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Keeping the Faith: Are Abstinence-Only Pledges Unrealistic?

Ever think evangelical teens are most likely to be the next Juno? You might be onto something. While religion may be a good gauge for attitudes towards sex, it is not for sexual behavior.

A national survey talked to 3,400 teens between 13 and 17 and found that evangelicals are the most likely to say they do not believe in sex before marriage, yet they are just as likely to have it — if not more. Seventy-four percent say they do not believe in premarital sex, compared to 50 percent of mainline Protestants and 25 percent of Jewish teens. Second only to black Protestants, they lose their virginity on average shortly after turning 16.

While the effectiveness of abstinence pledges that are so popular among evangelicals has long been contested, I never knew inflation was a problem. A pledge movement often collapses in a school when it becomes too popular. As soon as it loses its magical minority milieu — 30 percent is the tipping point — teens feel less unique and pledges get tossed aside like last year’s yellow.

Minding the gap between sexual beliefs and behavior becomes even harder when looking at the outcome of abstinence pledges. To find out how effective they are,


According to a 2001 estimate, 2.5 million people in the US pledged to abstain from premarital sex, yet more than half of them do it anyway. Pledges do have some impact though. Teens who take them lose their virginity 18 months later than those who do not and have fewer partners on average.

Once religious conviction gets factored in, pledges sounded even more effective. Those who scored high on religiosity — defined by behaviors like going to church and praying at home — are more likely to abstain. But better indicators are the strength of social networks and quality of relationships with parents. Teens who live with both biological parents and feel their families understand them, pay attention to their concerns, and have fun with them are the most likely to delay sex — regardless of how religious or what religion they are.

What do you think about abstinence-only pledges? A good guideline? Or unrealistic and only for the most religious?


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