by Moira Gaul
December 30, 2008
The Rosenbaum study comparing the sexual behavior of “virginity pledgers and nonpledgers” is a distraction from increasingly effective risk avoidance, or abstinence-centered, health prevention programs. Such programs are not the same as virginity pledge programs, and have stronger foundations in behavioral change than such pledges. The implication that this study should discredit federally funded abstinence programs for youth misses the boat from a behavioral science standpoint.
There are important ways in which abstinence programs are different from “virginity pledge” presentations. In order to accomplish behavior change or have a person successfully practice a specific behavior, precursors affecting that behavior have to be influenced. These include things such as knowledge as well as attitudes and intentions towards the behavior. The theoretical construct viewed as having the strongest effect on practicing a behavior is “self-efficacy.” Self-efficacy is the belief of a person that he or she can actually practice the behavior - the belief that they can actually do it successfully. Abstinence education programs teach skills in communication and refusal and impart additional information to youth for example about healthy relationships, goal setting, disease prevention, and social responsibility. All these elements serve to better equip youth, thus increasing self-efficacy. Collectively they provide a holistic health message helping youth to navigate the practice of sexual abstinence until marriage. Additionally, the longer the duration of the intervention or program, the more the health message, information, and skills imparted are reinforced. Such important program content cannot be adequately summed up and delivered during a short-term or one-time presentation. And if youth do slip on this behavior, the abstinence programs provide a sound foundation for returning to the practice of abstinence, whereas virginity pledges can leave one feeling as though there is utter failure for a return to the behavior.
Scholars are still building an evidence base for this relatively young field of abstinence education health promotion/disease prevention programs. Studying what is most successful within abstinence curricula to determine the best prevention practices would be a better use of research time and funding. Guiding youth away from high-risk behaviors which act to the detriment of both their physical and emotional health needs to be at the forefront of prevention strategies.