If only journalists were less gullible. If
only scientists were more honest.
Allow me to borrow from Mark Twain: there are
lies, damn lies and spin. Spin is more deceptive than
statistics because it captures our imagination, and
statistics are merely a tool, a part of the story. It’s
particularly irksome when those spinning a story wear lab
coats. It seems that whenever a scientist speaks, all
surrender. Being called unscientific is worse than being
unpatriotic. At least the unpatriotic are rebels. The
unscientific are just stupid.
In the name of science, modern zealots have
spent the last decade attacking abstinence-only education.
The story of abstinence only education was spun as another
example of President Bush’s "War on Science". Despite the
modest funds spent on abstinence education compared to
comprehensive sex education, the contraceptive lobby has
been wailing over its existence for the last eight years.
Under President Obama many expect a shift towards more
contraceptive and condom promotion.
At the end of last year the medical journal
added to the spin with a
study about teenagers who take virginity pledges.
Some, but not all, programs that emphasise abstinence also
encourage vows to wait until marriage. So a study about
virginity pledges is really about abstinence.
But the study also sheds light on medical
bias against abstinence. Its cynical title, "Patient Teens?
A Comparison of Sexual Behavior of Virginity Pledgers and
Matched Nonpledgers," is more appropriate for
Jones than a serious medical journal.
Despite its scepticism at teenage self
control, author Jill Rosenbaum does acknowledge that
previous studies have shown that virginity pledgers do delay
sexual activity. So the purpose of her longitudinal study
was to determine whether a virginity pledge alone is
sufficient to delay sexual activity.
Previous studies had shown that pledgers came
from the same demographic and economic background as other
teenagers. But little was known about their attitudes
towards sex and religion. So Dr Rosenbaum analysed surveys
of sexual behaviour of teenagers who were at least 15 and
surveys taken five years later. Did the pledgers keep their
Surprise, surprise, the sexual behaviour of
both pledgers and peers who had traditional attitudes
towards sex and were very religious but had not taken a
pledge was more or less the same. Rosenbaum triumphantly
concluded that virginity pledges don’t change sexual
behaviour. Then she polished off her demolition of
abstinence with statistics showing that pledgers are also
less likely to use contraceptives and condoms. The lesson is
that abstinence-only education is not only hypocritical but
also unscientific and stupid.
What did the media make of this?
This was how the
summarised the study: "Teenagers who pledge to
remain virgins until marriage are just as likely to have
premarital sex as those who do not promise abstinence." Web
MD, a popular website for medical advice, announced that
"Teenagers Who Take Virginity Pledges No Less Sexually
Active". MedPage, another popular website, advised doctors
to explain to patients that that funding for abstinence-only
programs should be diverted to evidence-based sex education
programs that teach birth control.
The mangled statistics in these reports makes
me despair of the intelligence of journalists, not of
teenagers. What if I were to study whether teenagers who
read Dickens are more likely to enter college? If they are
motivated enough to read Dickens, they are probably avid
readers anyway. So it makes no sense to compare them with
teenagers who read Austen, Thackeray, Bronte, Eliot, Hardy
and Kipling, but not Dickens. To find out if reading Dickens
makes a difference, you should compare them to all teens,
whatever their reading habits.
So the newspapers omitted the real story.
Sure, the sexual behaviour of pledgers was the same as their
"peers", BUT it was "substantially more conservative… than
the general population of adolescents," in Rosenbaum’s
words. Religious teens, whether they had taken a virginity
pledge or not, were less likely to report premarital sex or
multiple sex partners. In fact, the average age of sexual
initiation was 21 for the pledgers, four whole years longer
than for the general population of adolescents. In other
words, Dr Rosenbaum’s spin transformed a huge success into a
tale of failure and futility.
Were there any reasons other than ineptitude
why the reporting was so distorted?
Bias against chastity is a big one.
Abstinence-only education is held to a different standard
than comprehensive sexual education. When compared to
contraceptive sex education, even its critics grudgingly
admit that abstinence education does delay sexual activity
significantly. But they have the gall to describe these
programs as failures because teenagers fail to enter
marriage as virgins. But would you call an AA veteran a
failure if he had a beer after 20 years of sobriety?
Most condom hustlers and journalists believe
that abstinence should be exhibited in a museum along with
the rhythm method and chastity belts. Dr. Rosenbaum and
now have a new exhibit, the virginity pledge.
Like a racehorse with blinders, running in an
ideological circle, Rosenbaum and the media ignore the fact
that the initiation of sexual activity until after high
school spells the difference between success and failure for
many teens. The Heritage Foundation has found that teenagers
who abstain from sexual activity during high school are less
likely to drop out of school and twice as likely to graduate
from college. Studies also show that 25 percent of sexually
active teenage girls report feeling depressed compared to
7.7 percent of girls who are not sexually active. As they
say, virtue is its own reward. Abstinence offers benefits
which neither condoms nor contraceptives can provide.
The real story of "Patient Teens?" is not
about wayward teenagers. It’s about the alarming emergence
appearance of a new medical specialist, the spin doctor.1.
Theron Bowers MD is a Texas psychiatrist.
This article is published by Theron
MercatorNet under a Creative Commons licence.