V&V PAPER — Honestly Considering Abstinence Education

Editor’s Note: Reflecting the breadth and depth of top-notch scholarship being pursued by the faculty of Grove City College, the Center for Vision & Values is pleased to release the third in a series of exclusive monthly white papers being offered through our faculty White Papers Initiative.  In “Honestly Considering Abstinence Education” (7,564 words), Assistant Professor of Psychology at Grove City College and contributing scholar with the Center for Vision and Values—Dr. Joseph J. Horton—addresses a question “at the root of one of the most contentious debates in society today:” “Should students be taught that sexual activity is a gift that should be saved for marriage?”

“The debate about sex education is contentious,” writes the author, “because both sides make both pragmatic and moral claims to support their respective positions.”  In dealing with the pragmatic and moral claims, Dr. Horton places the debate within a larger cultural framework and evaluates the success of abstinence-only programs in light of their ability to change the attitudes and behaviors of the participants.  “Virginity pledge programs” are considered as well as “comprehensive abstinence-only education.”

In a paper that scratches the surface of “possible culture changing applications of psychological theory,” the author concludes that the “combination of good theory and solid empirical study will allow the development of successful programs.”

Media Inquiries: If you would like to reach Dr. Horton for comment,  please contact him at [email protected].

(Download the Microsoft Word paper here.)

Honestly Considering Abstinence Education
By Dr. Joseph J. Horton

Author’s Note: I would like to thank my Center for Vision and Values interns Jarrett Skorup and Lauren Vander Heyden for their assistance with this paper.

Should students be taught that sexual activity is a gift that should be saved for marriage? This question is at the root of one of the most contentious debates in society today. There are those who claim that teenagers should be taught that sex should only be practiced in marriage. Supporters of this ideal promote abstinence-only sex education in schools. Others argue that sexual activity need not be confined to marriage. They argue that while abstinence until marriage may be a desirable goal, it is unreasonable to expect of everyone. Thus, sex education should not promote values and should be “comprehensive” by including information about the proper use of contraceptive methods for those students who choose to engage in premarital sexual activity.

In this paper I will consider these issues as they relate to a larger moral framework. I will consider how well current abstinence-only programs achieve their goals. While considering these issues, I will consider how fundamental psychological theory suggests that the goals, of those who believe that sex is a gift intended for those who are married, are attainable.

Pragmatic claims

The debate about sex education is contentious because both sides make both pragmatic and moral claims to support their respective positions. Proponents of abstinence-only education offer the well-known fact that teen parents are more likely to live in poverty. Furthermore, virginity at age 18 is correlated with educational attainment in young adulthood and with a lower likelihood of divorce (Finger, Thelen, Vessey, Mohn and Mann, 2004).

In addition, research has found correlations between premarital sexual activity and substance abuse as well as with depression (Golden, 2006). With correlational data, we do not know which of the two behaviors comes first. Thus, based on this finding, one could make an argument for either premarital sexual activity or depression being the predictor. In this case, however, researchers have found that premarital sexual behavior predicts depression, but that depression does not predict premarital sexual behavior. This suggests that premarital sex contributes to depression rather than depression contributing to sexual activity. This finding applies particularly to females (Hallfors, Wall, Bauer, Ford and Halpern, 2005).

Another pragmatic claim in support of promoting abstinence is that reversible methods of contraception are not reliable in practice. Nearly half of unintended pregnancies occurred to women using contraception (Brown and Eisenberg, 1995). Many people who engage in sexual activity do not consistently or correctly use contraceptive methods. Thus, abstinence is the only effective way to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy.

Those who support teaching comprehensive sex education make counter pragmatic claims. For example, “[teen] sexuality is integral to human nature and has many positive mental health consequences” (Santelli et al., 2006, p. 83). Thus, we should expect teens to engage in sexual behavior because it is natural and good.

It is further argued that teens in general lack knowledge of contraceptive methods. Thus, teens who have had abstinence-only sex education are less likely to use contraception and are less likely to use it correctly (Bennet and Assefi, 2005). There is evidence consistent with this claim. One study found that teens who take virginity pledges get STIs at the same rate as those who do not pledge to remain abstinent (Bruckner and Bearman, 2005). These researchers also fear that adolescents who are provided with abstinence-only education are less likely to seek medical help if they develop symptoms of STIs.

Moral claims

In addition to the pragmatic arguments, supporters of comprehensive education make moral arguments for the superiority of their position. For example, they note that the United Nations has decreed that information about sexuality and contraception is a basic human right (Santelli, Ott, Lyon, Rogers, Summers and Schleifer, 2006). Rose (2005) argues that by supporting abstinence-only education, the United States is siding with countries — such as Sudan and Iran — that oppress women. The foundation of this claim is the belief that for women to be fully equal to men, they need to be able to engage in as much consensual sex as they desire without facing consequences. Therefore, a failure to discuss the proper techniques for using popular methods of contraception, or teaching that sex should only be practiced between married people, is the equivalent of denying ignorant teens of freedom of speech or religion.

In addition, tolerance for diverse youth requires comprehensive sex education. Some adolescents choose to be sexually active. Other adolescents are homosexuals and unable to marry. Abstinence-only education is based on the premise that sex should occur only in the context of marriage and this axiom must be rejected if we are to be tolerant of diversity. Ethically then, sex education must embrace and support the sexuality of teens who choose to be sexually active or who are sexual minorities. To do otherwise harms these adolescents by sacrificing their health and well-being (Brown, 2006). This point of view has been endorsed by the Society for Adolescent Medicine (Santeli, Ott, Lyon, Rogers and Summers, 2006) Thus, the society claimed to consider the “welfare of all adolescents” when deciding that abstinence until marriage should not be the cornerstone of sex education (Brown, 2006, p.152).

The gist of the moral argument of those who oppose abstinence only education: Young people should be able to engage in sexual activity if they so desire. Furthermore, teenagers should not feel limited in the types of sexual relationships they form. Teenagers should not be expected to live up to anyone else’s standards of morality, nor should they be expected to exercise self-control. Finally, it is society’s obligation to see to it that young people are able to avoid negative consequences for seeking sexual pleasure.

For many who consider themselves pro-family, the moral issues involved are more important than the pragmatic issues. We believe that moral choices are not always easy choices and that making moral choices may require sacrifices. We are concerned about more than whether teens have sex. We desire a society in which people strive for that which is admirable and are willing to sacrifice for that which is right and good. We hope for a culture in which people are disciplined to choose larger rewards in the future over fleeting pleasures today.

Larger cultural framework

In fact, it is the moral foundation of sex education programs that is the real issue. There is diversity among abstinence-only programs such that there are abstinence-only programs that discuss the pros and cons of various methods of contraception (Kirby, 2001). The fundamental difference between the two types of programs is that abstinence-only programs emphasize that sexual activity should be confined to marriage. Comprehensive programs, on the other hand, may discuss abstinence as a possibility but emphasize that each student must decide individually about what behavior is appropriate. For example, a handout from the Advocates for Youth program tells students, “Their [parents’] experiences and wisdom may help you to make difficult decisions; but in the end, the decisions are yours to make.” Further, they ask teens to consider that age at which they think it is appropriate to engage in behaviors such as “undress[ing] in front of a boyfriend/girlfriend” or having sexual intercourse (Advocates For Youth, n.d.). By phrasing the questions as they do, the implication is not only that individual teens may decide for themselves when engaging in sexual activities is appropriate, but also that the determining factor of appropriateness is age rather than the nature of the relationship.

The general issue is larger than the value of abstaining from sexual activity before marriage and its consequences. At stake behind the scenes in these debates is whether we will have a society that expects and promotes self-control, or a society made up of individuals whose self-chosen moral code is that of seeking immediate pleasure. Such a society may strive to reduce future negative consequences of immediate pleasure seeking, but the notion of delaying gratification for a greater good would be anathema.

We can see the nonsexual consequences of such a culture in the recent news stories about parents feeling pressure to throw lavish birthday parties for their children. In some communities parents are spending as much as $25,000 to throw a birthday party for a teenager. A support group to help parents resist peer pressure and to throw more modest birthday parties has been founded. Thus, we have a society in which parents who should be modeling virtuous behavior are instead teaching their children to succumb to peer pressure.

Another example is provided by the frequent news stories about how Americans have high levels of debt and little retirement savings. We live in a culture where immediate pleasure is celebrated and those who value even occasional self-sacrifice are scorned. It is during adolescence, when young people are making the transition to adulthood, that concerned parents and citizens have the opportunity to shape the ideals of those who will one day define our culture. Thus, debates about whether young people should be taught the virtues of abstinence are the frontline conflicts of a larger cultural battle about how morality should be determined. Ironically, it is economic success which has brought youth sexuality to the forefront.

With the consistent supply of nutritious food enjoyed in the modern world, the physical development required for sexual activity is occurring in youth at earlier ages than ever before. For example, by the end of the 20th century, girls were experiencing menarche nearly three years earlier than they were at the beginning of the 20th century (Wyshak, 1983). However, despite earlier maturation, people are delaying marriage longer than ever. The average age of women at their first marriage is now about 25. For men it is about 27. Those of us who believe that sexual abstinence until marriage is an important moral goal must be honest enough to admit that we are asking young people to wait longer to engage in sex than any group of young people has been asked in history. We must also acknowledge that young people face this moral challenge in one of the most sexually saturated cultures in history. Thus, we are asking young people today to delay gratification longer in a culture that has largely rejected delaying gratification.

In the larger cultural picture, we live in an economy that has generated wealth for the average family far beyond that which ancient kings would have dreamed. How much gold would the pharaohs of Egypt have offered for central air conditioning, for example? Our wishes for most material possessions can be easily satisfied. We are used to being able to have what we want when we want it. Yet our affluence has not brought us happiness. Research has shown that while the inflation adjusted income of Americans has skyrocketed during the 20th century, our happiness level has remained essentially unchanged with 35 percent of Americans describing themselves as very happy in 1957 and 30 percent in 2002 (Myers, 2005, p. 442). Our youth need to know that despite what the culture is telling them, seeking fleeting sexual pleasure will not provide long-term satisfaction and meaning in life.

Evaluating programs

Given the challenges that young people face in remaining sexually abstinent, it is reasonable to suppose that intervention programs need to be developed to promote abstinence as a goal and help young people achieve purity until marriage. In the culture in which we live, developing successful programs to achieve these goals will be difficult.

Indeed it appears that school-based youth interventions for a variety of social problems have had little success. The common D.A.R.E. program to reduce drug use has been shown to be ineffective (Ennet, Tobler, Ringwalt and Flewelling, 1994). That is, children who participate in D.A.R.E. programs use drugs at the same rate as children who do not receive a special intervention to discourage drug use. Programs designed to reduce eating disorders at best have no effect and at worst promote the very behaviors they aim to prevent (Steinberg, 1999). Revell (2002) has concluded that students respond to character education programs with skepticism and cynicism. Thus, even if we are hopeful, we should not expect to find widespread abstinence programs that are clearly successful.

Our goal in considering abstinence programs is to determine if there is good scientific evidence that they are in fact increasing sexual abstinence and perhaps other desirable outcomes. Good intentions are important, but good intentions are not enough to help young people live moral lives. Good intentions can also backfire causing behavior in opposition to our goals. For example, Dishion, McCord and Poulin (1999) discuss an intervention program aimed at reducing delinquency in British youth. It was found that the intervention program caused delinquency. The youth who received no help were better off than those who were helped. British society is better off without implementation of the well-intentioned intervention.

This is why we must demand that programs to promote abstinence are informed by and evaluated with sound science. Failure to do so makes it likely that we will waste time and money. There is the real possibility that our attempts to create a more moral culture will backfire and contribute to further moral decay.

Changing attitudes

Many studies, particularly early studies, evaluating abstinence programs focused on changes in students’ attitudes about premarital sexual activity. Thus, programs would deem themselves successful if after the program the students rated postponing sexual activity as being more desirable than they did at the beginning.

From the perspective of trying to change individual lives and through those individuals the culture, changing attitudes in the short term is not enough. These types of studies do not tell us if the students’ attitude changes were long lasting. Perhaps they went home, watched MTV, and decided abstinence did not look fun and changed their minds. Further, these studies do not tell us if the students actually chose to be abstinent. There is the possibility that students could leave programs believing that abstinence is good while choosing to engage in premarital sexual activity anyway. We need a behavioral outcome measure to know that we are achieving our goals. Yet, despite the drawbacks of these early studies, understanding how to change attitudes is important.

Both the importance and limitations of focusing on attitude change is illustrated by the psychological principle of cognitive dissonance. The principle of cognitive dissonance is that it is psychologically uncomfortable if one’s beliefs and one’s behaviors are incongruent. Thus, when faced with an incongruity between one’s beliefs and one’s behavior, one or the other must change. Thus, changing attitudes is often an important first step toward changing behavior. The principle works in both directions so behavior can also change attitudes.

Sexual activity does not happen in a vacuum. If we are to promote the moral behavior of postponing sexual activity until marriage, we will have to promote alternative behaviors such as appropriate ways of handling dating relationships. Furthermore, we will have to teach young people how to avoid some behaviors that put the attainment of their moral goals at risk. To do this we will need to change attitudes about more than premarital sexual behavior.

In the context of the present situation, suppose that a student has taken part in an intervention to promote the value of abstinence in young people. This hypothetical program focuses only on the benefits of abstinence without regard to other related behaviors or attitudes. Let us suppose that the intervention program is successful in that the participating students do develop more positive views of abstinence as a result of the program. If the students do not change any of their behaviors related to sexual activity, they will experience psychological discomfort. Either their new attitudes or their behavior will have to change. In our sexually saturated culture, odds are their new attitudes will change.

What types of behaviors might be related to sexual behavior? Modesty in dress is a good example. It is certainly possible to dress immodestly and not engage in sexual activity. However, how one dresses affects others’ perceptions and reactions. Over time, in response to interactions with people who expect an immodest dresser to engage in sexual activity, a person may decide that believing that abstinence is ideal is not compatible with dressing immodestly. The person’s beliefs about abstinence may then change. Alternatively the person could decide to dress more modestly to address the cognitive dissonance, but this seems less likely given the social pressures that young people face. Narrow attitude change then is necessary but not sufficient. We need to change attitudes more broadly and change related behaviors. In doing so, we reduce cognitive dissonance that may thwart our goals by influencing both attitudes and behaviors.

Studies on attitude change can provide valuable information. For example, Smith, Steen, Schwendinger, Spaulding-Givens and Brooks (2005) examined gender differences in attitudes toward abstinence. They found that girls held more positive attitudes toward abstinence than boys did. The students who were in the study participated in a two-hour intervention designed to improve students’ attitudes toward sexual abstinence. After the intervention, it was found that both males and females had more positive attitudes toward abstinence. Boys’ attitudes changed more than girls’ attitudes. However, boys’ attitudes were still less positive than girls’ attitudes, reaching only girls’ pre-intervention levels.

These findings should give hope to those who desire to see abstinence education programs succeed. A mere two hours of intervention is sufficient to produce statistically significant changes in attitudes. These changes are not likely to be long lasting, but could be a beginning of a successful long-term intervention. Further, knowing about gender differences in initial acceptance of abstinence suggests that successful interventions should be gender specific (Smith et al., 2005).

There is a special group of young people for whom a change in attitude is particularly important. Several studies have found that there is a meaningful minority of teenage women who desire to become pregnant. For example, a recent study (Davies, DiClement, Wingood, Person, Crosby, Harrington and Dix, 2004) found that among sexually-active women of low socio-economic status, 23.6 percent expressed a desire to become pregnant and an additional 12.8 percent already were pregnant! These young women are willfully choosing to risk continuing in the poverty that teenage mothers routinely endure. In addition, they are putting themselves at risk for acquiring STIs.

Why would young women strive to become pregnant? They feel unloved and have no hope for the future. Of the teenage women in the Davies et al. (2004) study, those with a desire to become pregnant were significantly more likely to believe that the male they were dating was their only dating option. Often the young women reported that they did not love the male they were with, but they felt there were no other males who could be interested in them.

These teenage women, who believe their only hope to find real love is to have a baby, need more than education about contraceptives. They need to know they are worthy of love. They need to know that there can be a future for them. In other words, they need to have a change in attitude. Just as middle-class teens will need to change more than their attitudes about premarital sexual behavior to remain abstinent, these lower socio-economic status young women too will need more than narrow attitude changes to turn their lives around. These young women will need reasons for hope. Thus, they will need an intervention program that has a broader scope than sexual behavior and abstinence.

Examining behavior

There have been several studies that examine changes in behavior. The results of these studies have been mixed and are not entirely encouraging for supporters of abstinence programs. Often these studies are not published in peer-reviewed journals; rather, they are made available by organizations that have an interest in promoting a particular point of view. There can be good reasons for not publishing in peer-reviewed journals, such as a desire to reach a wider audience or fear that a paper about a politically charged issue will not get fair treatment. Still, the peer-review process is the gold standard for scientific publication because it increases the chances that researchers will be held to high scientific and ethical standards in their writing.

Ideally, studies evaluating the outcomes of intervention programs will have been conducted with random assignment to an intervention and a control condition. Random assignment allows researchers to establish cause and effect. Ideally, our program evaluation would show that our intervention program caused adolescents to remain sexually abstinent. Other types of study designs always leave open the possibility that some factor other than our intervention made the difference. This is not to say that studies that do not employ random assignment provide no useful knowledge. It is only that we must be more cautious in the claims we make from such studies.

A review of studies that used random assignment in evaluating abstinence-only programs was conducted by Bennett and Assefi (2005). There were only four studies that used random assignment to evaluate the effectiveness of abstinence programs. Unfortunately, these studies did not follow the students for long after the intervention program was completed. The longest followed the students for 17 months; one followed the students for only seven weeks. The overall pattern of results from these studies is that abstinence-only programs may be able to delay sexual behavior in teenagers by about three months. With as little as six months passing since the end of the intervention, there is no difference between those who received the training promoting abstinence and those who did not (Bennett and Assefi, 2005).

This same body of literature was reviewed by a second author who reached similar conclusions (Kirby, 2001). Kirby noted that the best research available did not support the effectiveness of abstinence-only programs. He cautioned, however, that there are many abstinence programs that have not been well-evaluated. Given the paucity of research, it would be premature to claim that abstinence programs cannot be effective (Kirby, 2001). Still, based on the studies that have used random assignment to rule out extraneous factors, we have not yet demonstrated that abstinence education programs will achieve the intended goals.

Virginity pledge programs

A common approach to promoting abstinence is to ask adolescents to take a virginity pledge. The Silver Ring Thing (SRT) program provides a good example of the virginity pledge movement. Adolescents who attend an SRT event will see a “2.5 hour stage performance [that] incorporates high energy music, special effects, fast-paced video, personal testimonies and comedy all delivered in a concert-style approach with which teenagers can respond and relate.” At the conclusion of the event, the adolescents are invited to pledge to remain virgins until marriage. Those who do are given a silver ring to wear to remind them of their commitment. Pledgers receive email support for four months after the event (Silver Ring Thinga, n.d.).

At the SRT events, there is a 40-minute presentation for parents. The goals of the parent sessions are to educate parents about the nature of the culture and to teach parents how to help their children remain abstinent until marriage (Silver Ring Thingb, n.d.). The SRT movement is a particularly wide-ranging virginity pledge approach in that in addition to hosting events at which youth are encouraged to make pledges and parents are instructed, the organization publishes a newsletter and sells merchandise including a DVD-based Bible study program (Sliver Ring Thinga, n.d.).

Rector and Johnson (2005) evaluated the consequences of taking a virginity pledge using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. This data set has information on approximately 15,000 youth who were studied in 1994, 1995 and 2001. Thus the data set has information on these youth as they transition from adolescence to young adulthood.

The outcome that Rector and Johnson (2005) were primarily concerned with in this study was STI rates. They considered five different ways of assessing STI rates. The reason for considering different methods of assessing STI rates is that there can be ambiguity when assessing a seemingly objective outcome. For example, one of the STI measures in the data set indicates whether a person tested positive for at least one of three STIs in a urine sample. However, a person would fail to be counted as having had an STI if, having contracted an STI in the past, the person was treated for it and therefore would test negative despite having had an infection. Another example of a method of assessing STI rates was whether the subject reported having ever been diagnosed with an STI in the past.

To define the group of youth to be classified as pledgers, Rector and Johnson (2005) counted a subject as a pledger if the person had reported taking a virginity pledge in any wave of data collection — 1994, 1995 or 2001. So a teen who reported having made a virginity pledge in 1994 who did not report having made such a pledge in 1995 or 2001 would be counted as having taken a virginity pledge. In doing so, the researchers included subjects who tacitly admitted breaking their pledge in the virginity pledge group. This is appropriate because people who make pledges and break them still took pledges.

On four of the five methods of assessing STI rates, people who took virginity pledges had statistically significantly lower rates at the conventional .05 level. The fifth measure of STI rates, the presence of one of three STIs in a urine sample, approached significance at the conventional .05 level and was significant at the .10 level (Rector and Johnson, 2005). Had only this measure, which failed to reach significance at the conventional level, been used, it would have been correct to conclude that there is no difference in STI rates between pledgers and nonpledgers. The pattern of results is clear, however, that pledgers in this large representative sample had lower rates of STIs than did nonpledgers.

Some researchers have chosen to focus only on the measure that did not reach conventional significance, writing, “However, the Rector study has not undergone peer review and it, in turn, has been severely criticized for manipulating statistical norms for significance” (Santelli et al., 2006, p.76). It is clear, however, that Rector and Johnson (2005) did not “manipulate statistical norms for significance.” Rector and Johnson thoughtfully discussed statistical conventions and, with four of five methods of assessing STI rates, conventional levels of statistical significance were achieved. Further, the method that failed to reach conventional levels of statistical significance was the urine sample method. As people who have been treated for STIs would not have been found to have had an STI with this method, it is the method that was most likely to underestimate STI rates.

In addition, it was found that those who took virginity pledges engaged in much less sexual activity before age 18. For example, the respective percentages of pledgers and nonpledgers who engaged in sexual intercourse prior to age 18 were 39 percent and 63 percent. The differences between the two groups narrow with age and when all sexual activity is considered. In the 2001 wave of data collection, when the subjects were between the ages of 19 and 25, approximately 20 percent of the pledgers had abstained from any type of sexual activity while only 8 percent of the nonpledgers similarly abstained (Rector and Johnson, 2005, p.6).

This is not to say that the Rector and Johnson (2005) study provides unequivocal evidence that taking virginity pledges reduces sexual activity or even STI rates. It does not. While similar in many ways, there were important background differences between the pledgers and the nonpledgers. Notably, the two groups differed in religiosity. On a four-point scale, the average importance of religion for pledgers was 3.4 while it was only 2.7 for nonpledgers (Rector and Johnson, 2005, p. 6). Thus, it is difficult to know if the reason for reduction in sexual activity and lower STI rates is due to taking a virginity pledge, religiosity or some other background factor.

Here we see a clear example of the need to be cautious when interpreting the results of a study that did not use random assignment. We know that virginity pledgers engaged in less sexual activity than did nonpledgers. We do not know for certain if taking a virginity pledge had any impact on behavior. It is quite reasonable to suggest that the more religious adolescents would have engaged in less sexual activity whether they took virginity pledges or not.

A related issue of importance in considering studies like this is self-selection. The adolescents who take virginity pledges generally choose to do so on their own. Thus, adolescents who take virginity pledges have expressed an interest in being abstinent prior to taking the pledge. Honestly considering the evidence relating to virginity pledges, we can say that such programs may help adolescents who have an interest in remaining abstinent to achieve their goal.

There are good theoretical reasons to believe that virginity pledge programs like Silver Ring Thing will help adolescents who hope to be abstinent achieve their goal. For example, merely setting a specific goal makes the behavior more likely. A classic study examined logging truck drivers who were under loading their trucks. The truck drivers were asked to set a goal of loading their trucks as close to the maximum as they could without going over the maximum. The truck drivers began carrying more logs even though there were no penalties for failing to meet the goal (Latham and Blades, 1975). Thus, asking young people to set a goal of remaining abstinent until marriage makes sense as part of an abstinence education program.

From a goal setting perspective, however, pledging to remain abstinent until marriage is likely too broad. It is analogous to the student who set a goal to get a 4.0. It is an admirable, and possibly achievable, goal. Yet what are needed are more specific behavioral goals to facilitate the larger goal. Thus, we would expect that to be effective, virginity pledge programs would need to teach young people to set appropriate goals for dating relationships and related behaviors.

The observational learning theory of Bandura also provides reason to think that programs like Silver Ring Thing could be successful in promoting abstinence until marriage (Bandura, 1986). As the name suggests, observational learning theory explains key elements of how we learn from others. We learn best from others who we perceive to be like ourselves, or who are perceived to be of high status. Thus, the use of testimonies from adolescents about the virtues of remaining sexually abstinent until marriage are more likely to change the beliefs and behaviors of the would-be-pledgers than the same claims presented by adults. Visiting the Web site for Silver Ring Thing, one sees many pictures of adolescents showing off their rings, indicating that they have made virginity pledges. Teens visiting the Web site will learn that people like them are making pledges. This increases the likelihood that teens will consider making a pledge.

The use of the ring by Silver Ring Thing is also likely to increase the success of the program. The ring serves as a reminder to the teens of the goal they have set. This reminder will help them achieve the goal, if they freely chose to make the pledge. In addition, to the extent that other teens know about the significance of the rings, the rings change how others will perceive those who wear them. The ring then is a signal to potential romantic partners that one has made a commitment to save sex for marriage.

The influence of the ring on others illustrates Bandura’s (1986) principle of reciprocal determinism. The basic idea is that social forces influence the individual, but that the individual also influences social forces. So the wearing of the ring as an indication of having made a virginity pledge is a push back at licentious social forces saying, without being asked, “No, I am saving myself.” Those interested in sexual activity will likely avoid those wearing virginity pledge rings. Furthermore, the rings can reinforce the decision to stick to one’s pledge as pledgers see others like them who have made the pledge publicly proclaim such, creating a sense of group identity.

To make a serious pledge, however, adolescents must not only believe that making a pledge is a good idea, they need to believe that they are capable of succeeding in keeping the pledge. This is Bandura’s (1986) concept of self-efficacy. People with high self-efficacy for a given goal will be more persistent and more likely to plan in striving for the goal than will people low in self-efficacy. A good goal for virginity pledge programs then would be to increase the self-efficacy of the participants for remaining sexually abstinent until marriage.

There are two basic ways through which self-efficacy can be increased: through observation and personal success. To increase self-efficacy through observation, the participants would observe models who were successfully remaining abstinent. The youth would then be more likely to believe that abstinence was a goal that they could achieve if they tried. The method of increasing self-efficacy through observation is the method most likely to be used in pledging programs because the programs are too brief to allow the soon-to-be-pledgers to successfully and thoroughly practice skills. Unfortunately, the observation method is least likely to increase self-efficacy, and when it is successful will produce the smallest changes. Increasing self-efficacy is essential for abstinence programs to be successful. The message to youth in our culture is that everyone is enjoying the fun of sexual activity now. Youth need to believe that they can be abstinent until marriage if they try. To develop this confidence, a more comprehensive intervention program will be needed.

Honest conclusions about the effectiveness of virginity pledge programs: There are good reasons from psychological theory to believe they could be effective. However, the Rector and Johnson (2005) study, which was favorable to virginity pledge programs, found that such programs fall far short of achieving their stated goal of participants avoiding all sexual activity until marriage. It is possible that virginity pledge programs delay sexual activity and have other benefits. However, the research designs that have been used to examine virginity pledge programs do not allow us to reach unequivocal conclusions. The programs may have some effectiveness, but we cannot rule out other factors, such as religiosity, as being the reason for the differences between pledgers and nonpledgers.

However, the combination of empirical evidence and relevant psychological theory leads this author to believe that pledge programs do make meaningful differences for the young people who choose to pledge. They probably make no difference for young people whose parents drag them to pledging events, or worse yet, in these situations they may promote the behavior the parents hope to discourage. They are also unlikely to help the hopeless young women who desire to become pregnant whom we have already discussed. So virginity pledge programs do serve an important purpose in the attempt to transform our culture into one in which morality is celebrated. Still there is the possibility of having greater success. Perhaps young people could benefit not from comprehensive sex education but comprehensive abstinence education.

Comprehensive abstinence

There does exist what might be called comprehensive abstinence-only education. The Best Friends program for girls and the Best Men program for boys are school-based programs for young people in sixth through 12th grades. These are character development programs that teach that it is best to wait to have sex until marriage. This discussion will focus on the Best Friends program as there is good data on that program’s effectiveness. The programs are similar in nature and differ with respect to details such as the gender of role models.

Best Friends not only teaches young women about the virtues of abstinence, it also teaches about important related behaviors. For example, drug and alcohol use are discussed in addition to dating and sexuality. Clear, moral standards serve as the foundations for these discussions as opposed to sessions in which young people clarify their values. The program is addressing the concern that sexual behavior does not occur in a vacuum and is thus reducing the likelihood that students who choose abstinence will experience cognitive dissonance about the decision.

The psychological principles that suggest that virginity pledge programs will be successful are present in the Best Friends program. Older students serve as role models for the younger members. This allows the younger members to develop self-efficacy through observation of people like them. Successful community women discuss at least twice a year how they handled life choices. This allows the students to develop self-efficacy through observing people of high status. More importantly, the program provides opportunities for the members to gradually demonstrate personal success with a number of skills. Self-efficacy that has developed through personal success is more resistant in the face of difficulty. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that the Best Friends program willyield more persistence toward reaching goals than will virginity pledge programs.

Other activities in the program include weekly exercise classes along with instruction on fitness and nutrition. The students are also part of a choir or dance troupe. The students are learning to work hard and place long-term goals ahead of short-term pleasure. The high school graduation rate for students in the Washington, D.C., Best Friends program is 100 percent compared to a district-wide rate of 56 percent (Best Friends Founadtionb, n.d.).

Participation in the program also creates membership in a group so the students know there are others like them who are striving for excellence in all areas of life. The visible signs of group membership affect how others react to them. So the principle of reciprocal determinism is at work again. Students in the Best Friends program are going to change the society around them and the expectations that society has for them.

Much of what is taught in the Best Friends program could broadly be described as teaching self-control or the ability to delay gratification. Our culture does not discuss or value delaying gratification anymore. Yet research shows that the ability to delay gratification is a powerful predictor of success in life. For example, Duckworth and Seligman (2005) found that the ability to delay gratification predicted future academic success better than intelligence test scores!

Clearly, to remain sexually abstinent until marriage, young people will need the ability to delay gratification. These same habits and skills of those who are able to exercise self-control are needed for making good choices in other domains as well. Children who have the ability to delay gratification are more likely to begin working on their homework earlier in the evening (Duckworth and Seligman, 2005). This of course leads to higher grades. Students with academic success will be less likely to put their bright futures at risk by engaging in risky behaviors.

Participation in voluntary, structured youth activities (of which Best Friends is one of many possible examples) has been found to increase students’ initiative and adherence to pro-social norms (Hansen, Larson and Dworkin, 2003). Larson notes that “initiative is not just starting things, but sticking with them” (Larson, 2000, p. 172). Thus, there is good reason to believe that students in programs like Best Friends will not only make a resolution to remain sexually abstinent until marriage, they will develop the persistence to carry out their resolution. The skill of persistence is developed through meeting the challenges that are part of the structured activities of the program.

Learning how to be successful and having successful experiences promotes still better behavior in the future. For example, when college students are required to determine the amount of extra credit they will do at the beginning of the semester, the better students plan to do more work and then follow through by doing the extra work. Poorer students plan to do less work and often do not complete all of the work they planned to do (Bembenutty and Karabenick, 2004). Best Friends teaches young women how to be successful. It is not a program that aims to fluff up self-esteem without performance. That the students make real accomplishments in the various aspects of the program makes it more likely that they will follow through on the work needed to achieve the goals they have set for themselves, including remaining abstinent until marriage.

Thus, there is ample justification from psychological theory to expect the Best Friends program to successfully increase abstinence rates. The duration and breadth of the program are key elements for understanding why one would expect Best Friends to work. Happily, in addition to the psychological theory underpinning Best Friends, there is research evidence supporting its efficacy (Lerner, 2004).

Learner (2004) compared students in the Best Friends program in Washington, D.C., with female students from similar schools in the District of Columbia. The two groups of students were from very similar neighborhoods — indeed the neighborhoods of the Best Friends students may have been slightly less optimal. In his analyses, Lerner controlled for several important factors including the race of the students. It was found that Best Friends participants were much less likely to engage in sexual activity, smoke, or use alcohol and drugs (Lerner, 2004).

There is no perfect study. Critics could surely find faults with some aspects of Lerner’s (2004) work. In social science we look for the convergence of evidence from multiple sources when making evaluations. In the case of the Best Friends program, the combination of broad theoretically sound underpinnings and the empirical evidence leads to the conclusion that the Best Friends program is successful in promoting abstinence.

The biggest criticism of the Best Friends program, which would also apply to virginity pledge programs, is the issue of self-selection. Young people voluntarily join the organization. There may be important background differences between those who choose to join and those who do not. Many of these background factors can be controlled statistically, but there may always be factors of which we are unaware and thus cannot control. Yet to focus on the self-selection issue while ignoring the other evidence would be a grave mistake.


Even if abstinence programs help primarily, or only, those who are predisposed to value abstinence, helping self-selected young people live moral lives is not trivial. The cultural pressures to live immoral lifestyles on adolescents today are immense! Merely valuing religion and appreciating the value of abstinence is likely not enough for young people to remain abstinent. Young people who desire to live moral lives need support and guidance. They need to know that they are not alone in striving to live moral lives. In addition, if we are able to help people who value abstinence be true to their beliefs, we may be able to broaden the appeal of abstinence and reach more young people.

Furthermore, the comprehensive nature of programs like Best Friends develops competencies and skills. For that significant minority of young women who desire to become pregnant this is essential. Only a comprehensive program will give these young women the hope for the future that they need to make good life choices.

Many would have us leave the moral development of young people to chance saying that we should not impose our values upon them. This argument is specious. In what other areas do we leave development to chance? Should we stop teaching math in schools because young people need to choose whether learning math is right for them? Has there ever been a successful society that failed to pass on its heritage to new generations?

As we honestly consider the empirical evidence in support of abstinence programs, we have to admit that the empirical evidence does not yet allow us to state conclusively that abstinence programs achieve their goals. There are programs, however, with strong theoretical foundations suggesting that they should be effective. It is the combination of the empirical evidence and theoretical foundations that allows reasonable people to conclude that these programs likely do have a beneficial impact on youth and therefore society at large.

Psychological theory offers guidance for how to go about changing the culture. It is true that most psychologists would not promote an abstinence-only position. Yet psychology has learned much about how to change people’s attitudes and behavior. The theory is neutral with respect to morality. It is available to be used by all. This paper has barely scratched the surface of possible culture changing applications of psychological theory. The combination of good theory and solid empirical study will allow the development of successful programs. In addition, they will provide evidence that our time and money is well spent.

Cultural change for the better is possible. Too often those who consider themselves pro-family are on the defensive fighting against moral decay. Yet we can band together and strive to change the culture. The most productive ground for us is not likely to be in the halls of legislatures. We will be most productive in changing the culture by changing the lives of individuals. By teaching young people to delay gratification to obtain things more precious than fleeting pleasures, they will learn to know true happiness. Further, they will be more successful in school and work. By teaching young people to value morality and how to make moral choices, by giving hopeless young people hope, we will change the larger culture. Honestly, we must conclude that while changing the culture will not be easy, it is possible.


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About Joseph J. Horton

Dr. Joseph J. Horton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and the Working Group Coordinator for Marriage and Family with the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is also a researcher on Positive Youth Development.

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