Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges as They Affect Transition to First Intercourse

Bearman, Peter Shawn; Brückner, Hannah

Since 1993, in response to an organized social movement sponsored by the Southern Baptist Church, well over two and a half million adolescents have taken public "virginity" pledges, in which they promise to abstain from sex until marriage. This paper explores the effect of virginity pledges on the transition to first intercourse. On one hand, we show that adolescents who pledge, controlling for all of the usual characteristics of adolescents and their social contexts that are associated with the transition to sex, are much less likely than adolescents who do not pledge, to have intercourse. The delay effect is substantial and almost impossible to erase. Taking a pledge delays intercourse for a long time. On the other hand, the pledge effect depends on age. Pledging does not work for adolescents at all ages. Second, pledging delays intercourse only in contexts where there are some, but not too many, pledgers. Too few, and too many, pledgers in the adolescent world can negate the pledge effect. The pledge works because it is embedded in an identity movement. Consequently, like other identity movements, the pledge identity is relatively fragile and meaningful only in contexts where it is at least partially non-normative. Consequences of pledging are explored for those who break their promise. Promise breakers are less likely to use contraception at first intercourse.


More About This Work

Academic Units
Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy
Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics
Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy, Columbia University
ISERP Working Papers
Published Here
January 18, 2011