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4 May 2006
Selective Memory Spoils Adolescent Virginity Pledges
by George Atkinson

Virginity pledges may not be worth the paper they're written on, according to a new study reported in the American Journal of Public Health. Researcher Janet Rosenbaum, from the Harvard School of Public Health, said that adolescents who sign such pledges and then go on to have premarital sex are likely to deny having signed the pledge in the first place. More worryingly (in the context of STDs), teenagers who have had premarital sex and then decide to make a virginity pledge are likely to misreport their earlier sexual history.

Rosenbaum's study was based on data from over 13,000 adolescents and is the first study of its kind that has asked questions about virginity pledges; defined as "a public or written pledge to remain a virgin until marriage".

The study was based on two surveys, carried out a year apart. Somewhat sneakily, the researchers looked for whether participants failed to report either a previously reported pledge, or sexual experience, during the second survey.

And it seems a lot of the participants did exercise their powers of selective memory. Almost one-third of non-virgins in the first survey who later took a virginity pledge "forgot" their sexual experience in the second survey. The analysis also found that 52 percent of adolescent virginity pledgers in the first survey disavowed the virginity pledge at the next survey a year later. Additionally, 73 percent of virginity pledgers from the first survey who subsequently reported sexual intercourse denied in the second survey that they had ever pledged.

Rosenbaum's conclusion from these results is that misreporting of sexual experience will make it difficult to accurately assess virginity pledges' effects on early sexual intercourse. Moreover, the fact that the majority of adolescents recanted their vows within a year may suggest that virginity pledge programs have a high drop-out rate, and that adolescents do not make a strong affiliation with the pledge.

The study may have important implications for health workers dealing with STDs in young people. "Teens who do not acknowledge their sexually active past may perceive their new history as correct, and will underestimate the STD risk stemming from their pre-pledge sexual behavior," said Rosenbaum.

"Evaluating the effectiveness of virginity pledge programs is more difficult and complex than we may have thought," concluded Rosenbaum. "A better and more reliable measure than adolescents' self-reported sexual history might be the straightforward results of medical STD tests."

Based on material from the Harvard School of Public Health

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