Interviews: Sex and the American Teen

Dr. Rebecca Maynard

Dr. Rebecca Maynard

POV: There's been a lot of interest in the role of abstinence and virginity pledges in sex education in recent years. You're currently supervising the largest research project to date, evaluating different abstinence-centered programs -- in particular, programs sponsored by Title V grants from the federal government. Understanding that you can't talk about the results of your study yet, since it's still in progress, can you give us an overview of what is known so far?

Rebecca MaynardDr. Rebecca Maynard: The first thing to note is that very few kids in this country take the virginity pledge. It's gotten a lot of publicity, but nationwide it's under 10 percent. It's also the case that if you look at the proportion of kids that are taking the pledge it's much higher in the younger ages than in the older ages. And that may be due in part to the fact that the pledge has gotten more prominent, gotten more press recently than it had earlier. But in part it just may be that it's pretty easy to get a fourth or fifth or sixth grader to take a virginity pledge because they hardly know what it means at [that] point.

In terms of the research on the pledge, the main research that's been done is the research done by Peter Bearman. His research is based on the select group of kids who have taken the pledge, which is a relatively small fraction, and then what he does is he goes and tries to find kids who [resemble] the kids who took the pledge, and ask the question, what's different in their behavior. And, you know, he's got a story around the pattern of results, and it's one that makes sense; but I don't know that it's the only one that makes sense, in explaining the results.

POV: Could you elaborate on that? Do you have a different view of what happens with virginity pledges?

Maynard: I think that the pledge itself is probably a much less relevant intervention than a lot of other things that are going on, because the pledge comes in very different forms. It comes in private settings such as churches, and it comes in public settings. There are two [approaches]. One is, you take a public pledge, let everybody know you're a virgin, and wear it on your sleeve. That has some very positive attributes. Then there's another version that says, let kids take the pledge or not as they want -- reasoning that if you make this a public ordeal, then you may be intimidating some kids into taking a pledge that they really didn't [want to].

It's not clear which is better. Psychologists and sociologists could come up with different theories on both sides of this. And the original form, the True Love Waits, is a very public kind of pledge. But there are all kinds of variants right now -- I think I could probably log on to the Internet and take a pledge.

POV: At the opposite end of the spectrum, what's an example of a program that involves much more than taking the pledge?

Church on the Rock of Lubbock, TexasChurch on the Rock of Lubbock, Texas

Maynard: We're looking in-depth at [four] programs, and they have different degrees of involvement with the pledge. One of them is a very intensive year-long program where the kids meet every day, where they've got parent involvement, they've got weekend retreats. They've got all kinds of things that go on -- around skill building, around self-awareness, around interpersonal relationships, and it all leads up to something much more than a pledge of personal abstinence. It's a pledge to some ideals and the application of skills that one has gained. And in the end there is a public ceremony, but in fact all kids do not have to publicly pledge. There's a part where the kids are all onstage for pieces of this event, none of which actually results in the kid having to do something like walk to the front table and say in front of parents or friends 'I do this.' There's sort of an assumption that that's all going to happen [privately].

Others have the pledge as a very public part of their program, and have a lot of things that lead up to that pledge. One of the programs has a whole year of learning about relationships and partners, and the qualities of families that are healthy. And all of this culminates in a mock wedding, and vows of chastity. There's a lot more to that kind of intervention than one that just says, 'Okay, we're having a rally this afternoon, let's march, let's sing, now let's sign the pledge.'

POV: In the film "The Education of Shelby Knox," Shelby and the other students take a public pledge through True Love Waits, in an organized ceremony with her parents. Can you tell us where that program fits in this spectrum?

UPDATE: The final findings of Dr. Maynard's study were reported in April 2007 and found that the programs had "no effect on the sexual abstinence of youth. But it also finds that youth in these programs were no more likely to have unprotected sex, a concern that has been raised by some critics of these programs." Read a press release about it and download a PDF of the report at the Mathematica Policy Research website.

Maynard: True Love Waits, I believe, is a relatively brief curriculum that culminates in this kind of a ceremony that you mentioned, and I think that potentially has aspects of the peer pressure and the parental pressure to make this commitment. It's like telling your kid, 'Don't drink and drive,' and the kid says 'I won't.' Because what else are you going to do, are you going to look at your parents and say I'm going to go drink and drive? And everybody else is doing it, so you would really stand out if you didn't do it.

So there's True Love Waits, and at the other end of the spectrum, we've got another program in our study that has three years of different curricula that look at issues of health and safety and relationships, and then ends up with opportunities for kids to go individually to an instructor or counselor or confidant, and sign a pledge, should they choose to do so. So it's an encouragement. It's something that builds on what they've been learning in class. But the program doesn't shame anybody into doing it, it doesn't put peer pressure on them to do it. There isn't that public display. And this program had some pretty strong feelings that they didn't want to put kids in compromised positions.

Another one of our programs is one that's an everyday afterschool program that has all kinds of good stuff for kids in it. In addition to having an abstinence education curriculum, it deals with things like relationships and human development, stuff like that, and has a pledge that the kids sing every day. It's a little chant that they do, and if the kids listen to the words, they are committing to abstinence until marriage, and if they don't listen to the words, they're singing a song that's got a nice rhythm. Then they have other kinds of events that are public, community events, where there will be a whole-city rally on abstinence, and they'll have food and ballgames, and speakers, and among the things that they'll have is tables set up so that kids can go and sign their pledge, and get their little stickers or ropes to go around their neck, or whatever it is that's going to be the demonstration of pledging.

POV: What kind of data will you look at in your study to evaluate the different abstinence programs?

Maynard: We look at a lot of things. We look at the services they get, because these kids aren't just getting the abstinence program or nothing, they're getting lots of stuff plus the abstinence program. In some cases, the fact that they're getting the abstinence program means they're not getting something else in that same genre; in other cases it just means they're getting abstinence instead of, or in addition to, everything else. So we look at the services they get in order to understand what change really went on. We then go on to look at all the intermediate markers -- things like their views, their attitudes, their knowledge, their expectations. And then we will also look at their sexual activity, their drug use, their involvement in delinquent behavior, and so on. Eventually, what we'll be able to do is look at those big outcomes that we care about -- their abstinence, their exposure to STDs, exposure to pregnancy, their actual pregnancies -- and we'll be able to say how large are the differences between the groups, and how much are those differences related to intermediate things that went on, like changing drug use patterns, changing peer group patterns, changing of basic core values, their core expectations about themselves, et cetera. The idea is to be able to see not only what impact the programs had, but the mechanisms through which those impacts took place. And to also understand which kids were affected, in which ways; and which kids were not affected.

POV: It seems like it could be confusing for a parent, a student, or a teacher to know what to think about these kinds of programs. Even skeptics acknowledge that the pledge can have a positive impact on some kids -- like Shelby Knox -- but that it might not work as a policy for all kids. So how should we evaluate programs like this?

Maynard: I think the way you should evaluate them is the way we're evaluating the Title V programs. The pledge is a perfect example of something where you can go in and explicitly target that -- you can randomly assign groups of kids. There are lots of ways you can design a study and actually see what difference this makes. Looking at one individual, or a small number of individuals, that's a case study, that's an anecdote, and it represents what one person did, and we don't know anything from looking at that one person about the average effect, or even the numbers -- what fraction of kids follow her trajectory versus some other trajectory. I mean, it's an important way to look at the problem, because that lets you understand different sides of the issue, to track kids who are going right with the odds, and track kids who are defying the odds, and to look at this in the context of outside forces that may have come to bear is something that one should do inside an experiment as well. You shouldn't just look at the averages, because that masks an awful lot, too. So you need to look at it both ways.

Dr. Rebecca Maynard is a professor of education and social policy and chair of the Policy, Management and Evaluation Division of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.