Sex? No thanks.
Or at least that’s what one Waxahachie woman stood in front of her church at age 13 and vowed to say until after her wedding day.
At 23, this woman’s wedding day has passed. When her 2-year-old son finally collapses into bed after a day of non-stop commotion she creeps out of the room and heads to the bathroom to spend some time getting ready for bed herself. Her husband sits quietly in the next room.
She says she’s content with her family, her daily routine of being a wife and mother. And when the time comes to talk about sex she says she’ll tell her son the same thing her pastors and parents told her — that God intended sex to be shared between a husband and wife, period.
But, if her son asks if his dad was his mom’s first partner — well, she said, she’ll have to admit that he wasn’t.
“I did have sex before I was married,” said the Waxahachie woman, who is not being identified because of the private nature of the topic. “But, for me it was still worth taking the pledge, even though I didn’t (keep) it.”
Not the Only Broken Pledge
According to a 2003 study by Northern Kentucky University, she is not alone.
Of the 600 teenagers they surveyed who had taken abstinence pledges, 60 percent said they had sex within a year of taking the pledge. And though the other 40 percent reported they were still virgins, half of them said they had engaged in oral sex — an activity they said they don’t think breaches the pledge they made.
That’s not exactly what the founders of True Love Waits, a popular abstinence pledge group, said they had in mind when they started the campaign in 1993.
Their program, which was the same one the Waxahachie woman went through before taking the pledge with other middle-schoolers at her church, involves education about God’s view of sex as well as discussions between parents and youth about how to remain sexually pure until marriage.
The pledge asks participants to abstain from sexual intercourse, oral sex and any “inappropriate touching.” It also states that remaining sexually pure requires one to avoid intense hugging, passionate kissing, viewing pornography or “any situations which allow one to be turned on sexually,” according to its Web site.
The problem with these strict guidelines, says Rita Cotterly, an adjunct faculty member at Texas Christian University who teaches a course in human sexuality, is that guilt is often the motivator behind following all of them. And when youth feel guilty about considering any of the above sexual activity, she said, they are much less likely to consider using contraceptives during sex or getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases if they have become sexually active.
The issue Cotterly sees is a valid one as a 2005 study of 12,000 teens conducted by Yale and Columbia universities found that teens who do pledge abstinence until marriage are six times more likely than other teens to substitute intercourse for “high-risk” sexual behaviors such as oral sex. And, when they do break their pledges and have sexual intercourse — which studies show about 80 percent do — they are much less likely than non-pledging teens to use a condom or other form of contraception.
Randy Wilson, the founder of the first Purity Ball, said he questions studies that show pledges are broken that frequently. Wilson said that especially when young women are supported by strong father figures and their religious backgrounds, he thinks they are very unlikely not to remain pure until marriage — though no statistics have been gathered on how effective Purity Balls are in helping to prolong a woman’s first sexual experience, he said.
“Any time there’s a strong, healthy relationship between the father and the daughter I think sexual promiscuity gets pushed off,” Wilson said.
Wilson, who is the father of seven children, started holding an annual Purity Ball in 1998 when his oldest daughter was in her early teens. The ball recognizes the importance of the father-daughter relationship in entering one’s teen years. And while he said the event does not directly address the topic of sex before marriage, the idea of the evening is that the father will take responsibility for helping his daughter achieve purity through her adolescent years, he said.
Richard Ross, one of the founders of True Love Waits who is now a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said different studies show slightly different success rates in relation to abstinence pledges, but that even if the pledges only affect a small segment of the population, at least they have brought the idea of abstaining from sex until marriage into the public discourse.
“Without the promise, teenagers just made up life as they went along,” Ross said. “Students who decide to promise God tend to have more resolve than those who take all they have been taught, but just make moment by moment decisions as they live life.”
And even if many teens don’t keep their pledge, Ross said, those that take the pledge are still one-third less likely to become pregnant out of wedlock.
Jean Giles-Sims, professor of sociology at Texas Christian University, said such purity or abstinence campaigns are well intentioned, but may be naive in method.
“You can’t take a population that you know has high rates of sexual activity and preach abstinence at them,” she said.
Teens with a high rate of religiosity do tend to initiate sex at an older age, she said, but that it’s a good idea to couple such pledges with comprehensive sex education programs — just in case.
Without access and knowledge of birth control, Giles-Sims said, teens who do have sex will more often do so without using protection. And the consequences of such behavior at young ages, whether that translates to pregnancy, STDs or emotional distress, are almost always negative, she said.
Wilson said that while pairing abstinence pledges with comprehensive sex education might decrease these problems, it would also defeat the purpose of making the pledge.
“It doesn’t set good, strong and healthy boundaries for our young people,” he said. “If they’re trying to protect our children in schools, abstinence is 100 percent.”
For the 23-year-old Waxahachie woman, religion was the only reason she decided to make the commitment to remain abstinent until marriage, she said.
“That was the only thing that made it worth anything,” she said. “Hav(ing) a Biblical reason saying why this is something to do.”
She said she never considered breaking her pledge during high school even though she had a boyfriend for several years. When she did decide to have sex later, she didn’t consider herself uneducated in terms of birth control, she said, though she doesn’t recall ever going over specific contraceptive methods in her public school health classes.
“I think these days there’s more education out there about birth control and doctors explain that to their patients,” she said.
Making informed decisions
Marcela Howell, vice president for policy communications and marketing at Advocate for Youth, a group that aims to create programs and policies that help youth make informed decisions about their sexual health, says the Waxahachie woman is one of the lucky ones.
Howell said many teens who pledge to remain sexually pure avoid using condoms or other contraceptives because they think that would make their sexual activity look premeditated. And when you’ve promised not to have sex, she said, people would often rather say it just happened than implicate that they knew it was a genuine possibility by having contraceptives on hand.
Plus, Howell said, in some abstinence-only programs, teens are taught that condoms are ineffective.
“They’re being told condoms don’t work, they’re difficult to use,” Howell said. “If someone told you condoms don’t work, when you become sexually active you’re not going to use them.”
Howell said when exposed to comprehensive sex education that includes information about STDs and pregnancy in addition to abstinence messages, teens are more likely to delay sexual initiation than those who only hear abstinence-based information.
“You’re giving young people complete information,” she said. “You’re not just shaking your finger under their nose and telling them, ‘Don’t do this.’”
Roger Hall, administrator for the staff at First Baptist Church of Waxahachie, said the staff does encourage its youth to consider saving sex for marriage, but that they wouldn’t interfere if comprehensive sex education were being taught in public schools.
“We believe that abstinence and sex in marriage is the pattern in scripture,” Hall said. “By the time a person is a youth they exercise their own individual judgment. What we try to do is foster an environment of support for them through parents (and) youth directors.”
Parents set the bar
The Waxahachie woman said this is exactly the kind of approach she will take with her son when he’s old enough to talk about sex.
“I’ll definitely talk to him about the consequences of both,” she said.
She said she doesn’t know if she’d encourage her son to take part in an abstinence pledge ceremony like she did because she wants “it to be more of a heart decision.”
However, she said, she’ll teach him about waiting to have sex until marriage just as she was taught.
Cotterly said education that comes from one’s parents like this is the most affective form of sexual education.
“The most affective sexuality education is that which starts at least nine months before a child’s birth,” she said. “Sexuality education is a lifelong education because we change throughout our lives and have different needs.”
The Waxahachie woman said even though she didn’t save sex for her wedding night as she had promised, taking the pledge still compelled her to refrain from sexual activity longer than she would have otherwise.
For her, she said, the pledge was merely a public announcement of the values that had already been instilled in her by her parents and her church. And when she broke her promise and went against the values her parents had taught her, she said, it was a personal decision, not one that brought her shame or guilt for changing her mind.