A recent study by Harvard found that the majority of students who pledge virginity (read “True Love Can Wait” and similar campaigns) recant and are sexually active within a year. They also found that the details of who actually pledged and who subsequently had a sexual encounter was hard to pin down. It says:
The analysis also found that 52 percent of adolescent virginity pledgers in the 1995 survey disavowed the virginity pledge at the next survey a year later. Additionally, 73 percent of virginity pledgers from the first survey who subsequently reported sexual intercourse denied in the second survey that they had ever pledged.
The author concludes that adolescents' self-reported history of sexual intercourse is an unreliable measure for studies of the effectiveness of virginity pledges.
It appears that the guilt factor makes this kind of study difficult, possibly to the point of being too erratic to draw clear conclusions from. But I am not surprised that the stats on students who fail in their virginity pledge might be more than half. Anecdotally, as a minister engaged with youth during the time of the “True Love Waits” campaign, I can vouch for the study’s results.
Some analysis is available in a recent Breakpoint, and an op-ed piece in the NT Times by Lauren Winner (need a subscription to read). Colson and Winner point out a couple of items that help to explain these sad results. First is the pledge’s reliance on an individual’s will power, and second is the apparent failure of teen’s communities in supporting the pledges.
The first reason is a solid theological one. We American evangelicals still believe, all too blindly, upon our individual powers of the will. We still believe, in the face of overwhelming social and theological evidence that “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” False. Paul tells us over and over that our wills are not only broken, they are turned against God and a Christ-like lifestyle. Any simple pledge to do something as dramatic as remain (or “newly become”) a virgin until marriage needs to contain theological backing and biblical support.
The second reason, the failure of the community, is another indictment against the contemporary church. Most youth groups today are nothing but adolescence maintenance and surrogate parenting. When teenagers graduate from high school and their youth groups, they are woefully under prepared for both college and adult life. Because they have been incubated in youth groups that keep them at a 13-year old theological level, it is no wonder they fail so spectacularly when they exit the incubator.
To be sure, there are youth groups that are the exception to the rule-if that is you, then do what I do and blame “the other guy” or “that other youth group down the street.”
I would like to add to this mix the complete lack of spiritual formation and discipleship of youth in our churches. It is crucial when it comes to the practicalities of life that young Christians learn the theology of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Do we attempt to teach them the Christian virtues? The fruit of the Spirit? Do we create atmospheres where the entire body of Christ is encouraging spiritual maturity or where we unwittingly endorse the chasm between adult Christian faith and the Youth group?