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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 June, 2004, 09:05 GMT 10:05 UK
How effective are abstinence pledges?
A US pastor supported by a clutch of young virgins is in the UK to promote the Silver Ring Thing. Can the "just say no" message cut rates of teen pregnancy and STDs?

Silver Ring Thing ring
The ring is a reminder of the pledge
American teenagers are doing it - taking public pledges to abstain from sex until marriage.

It's a stance embraced by 2.5 million young people in the United States in the past decade, championed by Miss America and (until her confessions to the contrary) pop temptress Britney Spears.

And now the message has come to the UK, where teenage pregnancy rates are the highest in Europe (but still below the US). Denny Pattyn, the founder of the faith-based abstinence group Silver Ring Thing, is touring the UK and Ireland in the hope of persuading young people on this side of the Atlantic to take the pledge.

"Abstinence is the only way truly to protect yourself against getting a sexually transmitted disease, especially as a teenager," Mr Pattyn says. His group is one of hundreds across the US that promote self-restraint rather than sex education.

But even if a teenager makes the pledge, do they stick to it?

Studies show that abstinence campaigns do delay sexual activity, with pledgers first having sex an average of 18 months later than those who have made no such promise. But when they fall off the wagon - and many do - about a third do not use contraception.

Warts and all

And those who have pledged to remain virgins until marriage have similar rates of sexually transmitted diseases as non-pledgers, according to a six-year study of the sex lives of 12,000 young Americans.

Teenage couple
Study of 12,000 aged 12 to 18
Six years on, 99% of non-pledgers had sex before marriage
So too did 88% of pledgers
Pledgers first had sex an average of 18 months later
Both had similar rates of STDs
Pledgers 'much less likely' to use contraception
Columbia University study
"It's difficult to simultaneously prepare for sex and say you're not going to have sex," said Peter Bearman, of Columbia University, in presenting his findings earlier this year. "The message is really simple: 'Just say no' may work in the short term but doesn't work in the long term."

An earlier study of 12- to 14-year-olds in California for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organisation for reproductive health research, found small changes in their attitudes and intentions three months after abstinence-only classes. But 17 months on, the impact had faded.

Supporters of comprehensive sex education say that as well as being encouraged to delay sex, teenagers should be given information about birth control and protection against disease.

Yet in the US, the abstinence-only movement has expanded from a collection of disparate groups into a centrally-funded drive to tackle unsafe sex, backed to the tune of $270m by the Bush administration.

Such programmes have so far gained little ground in the UK; Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, has said there is no evidence that they work. Instead the government's approach is to teach teens about safe sex. Although the rate of teen pregnancies fell 9% from 1998, last year's rate was up on 2002. And statistics on STDs show an increase across the population as a whole.

In Uganda, unlike its African neighbours, the spread of HIV has declined dramatically over the past decade or so. Its success is thought to be down to a three-way shift in sexual behaviour: abstinence, condom use and monogamy.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I'm 23 and a virgin and I'm determined to stay that way till I'm married. I've made that choice because of my faith. I think informing kids that it's ok to wait is an important message that isn't getting across in our society today. I think it is good to talk about abstination but it also needs to be backed by good sex education. It shouldn't be a case of teaching one thing or the other.
Naomi, UK

Pledgers having sex on average 18 months later than non-pledgers proves absolutely nothing - after all, we do not know at what age these pledgers would have had sex had they not taken the pledge. It is possible (I would say likely) that people likely to pledge are already likely to have sex later. The same is true for contraception. The statistics are therefore ambiguous at best, misleading at worst. The only way to see what effect the pledge has is to compare two groups: one that has been exposed to the Silver Ring people, and one that hasn't.
Alex, UK

If someone is determined to abstain, they will do it whether or not they've signed a paper. If someone is determined to have sex, they'll sign the pledge to keep from being lectured by their mom and Sunday School teacher, and then go out and quietly have sex. That's what the kids I grew up with in a rural conservative town did, and I'm sure that's what today's kids will continue to do.
Amanda Reno, Minneapolis, US

I endorse abstinence and fidelity campaigns. But as well as True Love Waits we need "True love doesn't want to get pregnant on the wedding night". Abstinence campaigns need contraceptives as well, both for those who succeed, and those who fail or don't start.
Simon, UK

There is a very simple comparison to make: the UK and US have the poorest sex education programmes and the highest rates of teenage pregnancy and STD. The Netherlands and Sweden have the most coherent and resourced programmes, and the lowest rates of pregnancy and STD.
Oscar, UK

Am I somewhat of a rarity then? A 20-yr-old male virgin with no interest in the silver ring thing. The sad thing is if I want to marry someone who is a virgin, I have a better chance of finding it in younger females (16-18) than in my age group, which is not something that makes me particularly happy.
Anon, UK

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