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March 10, 2004

Condoms Ineffective Against STDs

Given the New York Times's (and everybody else's) spin of a recent study of teenagers who had taken abstinence pledges, the title to this post seemed appropriate in opposition:

Among teenagers who pledged not to have sex before marriage, a majority did not live up to their vows, according to a national study reported here on Tuesday. The teenagers also developed sexually transmitted diseases at about the same rate as adolescents who had not made such pledges. ...

... [Dr. Peter Bearman] said, "After they break their pledge, the gates are open, and they catch up," having more partners in a shorter time.

Lack of condom use was an important factor in the higher-than-expected rates of sexually transmitted diseases among the pledgers, the study found. Only 40 percent reported having used condoms in the most recent year of the study, compared with 60 percent of the teenagers who had not pledged.

The storyline is that the young'ns may intend to wait, but they don't pay attention in sex-ed, and then they rush through the gates without protection and "catch up." So, if these kids "developed sexually transmitted diseases at about the same rate," it would seem that the condoms don't do much good... statistically speaking. Of course, there are problems with this analysis.

For one thing, in the paragraph just before the condom statistics, we learn that at "age 23, half the teenagers who had made virginity pledges were married, compared with 25 percent of those who had not pledged." So, as I read this, the number of pledgers who failed to use condoms during the previous year was only 10% higher than the number of them who had married by age 23. The corresponding disparity for non-pledgers was 15%. There are important gaps in information — How many had married after age 23? How many were divorced already? How many had been married during that year? How many were celibate during that year? — but assuming some legitimate comparison between the marriage numbers and the condom numbers, it would seem that the conclusion that abstinence pledges mean less condom usage is dubious.

Moreover, that's using the Times's numbers, which aren't accurately labeled. Reuters reports that the 40% is actually only males, and the 47% of pledging females who had used condoms brings the average to 43.5%, or 6.5% fewer than the number who had not married by 23. Reuters throws in another interesting twist. While female condom use was higher than male among pledgers, the opposite was true among non-pledgers. Only 55% of girls who hadn't pledged abstinence had used a condom in the past year. That brings the non-pledge average to 57%, or 18% fewer than the presumable unwed population. Keep in mind that the condom data appears to be for at least a single usage, not regular usage.

And that doesn't take into consideration that non-pledgers have been having sex with more partners for longer. From the Times:

But a pledge to refrain from premarital sex, the researchers found, did tend to delay the start of sexual intercourse by 18 months. The adolescents who took virginity pledges also married earlier and had fewer sexual partners than the other teenagers surveyed

A single pledge! The study tells us nothing about the other sexual education to which the respondents might have been exposed. The Associated Press offers further perspective by giving readers the actual data on the only factor for which the two groups were "statistically similar":

It found that the STD rates for whites who pledged virginity was 2.8 percent compared with 3.5 percent for those who didn't pledge.

For blacks, it was 18.1 percent and 20.3 percent. For Hispanics, it was 6.7 percent and 8.6 percent.

Bearman said the differences were not statistically significant. Overall rates combining all races wouldn't be valid, he said.

It may not be "statistically significant," but the recorded reduction of STD rates was 20% for whites, 11% for blacks, and 22% for Hispanics. It must be admitted that some of that reduction has to do with the fact that the 88% of pledgers who had premarital sex corresponded with 99% of non-pledgers. But hey, a reduction's a reduction even if it's largely attributable only to, umm, actual abstinence.

Obviously, it's very difficult to discern general patterns without access to demographic breakdowns. Also obviously, a one-time pledge is not an adequate abstinence program. I'll even call it obvious that such programs oughtn't be entirely silent about condoms and certainly should include information about diseases.

Nonetheless, it's a flashing indicator of the bias of the media that this data is being spun as it is. It's also peculiar that Dr. Bearman appears inclined to accentuate the almost-negative. Back in the closing days of the Clinton presidency, he had quite a different approach. From a CNN report titled "Teen virginity pledges surprisingly effective, study says":

"We didn't expect to see any effect from these pledges, but it was just the opposite," said Dr. Peter Bearman ...

"The average delay among pledgers is 18 months," Bearman told The Associated Press. "That is significant. And that is a pure pledge effect." ...

"A typical argument against our findings would be that the kind of kids who pledge are those who would not have sex anyway," Bearman said in a statement. But although that was true to some extent, the data proved "confidently that the delay we saw was real."

Note the word "delay," which indicates that lapses had occurred. What a difference a few cases of the clap can make.

Posted by Justin Katz at March 10, 2004 2:06 PM

Spin, spin, much spin in the Old World news (the New Day is here, begining last Ash Wednesday) that electrons look at them amazed of such capacity for spin. Actually, electrons are growing envious of the Gray Fraud, Lady, I mean, et al. LOL.

Posted by: Miguel at March 11, 2004 5:24 AM