September 1, 2014

A Push For Purity: Are Abstinence Pledges Truly Effective?

Teaching young women that their value lies in sexual abstinence can negatively impact the sexual and emotional health of men and women alike.

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Kinsey Confidential blogger Laura Holt recently reviewed Jessica Valenti’s book “The Purity Myth,” which touches on the phenomenon of Purity Balls in the United States.

Purity balls are events, typically held by Christian religious organizations (although attended by various people from varying spiritual backgrounds) as a celebration of individuals, most often females, who have promised to abstain from all forms of intercourse until marriage. But are these events really effective at their stated goals of preventing STIs, unwanted pregnancies, and other undesirable outcomes?

A Push for Purity

Our cultural concept of virginity is ambiguous, indefinable even by medical standards. Where it’s vaginal, oral, anal sex, or even solo masturbation, a clear line has never truly been drawn as to what could be considered one’s definitive first sexual experience. Nevertheless, it is something that is often discussed as if it is a medical condition.

Jessica Valenti’s book, “The Purity Myth,” presents the idea that virginity doesn’t necessarily have to exist. Even though it is something that is more conceptual than tangible, it is something our culture feverishly celebrates to this day.

Abstinence based education is one cultural force that supports the idea of virginity as purity. Even the idea of what abstinence means can be ambiguous amongst the youth and young adults who are encouraged to abstain from sexual activities.

Purity balls are another example of cultural promotion of values of abstinence and virginity (particularly for young, unmarried women) as a “return to morality.” But how does these events influence actual sexual behaviors and attitudes towards sexuality?

Understanding Purity Balls

These balls, thrown for young girls, providing them with a memorable opportunity to declare their “innocence” to their fathers,“future husbands,” and community members.

I spoke with Jackie Hall, owner of Michiana Christian dance academy, who has organized 5 balls since the time the idea was first introduced in 1998. Jackie explained that the main purpose of the balls is to create a strong father daughter relationship with a date night for them, to show them how their future husbands should be treating them before the girls have intercourse or, “give away their gift”.

The girls who attend these balls typically make pledges that they will abstain from sexual until marriage. Abstinence is promoted as a way of preventing STIS, unwanted pregnancies, and negative emotions related to sexuality.

Effects on sexual health

There is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing abstinence, and it should be offered as one of many options to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancies as part of a comprehensive sex education curriculum. However, pressuring young girls to abstain from sex until marriage may foster feelings of shame around sexuality, because an individual is made to feel “impure” if they engage in premarital sex. This type of education also remove a sense of personal agency around making consensual sexual choices, and assumes that these young women are universally heterosexual, and should prioritize marriage over other important life goals such as career and education. Furthermore, research has shown that abstinence only education is not very effective at preventing unwanted pregnancies and STIs.

Studies have found various sexual behavior outcomes for young people who take virginity pledges. SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States) has compiled a report that summarizes research findings on this topic. One study found that young people who took a pledge were one-third less likely to use contraception when they did become sexually active than their peers who had not pledged, and the rates of STIs were the similar between the two groups. This may be because pledgers lacked sexual health education in general, or felt ashamed to seek medical assistance related to contraception and STI testing.

The study also found that in communities where there are a higher proportion of pledgers, overall STD rates were significantly higher than in other settings, and “male and female pledgers are six times more likely to have had oral sex than non-pledgers, and male pledgers are four times more likely to have had anal sex than those who had not pledged.” This may be linked to the belief that oral and anal sex are “abstinent” behaviors because they do not lead to pregnancy (but can lead to STI transmission).

Double Standards and Future Impact on Sexuality

“Purity culture” may have harmful outcomes above and beyond high rates of STIs and unwanted pregnancies. There are very real social consequences for the 9 out of 10 pledge takers who do end up engaging in premarital sex. The fetishization of female virginity plays into sexual double standards, placing these girls in the uncomfortable role of sexual gatekeepers to the “uncontrollable urges” of pubescent boys, as well as creating a psychological link between sex and shame. Girls unable to keep their virginity promise are often endure feelings of shame, guilt, and weakness. These ingrained negative attitudes towards sex leading to STIS, unwanted pregnancy, or damaged social reputation may ultimately affect women’s ability to become aroused or to achieve orgasm once they become sexually active. “These ‘danger’ messages are internalized and can lead to negative associations with sexuality in later life,” says Robin Mihausen, a researcher on this topic.

Teaching women that their value lies in whether or not they abstain from sex not only reinforces stereotypical gender roles, it can negatively affect the sexual and emotional health of men and women alike. While it is important to offer education and emotional support around sexuality to teenage girls, the “just say no” model of enforced purity and sexual danger may hurt woman much more than it helps them.

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