In a season that's all about a virgin birth, the Washington Post has decided to play Scrooge. Virginity pledges don't work, an article in that paper recently proclaimed, citing a study packed with the usual hyperbole: abstinence talk is for adults living in a sexless fantasy land! When it comes to kids it's all about sex, and those silly folks who pretend otherwise are making our kids sick and pregnant.
"Taking a pledge doesn't seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior," researcher Janet E. Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told the Post. "But it does seem to make a difference in condom use and other forms of birth control that is quite striking."
An official from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy led the charge in what turned out to be an orgy of abstinence bashing on the Post's part: "This study again raises the issue of why the federal government is continuing to invest in abstinence-only programs," she fumed. These folks miss something fundamental: a virginity pledge is more than abstinence education -- it's a promise.
The National Abstinence Education Association disputed the whole premise of the study, using this obvious tack. Its executive director, Valerie Huber, remarked to me in an e-mail interview: "The author inaccurately equates the holistic breadth of an abstinence education program to the one-time event of a virginity pledge. A pledge and an abstinence program are not synonymous."
But the problem goes beyond lumping in a simple, cut-and-dried oath with the complicated issue of abstinence education. The conundrum boils down to this: it's not all about sex. It's no shock to anyone who understands human nature, never mind kids, that any virginity pledge that fixates on brute carnal relations is not going to work. Repeating the mantra "Don't do it," even when you've got a teen doing the repeating, isn't enough. How could it work? Popular culture is obsessed with sex. We can't even manage a family dog movie ("Marley & Me") without Jennifer Aniston taking off her clothes. And until that changes, of course, a hormone-mad teenager will be sorely tempted to join in the seemingly ubiquitous fornication, pledge or no pledge.