Like a Virgin: The Press Take On Teenage Sex
The chain reaction was something out of central casting. A medical journal starts it off by announcing a study comparing teens who take a pledge of virginity until marriage with those who don't. Lo and behold, when they crunch the numbers, they find not much difference between pledgers and nonpledgers: most do not make it to the marriage bed as virgins.
Like a pack of randy 15-year-old boys, the press dives right in.
"Virginity Pledges Don't Stop Teen Sex," screams CBS News. "Virginity pledges don't mean much," adds CNN. "Study questions virginity pledges," says the Chicago Tribune. "Premarital Abstinence Pledges Ineffective, Study Finds," heralds the Washington Post. "Virginity Pledges Fail to Trump Teen Lust in Look at Older Data," reports Bloomberg. And on it goes.
In other words, teens will be teens, and moms or dads who believe that concepts such as restraint or morality have any application today are living in a dream world. Typical was the lead for the CBS News story: "Teenagers who take virginity pledges are no less sexually active than other teens, according to a new study."
Here's the rub: It just isn't true.
In fact, the only way the study's author, Janet Elise Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins University, could reach such results was by comparing teens who take a virginity pledge with a very small subset of other teens: those who are just as religious and conservative as the pledge-takers. The study is called "Patient Teenagers? A Comparison of the Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and Matched Nonpledgers," and it was published in the Jan. 1 edition of Pediatrics.
The first to notice something lost in the translation was Dr. Bernadine Healy, the former head of both the Red Cross and the National Institutes of Health. Today she serves as health editor for U.S. News & World Report. And in her dispatch on this study, Dr. Healy pointed out that "virginity pledging teens were considerably more conservative in their overall sexual behaviors than teens in general -- a fact that many media reports have missed cold."
What Dr. Healy was getting at is that the pledge itself is not what distinguishes these kids from most other teenagers. The real difference is their more conservative and religious home and social environment. As she notes, when you compare both groups in this study with teens at large, the behavioral differences are striking. Here are just a few:
- These teens generally have less risky sex, i.e., fewer sexual partners.
- These teens are less likely to have a teenage pregnancy, or to have friends who use drugs.
- These teens have less premarital vaginal sex.
- When these teens lose their virginity they tend to do so at age 21 -- compared to 17 for the typical American teen.
- And very much overlooked, one out of four of these teens do in fact keep the pledge to remain chaste -- amid much cheap ridicule and just about zero support outside their homes or churches.
Let's put this another way. The real headline from this study is this: "Religious Teens Differ Little in Sexual Behavior Whether or Not They Take a Pledge."
Now, whatever the shock that might occasion at CBS or the Washington Post, it comes as no surprise to parents. Most parents appreciate that a pledge of virginity -- a one-time event that might be made at an emotional moment in a teen's life -- is not some talisman that will magically shield their sons and daughters from the strong and normal desires that grow as they discover their sexuality. What these parents hope to do is direct these desires in a way that recognizes sex as a great gift, which in the right circumstances fosters genuine intimacy between a man and a woman and at its freest offers the possibility of new life.
This is not the prevailing view, of course. And these parents know it. Far from conformists living in a comfortable world where their beliefs are never challenged, these families live in an environment where most everything that is popular -- television, the movies, the Internet -- encourages children to grow up as quickly as possible while adults remain locked in perpetual adolescence.
Nor do these families believe their children are better than other kids. Unlike the majority of health experts and their supporters in the press, however, they don't believe that the proper use of the condom is the be all and end all. For these parents, the good news here is that the striking behavioral differences between the average American teen and the two teen groups in this study show that homes and families still exert a powerful influence.
That, alas, is not something you're likely to read in the headlines. For when it comes to challenging the conventional wisdom on issues of sexuality, the American media suddenly become as coy as a cloistered virgin.