it is at least partially non-normative." My favorite description of this conundrum? "The pledge effect is largely contextual."

In other words, a virginity pledge, like glitter powder and Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirts, is based on the painfully self-conscious surrender of self and not, as Hester wants to believe, on the early adoption of family values. It ceases to be attractive when Leo expresses a preference for sex or when virginity is no longer "hot" or so "hot" that it becomes "uncool."

(Nothing is said in the study about the troubling possibility that the respondents to the survey, wishing, as always, to be "cool," might have lied on their questionnaires about making the pledge or breaking the pledge or anything else, for that matter, in order to follow the non-normative rules of the day.)

The average delay incurred by the virginity pledge, reports the study, tends to be about 18 months -- marriage appears not to be a factor. And then there's the part about how the pledge works best among 15- to 17-year-olds (not so well among 18-year-olds) and that it helps if the pledger is religious, of Asian ancestry, in a romantic relationship or less advanced in pubertal development. (Pause here for the adolescent -- pledger or non -- to utter, "Duh.")

And finally -- whoops! -- when pledgers break their pledges they have a tendency to have unsafe sex. Researchers suggest that since the pledgers promised not to have sex, when they finally do, they haven't done much planning and are unlikely to use contraception. (Another favorite footnote here: "That pledgers who have sex are likely to be contraceptively unprepared is to be expected, for it is hard to imagine how one could both pledge to be a virgin until marriage and carry a condom while unmarried.")

The results so far: A very young kid who wants very much to be cool will promise to stay a virgin until marriage as long as it is cool and may postpone sexual intercourse for about 18 months; but when she decides it isn't cool to keep the pledge she is more likely than the uncool non-pledgers to get pregnant and/or a sexually-transmitted disease.

But, there's more.

Researchers only asked their subjects about vaginal intercourse. They did not ask about oral or anal sex, which recent studies indicate are reported at high rates among teenagers, more and more of whom believe that oral and anal sex can be indulged in without relinquishing one's virginity. In fact, a recent study by the Urban Institute, also funded by the federal government, focused on the sexual practices of 15- to 19-year-old boys and found that two-thirds of the more than 3,000 boys interviewed had experience with oral sex, anal intercourse or masturbation by a female. The first two behaviors put the participants at risk of getting sexually transmitted diseases, though few of the respondents were aware of that. Most of those interviewed said they did not consider their activities to constitute "sex," -- in fact, many felt oral sex qualified as abstinent behavior.

So, the pledgers who, according to the study, jealously guarded their "virginity" for an average of 18 months longer than non-pledgers could well have been having sex of another kind -- every other kind -- for years before "breaking" their pledge.

Didn't we cover this? Didn't we denounce this? Wasn't Bill Clinton guilty of sexual relations with "that woman" even though he personally believed that he was dutifully maintaining his own virginity pledge?

How, oh how, can it be morally acceptable to indulge in sex that involves complicating intimacy, not to mention sexually transmitted diseases, as long as one is "intact" on the wedding night? And why, oh why, would a federal agency conduct a study in such a way as to blindly honor a duplicitous and deeply sexist definition of virginity?

But that, alas, is not the worst of it. That is not the part that makes me want to cry.

The part that I hate most in this study is the unwritten part, the part that pompously assumes that teenagers are not entitled to intimacy, to pleasure, to education or to a sense of self. The part that is dangerous and sad implies that a "virginity pledge" is "effective" in dealing with teen pregnancy, sexually-transmitted diseases and participation in other "risk" activities like smoking, drinking and substance abuse but fails to acknowledge the role of the pledge movement in promoting oral and anal sex among teenagers while denying them any education about either. The part that is sneaky and amazing perpetuates the concept of "technical virginity," a state that is likely to be just as confusing and burdensome for a 16-year-old as sexual intercourse, if not more so given its uncomfortable and much-talked-about proximity to untruth.

What would be ineffective about a pledge to have safe sex motivated by what feels like love or desire? What could be wrong about acknowledging a teenager's emotional intelligence and need for intimacy? Would it hurt to bestow some respect and sex education on people who are engaging in sex, regardless of what they write on an invasive questionnaire designed to measure their moral rectitude? How could researchers who ostensibly care about adolescents insist that they are incapable of informed decisions? How could they endorse the idea that love and intimacy should be postponed -- not until an unspecific age of maturity has been reached but until marriage, regardless of when it happens?

I agree with the authors of this report when they suggest that teenagers should not engage in unwanted sexual activity. Nobody should engage in unwanted sexual activity. What a shame, though, given the funding and access that these academics enjoy, that they don't expose the "virginity pledge" for what it is: a sexist, guilt-driven campaign of terror that fosters frightened conformity in adolescents, as well as high-risk sexual behavior and dishonesty.

By Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Jennifer Foote Sweeney, CMT, formerly a Salon editor, is a massage therapist in northern California, practicing on staff at the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur, and on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

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Abstinence Sex Education