Wednesday, January 7, 2009

will the C-J print a retraction?

Unlikely, since the erroneous report supports one of their more bizarre and inexplicable sacred cows.

Here's the original article in Sunday's C-J: an article by the AP's Rob Stein on a report about the supposed ineffectiveness of abstinence pledges.

The title (in the C-J):

Report: No-sex pledges futile
Teen abstinence doesn't improve

The gist/thesis:

Teens who pledge to remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence -- and are significantly less likely to use birth control when they do, according to a study released last week.

The new analysis of data from a large federal survey found that more than half of youths became sexually active before marriage regardless of any "virginity pledge." And the percentage of those who took precautions against pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases was 10 points lower for pledgers than for non-pledgers.

Janet E. Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published the report, which appears in the January [1st] issue of the journal Pediatrics....

"Previous studies would compare a mixture of apples and oranges," Rosenbaum said. "I tried to pull out the apples and compare only the apples to other apples."

The problem:

In comparing apples and apples, we're still given the impression that it's apples vs. fruit. Rosenbaum says as much later in the article:

"This study came about because somebody who decides to take a virginity pledge tends to be different from the average American teen-ager. The pledgers tend to be more religious. They tend to be more conservative. They tend to be less positive about sex," Rosenbaum said. "So comparing pledgers to all non-pledgers doesn't make a lot of sense," she added.

So, she's not comparing pledgers vs. all others; instead, she's comparing pledgers against other "religious" kids. The bottom line is that decisions to remain abstinent (and to be in a culture that promotes abstinence) are powerful-- even if they are not bolstered by explicit vows to remain abstinent.

"It seems like abstinence has to come from an individual conviction rather than participating in a program," Rosenbaum said....

William McGurn points to the flaws in his WSJ essay (hat tip: Brant at WAY-FM)...

The chain reaction was something out of central casting. A medical journal starts it off by announcing a study comparing teens who take a pledge of virginity until marriage with those who don't. Lo and behold, when they crunch the numbers, they find not much difference between pledgers and nonpledgers: most do not make it to the marriage bed as virgins.

Like a pack of randy 15-year-old boys, the press dives right in....

Here's the rub: It just isn't true.

In fact, the only way the study's author, Janet Elise Rosenbaum of Johns Hopkins University, could reach such results was by comparing teens who take a virginity pledge with a very small subset of other teens: those who are just as religious and conservative as the pledge-takers....

The first to notice something lost in the translation was Dr. Bernadine Healy...

The real headline from this study is this: "Religious Teens Differ Little in Sexual Behavior Whether or Not They Take a Pledge."

Now, whatever the shock that might occasion at CBS or the Washington Post, it comes as no surprise to parents....

That, alas, is not something you're likely to read in the headlines. For when it comes to challenging the conventional wisdom on issues of sexuality, the American media suddenly become as coy as a cloistered virgin.


At January 8, 2009 at 2:55 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

The rub is that there isn't really that much difference in sexual behavior between evangelical teens and non-evangelical teens; more than half of all teens taking the virginity pledge do have sex before marriage. It turns out that religious beliefs are a strong indicator of attitudes about sexual behavior but they are a poor predictor of sexual behavior. (See the Margaret Talbot New Yorker article of November 3, 2008, Red Sex, Blue Sex.)

So the question is not whether virginity pledges work (or whether conservative evangelical beliefs reduce teen sexual activity), the question is really what our public policy on sex education should be. My impression is that research shows that education that combines an abstinence message with detailed and specific information about prevention of STDs and contraception produces the best results for reducing teen pregnancy and STD rates. Teaching teens how to have sex more safely offends conservatives, but it is ethically wrong to withhold this information from teens given the statistical certainty that a majority of them (regardless of religious affiliation) will be sexually active.

At January 8, 2009 at 3:09 PM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

As is typical, it's important to distinguish between groups and sub-groups. Self-identifying evangelicals are different than active evangelicals or theologically conservative evangelicals.

Apparently, those who believe in abstinence are more likely than "evangelicals". And the pledge doesn't add much beyond that.

Our public policy on sex education-- or more precisely, how sex ed will be taught in govt schools-- is an additional, important question. As is typical, I'd prefer (much more) competition among schools to take care of such disagreements.

At January 8, 2009 at 7:39 PM , Blogger William Lang said...

>Self-identifying evangelicals are different than active evangelicals or theologically conservative evangelicals.

I suppose one good way of distinguishing between these two subgroups is whether they live up to their beliefs regarding sexual behavior. <grin>

>As is typical, I'd prefer (much more) competition among schools to take care of such disagreements.

If competition increases the number of teens who receive reliable and useful information about safer sex, I would certainly support it. But my fear is that competition will result in less information about safer sex being provided to teens, because many conservative parents will seek out schools that do not give information about safer sex. (Interestingly, I have read that some federally-funded abstinence-only sex ed programs provide inaccurate information about the reliability of condoms in preventing pregnancy and transmission of HIV. Apparently, according to critics, the producers of these curricula are more interested in promoting conservative beliefs about sexual morality than they are in protecting sexually active teenagers. This is exactly the sort of thing I fear.)

At January 9, 2009 at 12:01 AM , Blogger Eric Schansberg said...

That's one of the nice things about competition: aside from higher quality and lower costs, people can have choice and flexibility-- and we'd have a better idea of what would work with various populations!


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