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Study: Virginity vows linked to lower STD rates

Teens who take virginity pledges have lower sexual-disease rates and are less likely to engage in sex than are nonpledgers, contrary to research published earlier this year, researchers say in reports scheduled for release today at a federal welfare conference.

Taking a virginity pledge is "strongly associated" with lower rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) -- teen pledgers are 25 percent less likely to have STDs as young adults than nonpledging peers, Heritage Foundation researchers Robert Rector and Kirk A. Johnson said in their reports.

In addition, when pledgers and nonpledgers are compared on oral and anal sexual activity, data show that the pledgers are significantly less likely to engage in such practices, the Heritage researchers said. This remains true even when sexually active pledgers are compared with sexually active nonpledgers.

The Heritage papers contradict a study by sociology professors Peter Bearman of Columbia University and Hannah Bruckner of Yale University published in April in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

The Bearman study said virginity pledgers were "overrepresented" in a category of teens who engage in anal and oral sex, but not vaginal sex. It also said there were "no significant differences" in STD infection rates between pledgers and nonpledgers, and therefore virginity pledges "may not be the optimal approach" for preventing STDs.

Mr. Rector and Mr. Johnson re-examined the same data in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. They said the Bearman study's conclusions on oral and anal sexual activity are "inaccurate" because it refers only to "very tiny" subgroups of pledgers, not pledgers as a whole.

As for STD rates, the Bearman study, which was based on one STD measure, said the pledgers' STD rate "does not differ" from that of nonpledgers. However, the Heritage researchers said, when STD rates were analyzed in five ways, pledgers had significantly lower STD rates in four areas and had a rate that was almost significantly lower in the fifth area.

The Heritage researchers concluded that the Bearman study, which was interpreted widely to mean that virginity programs are harmful to youth, amounts to "disinformation" and "junk science."

Mr. Bearman yesterday said it was "offensive" to conclude that his study misled the public. He reaffirmed the validity of his research approaches and suggested that Heritage research "would have difficulty" getting published in a peer-review journal.

Debra Hauser of Advocates for Youth, a group that supports comprehensive sex education, said there are problems with virginity pledges and "it's unfortunate that Rector and Johnson are unwilling to look at" those issues.

The Heritage papers are slated to be presented today at a welfare conference held by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

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