Most Christian youth curriculum about sexuality includes some type of purity pledge. Often they include the use of purity rings. Because this focus has been so widespread for so long, we have ample evidence for a study about effectiveness. “What is a purity ring good for?” many of us have been wondering.
And by now, 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 questions…what is a purity ring supposed to do? And why doesn’t it necessarily do that?
Why purity rings don’t 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 explaining what is a purity ring or having them sign pledge cards.