Most Christian youth curriculum about sexuality includes some type of purity pledge, often including the use of purity rings. Because this focus has been so widespread for so long, we have more than ample evidence for a scientific study on its effectiveness.
You probably know what’s coming. After conducting a large study regarding the effect of purity rings and pledges, Janet Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins found that “taking a pledge doesn’t seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior.”
No difference at all. Teens who made purity commitments started having sex at the same age, with the same number of partners, as if they had done nothing. Which leads to the question…
Why don’t purity rings work?
For that, we need to dive into another field of science: economics. It may surprise you that economics involves much more than money. In fact, the field is all about complex problems and how different incentives affect interactions (kind of like how purity rings might affect the overwhelmingly complex world of teen sexuality).
In economic terms, purity rings or pledges are a commitment device. That is, they’re supposed to make your future self do something that the current self is having a hard time doing. The problem is that such methods are notoriously bad at producing the intended result.
Economist Steven Levitt, a best-selling author, explains that as clever as your current self is at devising commitment devices, “the future self desperately wants whatever is being denied and finds ways around it.”
That’s not to say commitment devices never work; they’re just not powerful enough. That’s the case with purity rings; they’re simply not powerful enough. Violating the pledge or ring carries no tangible consequences. In fact, the only consequence after it’s broken is guilt, and guilt is a poor motivator. Generally, all guilt succeeds at is making sure people hide things.
But that’s not the most concerning part. What this commitment device does succeed at is very dangerous. Though I have my own opinions as to why, the Johns Hopkins study found that young people who sign purity pledges and wear purity rings are far more likely to not use any sort of protection their first time having sex.
When well-meaning youth leaders persuade teens to pledge abstinence until marriage, they’re doing nothing to prevent premarital sex. Yet at the same time, they’re causing teens to be more likely to not use birth control.
What to Do About Sexual Purity
This definitely doesn’t mean the church and youth ministries should stop talking about sex. It also doesn’t mean we should stop encouraging abstinence. It just means our job isn’t as easy as we might have hoped. The solution to helping teens stay sexually pure isn’t as simple as getting them to wear purity rings or sign pledge cards.
The good news is that we can drop all the time and energy spent on those commitment devices and use our resources more productively. And how exactly is that? I thought you’d never ask!
We need to equip teens with the knowledge and tools for making better decisions and increasing their self-control. Rather than drawing an arbitrary line in the sand about “how far is too far,” we must help kids understand why certain physical expressions of love are appropriate in some relationships (marriage) and not others.
Instead of practicing some form of “just say no,” we need to teach decision methods that can help teens process big issues. Let’s help them be able to see right from wrong when they’re alone with a boyfriend or girlfriend.
We must view all this in light of God’s presence in the world. We also must place it in scriptural context and discern it in partnership with other members of the body of Christ.
That is what’s behind my approach to sex education in the UMC Resource Sex: A Christian Perspective on our Bodies, Decisions, and Relationships. It doesn’t have purity rings or pledges; nor does it tell students to draw a line somewhere between holding hands and having intercourse.
Rather, the lessons equip middle-school students (sixth- to eighth-grade) to live out holy lives in relation to their sexuality. I hope you’ll check it out!
This article originally appeared here.