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Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are not effective. There are no published studies in the professional literature that show that abstinence-only programs will result in young people delaying sexual intercourse. In fact, at least one study has provided strong evidence that such a program did not delay the onset of intercourse.

Proponents of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs often conduct their own inhouse evaluations and cite them as proof that their programs are effective. Outside experts, however, have found these evaluations to be inadequate, methodologically unsound, or inconclusive.

In addition, the federal government released an evaluation of its own federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs in April of 2007 that found no evidence of success. Students in the programs that were evaluated had a similar number of sexual partners as their peers not in the programs, as well as a similar age of first sex. And, researchers at Oxford University conducted a review of 13 abstinence-only-until-marriage program evaluations and found that all of the programs failed to lower the STD rate, lower the rate of pregnancy, or significantly impact the number of students engaging in vaginal sex.

Virginity pledges are not an effective strategy. Although they were once the sole province of religious organizations, many secular groups and schools now host events where students sign “virginity pledges” as a way to promote pre-marital abstinence. Today, virginity pledges are also part of most abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula and programs.

Research has found that under certain conditions these pledges may help some adolescents delay sexual intercourse. When they work, pledges help this select group of adolescents delay the onset of sexual intercourse for an average of 18 months—far short of marriage.

However, the studies also found that those young people who took a pledge were one-third less likely to use contraception when they did become sexually active than their peers who had not pledged. Additional research found that, among those young people who had not had vaginal intercourse, pledgers were more likely to have engaged in both oral and anal sex than their non-pledging peers. These teens are therefore more vulnerable to the risks of unprotected sexual activity such as unintended pregnancy and STDs, including HIV/AIDS. Further research has confirmed that although some students who take pledges delay intercourse, ultimately they are equally as likely to contract an STD as their non-pledging peers. The study also found that the STD rates were higher in communities where a significant proportion (over 20%) of the young people had taken a virginity pledge. 

Comprehensive education about sexuality is effective. Numerous studies and evaluations published in peer-reviewed literature have found that comprehensive education about sexuality, programs that teach teens about both abstinence and contraception/disease prevention, are an effective strategy to help young people delay their initiation of sexual intercourse.

Reviews of published evaluations of sexuality education, HIV-prevention, and adolescent pregnancy-prevention programs have consistently found that they:

  • Do not encourage teens to start having sexual intercourse
  • Do not increase the frequency with which teens have intercourse
  • Do not increase the number of sexual partners teens have

Instead these programs can:

  • Delay the onset of intercourse
  • Reduce the frequency of intercourse
  • Reduce the number of sexual partners
  • Increase condom or contraceptive use

Finding The Research

These conclusions are based on a number of research studies, articles, and publications that may be very useful to you in your advocacy efforts. The citation for each article is listed below and we encourage you to look at the original research. If you have any trouble finding the articles, please contact the SIECUS New York office at 212/819-9770 or www.siecus.org/feedback.html.

Peter Bearman and Hannah Brückner “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and the Transition to First Intercourse.” American Journal of Sociology 106.4 (2001): 859-912.

Peter Bearman and Hannah Brückner, "After the promise: The STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges," Journal of Adolescent Health 36.4 (2005): 271-278.

Douglas Kirby, Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (Washington, DC: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2007).

Doug Kirby, Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy (Washington: The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, May 2001).

Christopher Trenholm, et al., Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs, Final Report April 2007 (Washington, DC.: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. for U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007).

Kristin Underhill, Paul Montgomery, and Don Operario, "Sexual abstinence only programmes to prevent HIV infection in high income countries: systematic review," British Medical Journal Online (July 2007), accessed 13 August 2007, http://bmj.com/cgi/content/full/335/7613/248