Abstaining from abstinence coverage

herpes shirtSo we all know the accepted consensus on abstinence programs: They don't work. Right? A few months ago, the CDC issued a really shoddy survey claiming that one in four teenage girls had a sexually transmitted disease. The relative standard error was so high (greater than 30 percent) as to render the survey useless. But that didn't keep reporters from running with the story and using it to argue that it proved abstinence programs didn't work. The study didn't measure anything at all to do with sex education, much less abstinence-specific programs. The media circus that surrounded the survey was advocacy at the expense of the truth. Even after the study was discredited, major papers kept running with the statistic and what it supposedly meant about sex education. The "consensus" that abstinence programs don't work is firmly entrenched, it seems.

So along comes a survey that actually does measure the effectiveness of an abstinence program and where is the mainstream media coverage? Almost non-existent. I would have completely missed the story unless a reader had sent in a brief blog item that ran on a New Jersey Star-Ledger site:

"Virginity pledges" in which adolescents swear to abstain from sex until marriage, do seem to work, for a while anyway, according to a new study by the RAND Corp.

The study interviewed nearly 1,500 teenagers who said they were virgins in 2001, 2002 and 2004. The teenagers shared similar backgrounds with regard to religion, parenting and friendships; about one-fourth of the group reported they had made a virginity pledge.

At the end of the three years, 42 percent of the teens who didn't make the pledges said they were sexually active. Only one-third of teens who made pledges said they'd had intercourse, according to the study, published by the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The study's lead author, psychologist Steven Marino, said the pledges should not be a substitute for comprehensive sexual education. But they did delay the onset of sexual activity in some teens.

People who delay sex until they are older are less likely to have unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, the researchers said.

That's the whole blog post and I actually think it's pretty good. It gets all the key details and explains them in a very straightforward manner. Good work. The key here is that RAND Corp. -- which is one of the best research outfits around, in my opinion -- controlled the study for various sociological factors. They didn't compare homeschooled religious children with unchurched teen mothers or something like that. They compared the effect of virginity pledges by looking at teens with similar backgrounds.

Anyway, so unlike that silly CDC report, here we have a legitimate study that shows that abstinence pledges "work" and where is the mainstream coverage? All I could find was that blog post and a sidebar mention accompanying an uncritical story in The Columbian (Wash.) about the purity movement:

Did you know?

* Teens who make a pledge to not have sexual intercourse before marriage are more likely to postpone sexual activities than their peers who do not make the pledge, according to a Rand Corp. survey. In comparing those who made pledges with those who didn't, researchers found that during a three-year period, 42 percent of nonpledgers had begun having sexual intercourse compared with 34 percent of those who had made the pledge.

* Teens who make a purity pledge are not more likely to engage in nonintercourse activities such as oral sex, compared to those who didn't make the pledge, the survey found.

It really doesn't make sense how little coverage this study received. Purity events are all the rage right now. Teen sex stories are always bound to sell papers. What gives?

If you want to read the study that the mainstream media deemed less important than that shoddy CDC concoction from a few months ago, here's a link. And here's the RAND press release from last month.

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