Challenging Dogma - Spring 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Analysis and Critique of Virginity Pledges: True Love Waits and Sexually Transmitted Diseases – Eileen M. Schuetz

The United States has the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections and teen pregnancy of any industrialized nation (7). It is estimated that every year at least four million young people contract a sexually transmitted infection as a result of having unprotected sex (7). In the United States, the primary theory for teaching adolescents and teenagers about sexual health is to preach abstinence. Although federal law does not require sexuality education in schools, Congress has still created three programs that provide federal money to promote abstinence-only sexual education (7). Abstinence-only education involves discussions of values, and character building and does not acknowledge that many teenagers will become sexually active. When teaching about abstinence, there is no mention of the use of condoms or other products that could prevent unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections (7). Sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies can be entirely preventable if teenagers are given the correct information to make safe choices.

One form of abstinence-only education and promotion of remaining abstinent until marriage is the so-called “Virginity Pledge.” A virginity pledge is when a young person attends a commitment ceremony and fills out a commitment card promising not to engage in any sexual activity until married. The most well-known and most-often used virginity pledge is the True Love Waits pledge campaign and program. The campaign was started in 1993 by a Southern Baptist to teach adolescents to live pure lives by refraining from sexual activity until marriage (1). At present the campaign has had over 2.5 million young people sign commitment cards and make pledges (5). Regardless of the amount of people who have signed pledges, there have been studies that have shown that the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections in people who have taken pledges is just as high as adolescents who have not pledged to wait until marriage (4).

What some critics see as a silver lining to virginity pledges and abstinence-only education is that some adolescents and teenagers delay the onset of their first sexual encounter (5). On average adolescents and teenagers who took the virginity pledge became sexually active approximately two years later in life than those who had not taken the virginity pledge (8). Regardless of the onset of sexual activity, 88% of pledgers and 99% of non-pledgers engaged in sexual activity before marriage (8). The delayed on-set of first time sexual activity still meant adolescents and teenagers were engaging in sex without proper knowledge of contraceptives. This results in high levels of sexually transmitted infections that could have otherwise been prevented (10). The focus of this paper is to show the failure of virginity pledges to teach adolescents and teenagers about condom use while also failing to recognize psychological and behavioral reasons for adolescents and teenagers would break their virginity pledge.

Failure to Take Into Account Psychological Reactants When Promoting the Virginity Pledge

Psychological reactants theory is a “motivational station that is directed toward the re-establishment of the free behaviors that have been threatened or eliminated” (9). As a result of feeling threatened a person begins to believe he or she can do whatever they want. That person wants to have the freedom to make whatever choice he or she wants to make. True Love Waits focuses on the virginity pledge and waiting until marriage to engage in sexual activity. It stresses leading a life of purity by the slogan “path of purity” (1). This slogan is just a starter in invoking psychological reactants in adolescents and teenagers. By using the term “path,” True Love Waits implies that there are multiple routes a young person can take in his or her life. As Brehm stated, “If one’s set of free behaviors consisted of A and B, and one were told to do A, the direct restoration of freedom would consist of doing B” (9). The act of restoration means engaging in the behavior that has previously been denied. If an adolescent is told that they must take a “path of purity,” then the youth may be more inclined to veer off that path to their own of debauchery (at least in the eyes of the program).

The virginity pledges take place under several circumstances. Some are giant events held in a community at a local church or other community-gathering place. The big event is like a ceremony in that it follows a schedule similar to something one would see or experience at a Sunday Church service (1). The proper name for this is a commitment service, and the True Love Waits program has a guideline for how to run the service. The first piece of the ceremony is a responsive reading. This means that as a minister or pastor says a line, the audience (which is broken down into parents and children) reads a line back in response. The first line adolescents and teenagers must respond to the minister with is, “Because I believe that God has a plan for my life, I choose to make this choice” (1). Although the line states the young adults have chosen to do make the pledge, it also makes the point of saying, “God has a plan for my life.” To some teenagers, this may seem as if they do not have control over their own life, and as a result they feel as if they are losing their autonomy. This loss of autonomy may cause teenagers to engage in sexual activity or the opposite behavior as stated in the psychological reactants theory.

Having a minister and parents encouraging adolescents and teenagers may also invoke psychological reactants. These people can be considered authoritative figures that adolescents and teenagers do not have much in common with. “Interpersonal similarity can reduce reactance by increasing compliance,” and so lack of similarity will result in more adolescents and teenagers choosing to reclaim their freedom (3).

Inadvertently invoking psychological reactants is quite detrimental to the health and well being of adolescents and teenagers. As a result of having one’s freedom threatened, some teenagers will begin to engage in sexual activity. Many times, these teenagers are not taught how to protect themselves in the event of sexual activity, which cause sexually transmitted infections to be transmitted at alarming rates.

Denying the Pledge and Cognitive Dissonance

In one study conducted by Rosenbaum et al, it was noted that half of the people who reported making the virginity pledge in the first wave of a survey later denied ever making a pledge during the second wave of the experiment (2). This meant the respondents of the survey were also four times as likely to deny ever making the pledge. Rosenbaum hypothesized that many adolescents and teenagers do this as a result of cognitive dissonance theory (2). Leon Festinger introduced cognitive dissonance theory in 1953. He described cognition as piece of knowledge, and cognitive dissonance as the result of two or more cognition who are opposite of one another (12). The dissonance causes psychological tension and forces a person to make a decision to overcome that tension (12).

True Love Waits describes taking the “path of purity” as remaining sexually pure by saying no to sexual intercourse, oral sex, and sexual touching. As well as saying no to any physical relationship that causes one to be “turned on” sexually in order to remain sexually pure (1). For some adolescents and teenagers, it may be difficult to completely deny sexual feelings that arise while spending time with a person that they find attractive. Having these sexual feelings, puts one in conflict with the pledge one has signed to abstain from all forms of sexual conduct and activity before marriage. This is where cognitive dissonance theory comes in. One of the most effective ways that people overcome cognitive dissonance is by changing cognitions. Festering says that if two cognitions are in conflict, a person will change one to make it consistent with the other (12). In this case, it seems as many as of the half the adolescents and teenagers who have taken the virginity pledge recant their pledge because they have changed this cognition (the knowledge of the path of purity) to be in line with the sexual feelings they may have. This has the effect of adolescents and teenagers breaking their pledge and engaging in sexual activity.

Failure to Educate Adolescents about Safe Sex Practices

True Love Waits campaign preaches the importance of abstaining from all forms of sexual activity. They use various bible verses to tell adolescents and teenagers why they must abstain from sexual activity before marriage (1). Because they believe that abstinence is the only way to live one’s life, the program fails to include any education about safe sex practices. While utilizing only abstinence teachings, the program uses a form of the Health Belief Model to persuade adolescents and teenagers to make the virginity pledge. The Health Belief Model has three steps if a person will take a health-related action. The first step must be that the person feels that a negative health condition can be avoided, and the second is that the person has a positive expectation that by taking the recommended action, he or she will avoid the negative health condition. Lastly, the person believes he or she can successfully take a recommended action (11). If none of these steps are met, then the Health Belief Model will have failed.

The True Love Waits campaign has the adolescent or teenager weigh two options as to whether one should have sexual relations before marriage or wait until one is married to engage in sexual activity. The reasons for abstaining from sexually activity usually range from it being part of God’s plan to a way to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. The Health Belief Model says that if a person knows the severity and benefits of a health action, then that person will make the rational choice to embrace the benefits and participate in the positive health action (11). True Love Waits makes the assumption that when adolescents and teenagers are given the choice between having sex or abstaining from sex, they will choose to abstain from sexual activity because the “facts” state that is what is best. Eventually it seems that these young people end up choosing to have sexual relations outside of marriage because the perceived severity does not seem to cause them much stress.

The perceived severity in the True Love Waits program is that God will be angry with adolescents and teenagers for engaging in pre-marital sexual activities or that these young people will contract a sexually transmitted infection. The threat of contracting a sexually transmitted infection does not register with many adolescents and teenagers. Many of these young adults have what is called “the illusion of invincibility, and it is correlated with the propensity to engage in risky behaviors” (6). These young people have an illusion of decreased perceived risk. It has been reported that AIDS and HIV infection risk in the adolescent and teenage age group is the result of the belief that invincibility will protect them (6). On top of not being taught about condom use, some adolescents and teenagers who have taken the pledge believe that they too are invincible. When they do engage in sexual activity, they will not use protection. Perhaps a reason for not using condoms and other forms of contraceptives is because many people who have the pledge do not believe they are at risk if they are engaging in a sexual relationship with someone who has also taken the pledge.

This is a specifically severe problem because it contributes to the percentages of young people who do have a sexually transmitted infection. As the other two critiques have shown, when the program fails to prevent young people from engaging in pre-marital sexual activity, it is allows young people to participate in risky sexual behavior. It have been found that in communities where at least 20% of adolescents and teenagers participated in the virginity pledge, there was an overall rate of sexually transmitted infections of 8.9%, while some communities with less than 7% who pledged had a sexually transmitted infection rate of 5.5%. Overall the rates of infection were statistically equal for those who pledged and those who did not (10). This failure to effectively teach adolescents and teenagers about proper safe sex techniques can have lastly effects. Sexually transmitted infections can result in lifelong chronic illness and untreated infections can result in some young women becoming infertile or experiencing ectopic pregnancies (7).

A New and Improved Virginity Pledge

Virginity pledges and True Love Waits is first and foremost about religion and living how it is believe God wants human beings to live. This new campaign and program will not do away with the basic teachings of the virginity pledges, but it will improve upon the pledges themselves while simultaneously teaching this population of adolescents and teenagers about proper safe sexual conduct. The beliefs of people will still be respected and considered when running the new program. This new program will be called The Knowledge Pledge and focus on teaching safe sex, while reducing psychological reactants and cognitive dissonance.

Abstinence Plus (+) Education

According to a survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy, 95% of adults said that abstinence is an important message to give teenagers from society as a whole (7). The Knowledge Pledge acknowledges that parents still want their children to be taught abstinence as the first response to sexual activity. The same survey also said that 70% of adults believe that advising abstinence while teaching young people about contraception and condoms is not sending a mixed message to adolescents and teenagers (7). The majority of parents seem to believe that is okay to teach adolescents and teenagers about safe sexual conduct as a precaution.

When people hear or read about the sexual education debate, the terms used are usually abstinence-only versus comprehensive sexual education. The latter term seems to imply to some people to mean only teaching about condom usage with no talk of abstinence. In order to win over parents who prefer abstinence-only sexual education, the term of the education used in the Knowledge Pledge would be “Abstinence Plus (+)” education. This part of the program and campaign would still involve abstinence teaching as the first aspect of sexual education (7). Some groups, if they choose, could still use religious verses and teachings in order to remain true their path to guide adolescents and teenagers.

It is imperative that the “plus” part of the education is taught in a way to ensure adolescents and teenagers understand how to utilize contraceptives and condoms effectively without ignoring the message. This campaign and program will not utilize the Health Belief Model as it makes the assumption that humans are rational beings who weigh the benefits and severity to a health activity (11). Adolescents and teenagers respond to people that they have a personal relationship and so the education aspect of the program will have a person talk with a group of young adults who can easily identify with people in the group being taught (6). Personal stories about the effects of sexually transmitted infections and not having the infections treated properly would be told to the groups of adolescents and teenagers (6). Showing and sharing personal stories makes the experience real for this group of people and thus the adolescents and teenagers will value the message more. It has also been shown that by targeting teenagers’ everyday lives and the effect a behavior will have on their lives is also effective in teaching young people, while also overcoming the illusion of invincibility some young people have (6). Both of these techniques will be used as the “plus” part of the education.

Smaller Groups and the Use of Celebrities

An essential part of the True Love Waits program are the virginity pledges and it is important for the new program, The Knowledge Pledge, to keep these virginity pledges in order to appeal to the same demographic of people that the True Love Waits campaign does. The Knowledge Pledge will focus on improving the pledge so that psychological reactants have less of an influence on adolescents and teenagers who participate the virginity pledges.

The Knowledge Pledge will still have the issue of psychological reactants if it consists solely of older adults telling adolescents and teenagers to avoid sexual activity. This will invoke psychological reactants in the same way it did in the True Love Waits campaign. To combat this, when adolescents and teenagers are going to make their virginity pledge, they will be divided into smaller groups with people who are similar in each group. It was found that the virginity pledges were more effective when the pledge making was done in smaller groups (5). This is because smaller groups allow adolescents and teenagers to form an identity with the people in their group. Too many pledges in a group can negate the pledge and cause people to not feel unique and invoke psychological reactants (5). Another way to reduce reactants is by using interpersonal similarity between groups of people (3). Similarity increases the positive force toward compliance of a health behavior. With a small group of people who can take the pledge together and be taught together, there will be more similarity between the adolescents and teenagers in the group. These young people can support each other and work off of each other to retain the pledge that they are making.

Another way to deflect and reduce psychological reactants is by having a communicator who has increased credibility and attractiveness (3). On a lower, more local, scale, the person who is talking and teaching the adolescents and teenagers will be someone who is similar to them but also has an air of attractiveness and credibility. On a larger scale, The Knowledge Pledge will have celebrity spokespeople and endorsements to spread the word of the new pledge. The Candies Foundation, which is also an abstinence-only campaign, uses celebrity endorsements to spread their message. One of the spokespeople Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino from the television show “The Jersey Shore” (13). It is ironic hearing an abstinence message from him because he most certainly does not abstain from sexual activity before marriage (14). Because of this, he loses credibility and the message also loses credibility. This can further induce reactants. This is why The Knowledge Pledge will have spokespeople who have taken the pledge. Some examples could be the Jonas Brothers or Jordin Sparks, both of which have been open about their pledges (15). The spokespeople would not only represent their own pledges, but also focus on their knowledge about safe sex practices because they understand not everyone is perfect and not everything goes as planned.

Adding a New Cognition to the Arsenal

The last part of the use of the spokespeople is important for correcting the cognitive dissonance that sometimes arises from the virginity pledges. For adolescents and teenagers. The True Love Waits campaign and program sometimes causes young people to choose between breaking their pledge and the knowledge that they should not experience any sexual activity until they are married. Teenagers and adolescents are put in conflict when they experience sexual arousal even though it is a normal feeling to experience. Most teenagers will probably choose to change cognitions if this occurs.

In order to keep adolescents and teenagers from changing their mind completely about the virginity pledge, the Knowledge Pledge program will use a different technique to alleviate cognitive dissonance. This program will add a new cognition, or a new piece of knowledge. This works if “two cognitions cause a magnitude of dissonance, that magnitude can be reduced by adding one or more cognitions” (12). During all aspects of the program and campaign, it will be taught that a feeling of sexual arousal is normal and just because one feels that does not mean the pledge is broken. This will encourage adolescents and teenagers to keep the pledge without feeling as much psychological tension that would have felt with the True Love Waits program.


There are many proponents and critics of the use of the virginity pledges and abstinence-only education. There is conflicting information about whether these tactics work or if they are beneficial in any way. It is expected that abstinence-only education and virginity pledges should at least lower rates of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies, but this is not true (10). Rates are the same for people who have taken pledges and for people who have not. This is not very effective. On the other hand, it has been shown that adolescents and teenagers who have taken the pledge are more likely to delay the onset of their first sexual encounter (5). Some people believe this means young people are more mature when they experience their first sexual encounter. Virginity Pledges and the True Love Waits program still have fundamental flaws that do not prepare adolescents and teenagers for the real world. In some ways, it forces young adults to make decisions without proper knowledge. The Knowledge Pledge attempts to change the True Love Waits program to be more effective and comprehensive while simultaneously keeping values and morals that many people find important. “The multiplicity and complexity of these risk and resiliency factors mean that no one intervention can full address the myriad of risks forced by young people” (7). This is what The Knowledge Pledge strives to do. One solution and one pathway is not effective is guiding adolescents and teenagers with the virginity pledges and it one solution will not make an approach to sexual education viable.


1. LifeWay Student Ministries. True Love Waits: A Pathway to Purity.

2. Rosenbaum J. Reborn a Virgin: Adolescents Retracting of Virginity Pledges and Sexual Histories. American Journal of Public Health 2006; 96: 1098-1103

3. Silvia P.J. Deflecting Reactance: The Role of Similarity in Increasing Compliance and Reducing Resistance. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 2005; 277-284

4. Bruckner H. After the promise: the STD consquences of adolescent virginity pledges. Journal of Adolescent Health 2005; 36: 271-278

5. Bearman P. Promising the future: Virginity pledges and first intercourse. American Journal of Sociology 2001; 106: 859-912

6. Wickman M. The Adolescent Perception of Invincibility and Its Influence on Teen Acceptance of Health Promotion Strategies. Journal of Pediatric Nursing 2008; 23: 460-468

7. Abstinence Only vs. Comprehensive Sex Education. San Francisco, CA: AIDS Research Institute, 2002.

8. Sanderson C. Social Psychology. Danvers, MA: Wiley Publishing, 2010.

9. Brehm J. A Theory of Psychological Reactants. (pp. 337-390). In: Burke W, ed. Organization Change: A Comprehensive Reader. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons, 2009.

10. CBS News Healthwatch. Abstaining' Teens Still Get STDs by L. Vries. Philadelphia, PA.

11.Rosenstock. Some principles of research design in public health. American Journal of Public Health Nation's Health 1961; 51: 266-277.

12. General Experimental Psychology Cognitive Dissonance Lab. COGNITIVE DISSONANCE. Ithaca, NY.

13. The Candies Foundation. June 2001.

14. The Jersey Shore. MTV Networks 2011.

15.The Next Generation of Celebrity Virgins. Alloy Media 2011.

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