Sunday, January 29, 2006

On Abstinence Pledges and Silver Rings

The Bush administration is pushing hard for abstinence education at schools, and only abstinence education, with no mention of those nasty contraceptives which might fail. One abstinence approach is to ask the teens to make a pledge that they will stay virgins until the wedding night. If you are feeling wobbly about the force of your pledge, you can supplement it with a silver abstinence ring.

My inner bad poet immediately made up a poem about the abstinence rings:

With this ring I thee wed,
my dearest Abstinence,
but I'll still give head.

It doesn't count as intercourse,
this I know for a fact.
And though this is banal,
neither does anal,
or anything that leaves my hymen intact.

Bit of a first draft, but it does convey the flavor of a long follow-up study of those who had made abstinence pledges:

Teenagers who take virginity pledges -- public declarations to abstain from sex -- are almost as likely to be infected with a sexually transmitted disease as those who never made the pledge, an eight-year study released yesterday found.

Although young people who sign a virginity pledge delay the initiation of sexual activity, marry at younger ages and have fewer sexual partners, they are also less likely to use condoms and more likely to experiment with oral and anal sex, said the researchers from Yale and Columbia universities.

"The sad story is that kids who are trying to preserve their technical virginity are, in some cases, engaging in much riskier behavior," said lead author Peter S. Bearman, a professor at Columbia's Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. "From a public health point of view, an abstinence movement that encourages no vaginal sex may inadvertently encourage other forms of alternative sex that are at higher risk of STDs."

Studies like this are tricky to do because those who choose the abstinence pledge might have been abstinent longer in any case. So it's not quite clear what the effect of the pledge itself might be. To find out that, we'd need to have two populations of similar teenagers and somehow make one of them take the pledge and also somehow make sure that the other population hears nothing about such pledges. This can't be done, which means that the studies will always be suggestive rather than definite.

And where did this post come, you might ask. Someone discussed the abstinence study on CNN today. And then I read this article about how the Bush administration favors abstinence as the main tool for fighting AIDS in Africa. Given the findings that abstinence isn't really protecting against sexually transmitted diseases when people interpret it as anything-but-intercourse-proper, I'm worried that the same might happen with these AIDS prevention programs. Which would make them useless.