Young adults who take virginity pledges as adolescents are as likely to be infected with sexually transmitted diseases as those who do not take virginity pledges, Yale and Columbia University researchers report in the March 18 issue of Journal of Adolescent Health.
The virginity pledges may even encourage higher risk sexual behavior among young adults, say study authors Hannah Brückner, assistant professor of sociology at Yale University and Peter Bearman, professor of sociology at Columbia University.
"We were surprised by the findings," said Brückner. "Pledgers have fewer sex partners than non-pledgers, they start having sex later, and they marry earlier, so they should have lower STD rates, but they don't."
One reason is that sexually active pledgers were less likely to use condoms at first sex than non-pledgers. Because most pledgers are sexually active (88 percent of the pledgers), lower rates of condom use increases STD risk. Brüeckner and Bearman also note that pledgers were less likely to seek and obtain STD-related health care, possibly because of increased stigmatization or misperception of infection risk among pledgers. Because pledgers are less likely to be diagnosed and treated for STD infections, they may be more likely to have those infections for longer periods than non-pledgers.
"If pledgers have infections for longer periods of time than non-pledgers, this is a reason for concern," said Brückner. The authors said even though pledgers used condoms at the same rate as non-pledgers at the time of their last interview, the fact that they were less likely to use condoms earlier could be why their STD rates remain high since they are less likely to be diagnosed. "Putting a condom on after getting an infection does not make the infection go away," said Brückner.
Pledging may lead some young adults to engage in alternative sexual behaviors in order to preserve their virginity. Among virgins--those who have not had vaginal intercourse--male pledgers are four times more likely to have anal sex; male and female pledgers are six times more likely to have oral sex than non-pledgers. Condom use for anal sex is very low; for oral almost non-existent. Therefore, Brückner said, virgin pledger engagement in riskier behavior may be a factor in higher than expected STD rates.
The authors added, "Pledgers who are married have the same STD rates as non-pledgers who are married. Marriage does not cause STDs; unprotected sex does. Knowing how to protect oneself from STDs is important. Since most adolescents and young adults will have sex, it is important that public health policies are designed to help young people gain the information they need to protect themselves, and others."