Some denominations of the Christian church believe in the preservation of young women's sexual purity. These institutions are so invested in stopping women's sexuality that they ask women to pledge, to God, that they will not have intercourse with anyone before they are married. But unfortunately, promising the Creator abstinence may not be an effective contraceptive tool.
One recent study—called "Broken Promises: Abstinence Pledging and Sexual and Reproductive Health"—out of the University of Massachusetts–Amherst has found that most people who take these pledges subsequently break them. What's more, they are actually more likely to become pregnant than those who never make a pledge at all. Thirty percent of people who pledged abstinence "experienced a non-marital pregnancy within six years after first sexual intercourse," the researchers write, versus only 18 percent of those who took no such pledge. "Pledging was associated with an increase in the risk of non-marital pregnancy by slightly more than 50 percent."
Broadly spoke a women in her 20s who made a purity pledge while she was a teenager. Alanna* told me that when she was young, her parents talked to her about sex in way that did not make her feel empowered as a woman. The conversation focused too heavily on the way men will sexually use her and was loaded with misinformation. There was "no type of sex positivity for women," she said, adding that her parent's advice was hypocritical: "Sex outside of marriage was so sacrilegious in [my mother's] mind, which I found interesting, because both my parents were having sex with other people before they got married."
It was her father who initiated the idea that his daughter should pledge to abstain from sex until marriage; he made her sign a contract to that effect. "He had me sign this document in front of some of my relatives and mom, and then I was presented with a ring with a key on it that I was to wear until I was handed over for wedlock." The concept of a father drafting a sex contract for his daughter and fitting her with jewelry that symbolizes her virginity is disturbing, but Alana told me that the whole thing was packaged as if it were wholesome.
It was as if she were doing something good for herself so that one day she could "explore that special gift with my husband," which, she said, is what her family and church implied was the purpose of her creation. "That and procreation, of course."
According to the findings from the UMass study, so many pledgers become pregnant is due to both the shaming of premarital sex in Christian upbringings and the misinformation these young women receive about the inefficacy of other forms of birth control, such as condoms or the pill. "Girls and young women who take abstinence pledges but later break them may be less prepared to manage the risks associated with sexual activity by obtaining condoms and contraceptives themselves, or less apt to initiate conversations about precautions with their partners," the researchers note.
I broke my pledge because I was a horny little 15-year-old who wanted to get past third base.
The findings do not surprise Alanna. "A friend of mine who grew up in a liberal, sex-positive household had a bowl of condoms sitting on a table in their house when she was in high school," she said. "That girl never got knocked up because her family was openly talking about and encouraging safe sex practices." But Alanna couldn't even talk about condoms as a teenager. (Her mother told her that the only reason Alana would need to go to see a gynecologist is if she was having sex.) Naturally, Alanna didn't feel capable of protecting herself sexually, though she did start having sex anyway. "I ran the risk of teen pregnancy because I didn't feel comfortable dealing with the practices of safe sex."
There were other findings out of UMass: Purity pledgers who had six to ten sexual partners had a 51 percent rate of contracting HPV, while people with the same number of partners who hadn't taken a pledge only had a 33 percent HPV rate. It happened to Alanna. She was able to find a gynecologist in college and tested positive for HPV. "I wasn't allowed to get the vaccine as a teenager because my mom had read studies about a couple of girls having weird reactions, and since I had promised God I wouldn't have sex, it didn't matter. But what if I had been raped?" When her mother found the insurance claim showing her daughter's diagnosis, Alanna said she shamed her for a long time.
"My first boyfriend came inside me once because he just didn't know when to pull out, and we weren't on the condom train," Alanna said. "It's a miracle I never got pregnant. But I wasn't on birth control because my mom said studies said girls died from birth control, that it made them fat, and that it was another form of abortion."
The people in the UMass study who made a pledge but did not break it were, of course, not highly likely to become pregnant. So if one has the conviction to live in accordance with the Christian virgin lifestyle, such a pledge can be effective. But what about the rest? Why did these young women take their vows and break them? "I broke my pledge because I was a horny little 15-year-old who wanted to get past third base," Alanna said, describing how she crushed her father's hopes and dreams for her chastity. "I felt so guilty about it—which pisses me off so much now." Alanna says she carried the burden of guilt for years; sex was a bad thing. "I was letting guys have it, giving it away, and breaking a promise that I had made to God," she said.
*Name has been changed.