Why Purity Rings Don't Work (and How to Fix It)

Take your pick of teen sex curriculum for churches and you will find a common outcome for the majority of them: a purity pledge often accompanied by a purity ring.  Since this focus has been so widespread and been going on for so long, we have more than what we need for a scientific study on its effectiveness.

You probably know what’s coming.  After doing a large, scientific study around the effect of purity rings and pledges, Janet E. Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that “Taking a pledge doesn't seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior,”(1)

No effect at all.  Teens who made these commitments started having sex at the same age, with the same number of partners, as if they had done nothing at all.

Which begs the question:  Why?

For that, we need to dive into another field of science:  Economics.  It may surprise you that Economics studies much more than money.  In fact, the field is all about trying to study how complex problems work and how different incentives affect those complex interactions (kind of like how purity rings might affect the overwhelmingly complex world of sexuality in teens).

In economic terms, the purity ring or pledge is something called a commitment device.  That is a device used to make your future self do something that the current self is having a hard time doing.  The problem is that these sorts of methods are notoriously bad at producing the intended result.

Steven Levitt, a renown economist and best-selling author explains that as clever as your current self is at devising these commitment devices, “the future self desperately wants whatever is being denied and finds ways around it.” (2)

That’s not to say that commitment devices don’t ever work, but they are often not nearly powerful enough to work.  That is what is going on with the purity rings.  They simply aren’t powerful enough.  Violating the pledge or ring carries no tangible consequences.  In fact, the only consequences it carries are guilt after it is broken, 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.  The thing that this commitment device does succeed at is very dangerous.  Though I have my own opinions as to why, the the Johns Hopkins Study found that 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 people do a great job at getting teens to pledge to not have sex until they are married, they are doing nothing to prevent pre-marital sex while at the same time causing the teens to be more likely to not use a form birth control like a condom.

What do we do?

This definitely doesn’t mean the church should stop talking about sex.  It also doesn’t mean that we should stop encouraging abstinence.  It means that our job is just not as easy as we had hoped.  The solution to helping teens stay sexually pure isn’t as simple as getting them to sign a card or wear a ring.  

Which means that we can drop all the time and energy spent on pushing those things and use that time in a more productive way.  What is that way?  I thought you’d never ask!

We need to be equipping teens with the knowledge and tools they need to make better decisions and get better at self control.  Rather than drawing an arbitrary line in the sand about “how far is too far”  we need to help them understand why certain physical expressions of love are appropriate in some relationships and not others.  

Instead of practicing some form of “just say no,” we need to teach them decision methods that can help them process big issues and help them see right from wrong when they are alone in their boyfriend/girlfriend's house.

All of this needs to be seen in light of God’s presence in the world.  All of this needs to be placed within the context of scripture and discerned in partnership with other members of the Body of Christ.

All of this is what was behind my approach to Sex education in the new UMC Resource Sex: A Christian Perspective on our Bodies, Decisions, and Relationships.  It doesn’t have a purity pledge, nor does it tell students to draw a line somewhere between holding hands and having intercourse.  

Rather, it seeks to equip young students (6th-8th grade) with what they need to live out holy lives in relation to their sexuality.  I hope you’ll check it out.  It’s available for download (coming) or on a USB thumb drive (now). 

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1. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/28/AR2008122801588.html?hpid=topnewshttp://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/28/AR2008122801588.html?hpid=topnews

2. http://freakonomics.com/2012/02/02/save-me-from-myself-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/