[Paleopsych] NYT: Studies Rebut Earlier Report on Pledges of Virginity

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Studies Rebut Earlier Report on Pledges of Virginity

[My reaction when reading the headline was, "here's another example of why you 
should be suspicious of studies that get widely cited because those who cite 
them want to believe the results but which do not get any followups. I 
mentioned before such studies as Dr. Kenneth B. Clark's ones on black children 
reacting to black vs. white dolls, a study about the IQs of illegitimate 
children of American soldiers and German mothers after WW II (the IQs were the 
same irregardless of whether the father was white or black), and the case of 
"homophobes" having greater penile erections than other men when shown 
homoerotic pictures. Where are the followups?

[But after reading the article, though I think my advice is sound, I'm 
distressed that the Heritage Foundation's rebuttal does not give any 
quantities. Well, yes, pledgers may have lower rates of STDs, but how much? 1%? 
25%? 90%? My *suspicion* is that the difference is not great.

[But, maybe the Times is biased and would not have reported a big drop. To 
www.heritage.org , then. I append it below. And in a moment, the entire 

[I'm sending all this, not to get at the bottom of this one issue, but to help 
you think about how to judge controversies. And you'll have to judge whether 
the reduction in STDs is significant or not.]


    Challenging earlier findings, two studies from the Heritage Foundation
    reported yesterday that young people who took virginity pledges had
    lower rates of acquiring sexually transmitted diseases and engaged in
    fewer risky sexual behaviors.

    The new findings were based on the same national survey used by
    earlier studies and conducted by the Department of Health and Human
    Services. But the authors of the new study used different methods of
    statistical analysis from those in an earlier one that was widely
    publicized, making direct comparisons difficult.

    Independent experts called the new findings provocative, but
    criticized the Heritage team's analysis as flawed and lacking the
    statistical evidence to back its conclusions. The new findings have
    not been submitted to a journal for publication, an author said. The
    independent experts who reviewed the study said the findings were
    unlikely to be published in their present form.

    The authors of the new studies, Dr. Robert Rector, a senior research
    fellow in policy studies at the foundation, and Dr. Kirk A. Johnson, a
    senior policy analyst there, said their findings contradicted those
    published in March in The Journal of Adolescent Health by Dr. Peter
    Bearman, the chairman of the sociology department at Columbia
    University, and Hannah Brückner of Yale University. The earlier study
    found that a majority of teenagers who took the pledge did not live up
    to their promises and developed sexually transmitted diseases about
    the same rate as adolescents who had not made such pledges. It also
    found that the promise did tend to delay the start of intercourse by
    18 months.

    The new study, reported at a meeting in Arlington, Va., sponsored by
    the Department of Health and Human Services, found that over all,
    adolescents who made virginity pledges were less likely to engage in
    any form of sexual activity. If those who made promises did become
    sexually active, their array of sexual behaviors was likely to be more
    restricted than those of adolescents who did not make a pledge, Dr.
    Rector's team said.

    Those who made pledges were less likely to engage in vaginal
    intercourse, oral sex, anal sex and sex with a prostitute, and they
    were less likely to become prostitutes than were adolescents who did
    not take such a pledge, the Heritage team said.

    The team needs to do "a lot of work" on its paper, said David Landry,
    a senior research associate at the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New
    York. He said in an interview that it was "a glaring error" to use the
    result of a statistical test at a 0.10 level of significance when
    journals generally use a lower and more rigorous level of 0.05.

    Dr. Johnson, a co-author, defended the team's methods and said many
    journal articles used the higher level and let readers decide the
    merits of the findings.

    Mr. Landry also criticized the Heritage team's reliance on
    self-reports of sexually transmitted diseases among those who took the
    pledge, saying that group would be less likely to report them. "The
    underreporting problem is so severe that it makes that data highly
    questionable," Mr. Landry said.

    Dr. Bearman said: "Our analyses showed that pledgers are less likely
    to get tested for S.T.D.'s, be diagnosed as having an S.T.D. and to
    see a doctor because they are worried about having an S.T.D. Most
    S.T.D. infections are asymptomatic, and therefore, people don't know
    that they have an S.T.D. unless they get tested. The use of
    self-report data for S.T.D.'s is therefore extremely problematic."

    Mr. Landry and Dr. Freya Sonenstein, who directs the center for
    adolescent health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public
    Health, urged the Heritage team to try to publish its findings.

    "It's healthy to have a good dialogue" on issues like virginity
    pledges, Mr. Landry said.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which
    helped pay for the study, declined through a spokeswoman to comment on
    the new study. The centers did not analyze the data from the earlier
    study and did not plan to analyze the new Heritage findings, the
    spokeswoman said.

    In an unusual feature of a scientific report, the Heritage team said
    that Dr. Bearman's team "deliberately misled the press and the public"
    about some of its findings.

    "That is an offensive statement," Dr. Bearman said.


Virginity Pledgers Have Lower STD Rates and Engage in Fewer Risky Sexual 
by Robert Rector and Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D.
WebMemo #762
June 14, 2005

For more than a decade, organizations such as True Love Waits have encouraged 
young people to abstain from sexual activity. As part of these programs, young 
people are encouraged to take a verbal or written pledge to abstain from sex 
until marriage.

An article by professors Peter Bearman and Hanna Bruckner in the April 2005 
issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health strongly attacked virginity pledge 
programs and abstinence education in general. The article stated that youth who 
took virginity pledges had the same sexually transmitted disease (STD) rates as 
non-pledgers. It also strongly suggested that virginity pledgers were more 
likely to engage in unhealthy anal and oral sex. The report garnered widespread 
media attention across the nation. A reexamination of the data, however, 
reveals that Bearman and Bruckner’s conclusions were inaccurate. Moreover, in 
crucial respects they deliberately misled the press and public.

Bearman and Bruckner tested the long-term effects of virginity pledge programs, 
examining the health and risk behaviors of young adults (with an average age 
22) who had taken a virginity pledge as adolescents. Their analysis was based 
on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (“Add Health”), a 
database funded by the federal government. We used this same database to 
reexamine the issues they raised.

Several discrepancies were immediately apparent. For starters, the Add Health 
data clearly reveal that virginity pledgers are less likely to engage in oral 
or anal sex when compared to non-pledgers. In addition, virginity pledgers who 
have become sexually active (engaged in vaginal, oral, or anal sex) are still 
less likely to engage in oral or anal sex when compared to sexually active 
non-pledgers. This lower level of risk behavior puts virginity pledgers at 
lower risk for sexually transmitted diseases relative to non-pledgers.

How do Bearman and Bruckner conclude the opposite? In a narrow sense, they do 
not. Although they strongly suggest that pledgers are more likely to engage in 
anal and oral sex, they never actually state that. In fact, they very carefully 
avoid making any clear statements about the sexual risk behaviors of pledgers 
and non-pledgers as a whole. Instead, they have culled through the Add Health 
sample looking for tiny sub-groups of pledgers with higher risk behaviors. They 
then describe the risk behaviors of these tiny groups and let the press infer 
that they are talking about pledgers in general.

The centerpiece of their argument about pledgers and heightened sexual risk 
activity is a small group of pledgers who engaged in anal sex without vaginal 
sex. This “risk group” consists of 21 persons out of a sample of 14,116. 
Bearman and Bruckner focus on this microscopic group while deliberately failing 
to inform their audience of the obvious and critical fact that pledgers as a 
whole are substantially less likely to engage in anal sex when compared to 

This tactic is akin to finding a small rocky island in the middle of the ocean, 
describing the island in detail without describing the surrounding ocean, and 
then suggesting that the ocean is dry and rocky. It is junk science, a willful 
deception of the American public.

With regard to STDs, Bearman and Bruckner actually found that adolescents who 
made virginity pledges were less likely to have STDs as young adults than were 
non-pledgers, but concluded that this difference was not statistically 
significant. This conclusion was based on limitations in their methodology 
methodology. In fact, the same methods that they used to demonstrate that 
virginity pledges do not reduce STDs also demonstrate that condom use does not 
reduce STDs.

One problem is that Bearman and Bruckner examined only one of several STD 
measures available in the Add Health data file. Analysis of the remaining 
measures reveals that adolescent virginity pledging is strongly associated with 
reduced STDs among young adults. These results are statistically significant in 
four of the five STD measures examined and are very near significance on the 
fifth measure. With all the STD measures, the allegedly ineffective virginity 
pledge is actually a better predictor of STD reduction than is condom use. On 
average, individuals who took virginity pledges as adolescents were 25 percent 
less likely to have STDs as young adults than non-pledgers from identical 
socioeconomic backgrounds.

Further, Bearman and Bruckner’s suggestion that virginity pledgers are ignorant 
about contraception is also inaccurate. Although virginity pledgers were less 
likely to use contraception at the very first occurrence of intercourse, 
differences in contraceptive use between pledgers and non-pledgers disappear 
quickly. In young adult years, sexually active pledgers are as likely to use 
contraception as non-pledgers.

Of course, virginity pledge programs are not omnipotent. Many years will pass 
between the time an adolescent takes a pledge and the time he or she reaches 
adulthood. These years will be full of events and forces that either reinforce 
or, more likely, undermine the youth’s commitment to abstinence. Despite these 
forces, taking a virginity pledge is associated with a broad array of positive 
outcomes. Although most pledgers fall short of their goal of abstaining until 
marriage, in general, they still do a lot better in life. Compared to 
non-pledgers from the same social backgrounds, pledgers have far fewer sex 
partners. Pledgers are also less likely to engage in sex while in high school, 
less likely to experience teen pregnancy, less likely to have a child 
out-of-wedlock, less likely to have children in their teen and young adult 
years, and less likely to engage in non-marital sex as young adults.

Overall, virginity pledge programs have a strong record of success. They are 
among the few institutions in society teaching self-restraint to youth awash in 
a culture of narcissism and sexual permissiveness. They have been unfairly 
maligned by two academics who should know better.

Robert Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies, and Kirk 
Johnson, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst in the Center for Data Analysis, at 
The Heritage Foundation. These findings are based on research presented by 
Rector and Johnson at the Eighth Annual National Welfare Research and 
Evaluation Conference in Washington, D.C., on June 14, 2005. The conference was 
run by the Administration of Children and Families of U.S. Department of Health 
and Human Services.

This paper is based on research contained in the draft papers "Adolescent 
Virginity Pledges, Condom Use and Sexually Transmitted Diseases Among Young 
Adults" and "Adolescent Virginity Pledges and Risky Sexual Behaviors," both by 
Robert Rector and Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D.

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