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Virgin pledgers can lie about sexual past

Teenagers who take pledges to remain virgins until marriage are likely to deny having taken the pledge if they later become sexually active.

tabloid Updated: Jun 02, 2006 16:18 IST

Teenagers who take pledges to remain virgins until marriage are likely to deny having taken the pledge if they later become sexually active. Conversely, those who were sexual active before taking the pledge frequency deny their sexual history, according to new study findings.

These findings imply that virginity pledgers often provide unreliable data, making assessment of abstinence-based sex education programs unreliable. In addition, these teens may also underestimate their risk of exposure to sexually transmitted diseases.

"Teenagers do not report their past sexual activity accurately, with virginity pledgers giving more inaccurate reports of their past sexual activity," study author Janet Rosenbaum, of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said.

Consequently, rather than rely on self-reports, "studies of virginity pledges must focus on outcomes where we know we can get good information, such as medical STD tests," she added.

Previous research shows that survey respondents tend to answer questions about sexual activity according to their current beliefs, particularly if their current attitudes conflict with their past behaviors. Survey respondents may also underreport or overreport their health risk behavior.

Rosenbaum evaluated retractions of virginity pledges and reports of sexual histories among a nationally representative sample of seventh- through twelfth-grade students who participated in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

The students were first interviewed in 1995 and followed-up in 1996. The first survey included responses from 79 percent of 20,745 students. The second survey included responses from 88 percent of 14,736 students from the first group.

In the initial survey, about 13 percent of adolescents reported that they had taken a pledge of virginity. Just one year later, however, more than half of this group said they had never taken such a pledge, Rosenbaum reports in the American Journal of Public Health.

In addition, more than 1 in 10 students who reported being sexually active in 1995 said that they were virgins in 1996. Students who reported they were sexually active in second survey were more than three times as likely as their peers to deny they had taken a pledge of virginity.

The adolescents' denials of virginity pledges and sexual histories were associated with changes in their sexual and religious identities, the report indicates.

For example, adolescents who abandoned a born-again Christian identity were more than twice as likely as their peers to say they had never taken a virginity pledge.

On the other hand, 28 percent of nonvirgins who later took a virginity pledge retracted their sexual histories during the 1996 survey. The same was true of 18 percent of nonvirgins who later adopted a born-again Christian identity.

Sexually active teens who later took virginity pledges were four times as likely to deny previous reports of sexual activity than were those who had not taken virginity pledges.

According to Rosenbaum, "it's not possible to know why pledgers retracted their sexual history since it's impossible to know whether respondents actually had sex."

"Psychology studies in a variety of contexts seem to demonstrate that people's memories of their behavior are consistent with their beliefs rather than their actual behavior," she told Reuters Health, adding that "anecdotally, some people seem to feel like the answer which is strictly true may not represent themselves accurately."

"If those who deny their sexual pasts perceive their new history as correct, they will underestimate the sexually transmitted disease risk stemming from their prepledge sexual behavior," Rosenbaum adds.