Last week on his television program, The 700 Club, Pat Robertson responded to a viewer’s question about whether those who were aware should have felt morally obligated to let her know that the man she had been transporting in her vehicle had AIDS. The question contained a hypothetical scenario in which there was a car accident and the implied possibility of blood-blood contact among injured passengers. The original video has already been posted and removed from several websites, but for now it can be viewed here.
In the video, Mr. Robertson grants that he is not an expert on the matter of the disease itself. He points out, in fact, that he once believed it was transmitted by saliva. Indeed, many millions of people thought such things 30 years ago; Robertson himself doesn’t specify how recently he believed it. He continues, “Now they say it may be sexual contact [which spreads HIV].” That seems accurate, but notice the qualifiers. They (if we can trust them) say (that is, allege) it may be (and, by extension, may not be) sexual contact.
This man is not an epidemiologist.
He could have stated, “We have since learned that HIV is sexually transmitted,” but he did not. Even if he had, it would have been odd for him to feel the need to point this out in 2013. Still, he does implicitly endorse the veracity of the science on this question, as he goes on to advise those who are transporting people with AIDS and are concerned with the possible contagion risk to simply “not have sex with them.” Even there, however, it seems like he may only have been attempting a joke.
He then continues to the more outlandish portion of his response, viz. “You know what they do in San Francisco. Some in the gay community there, they want to get people, so if they got the stuff they’ll have a ring; you shake hands, and the ring’s got a little thing where you cut your finger.” In this context, “get” means “infect with HIV,” and “they got the stuff” means “they are HIV+.” Let me go on record to state that I would be surprised if the number of people who have contracted HIV in this way is greater than zero. Anyone familiar with urban legends will recognize their hallmarks in the Robertson claim.
Come to think of it though, I do recall reading something about rings and STDs. Was it from shaking hands with people who “had the stuff”? It was not. It was those purity rings. A number of organizations, primarily Evangelical Christian churches, have developed programs to reduce the incidence of premarital intercourse among adolescents.
The best known of these, True Love Waits (not to be confused with the eponymous Radiohead ballad), was developed by the Southern Baptist Convention 20 years ago and requires participants to make a public pledge to remain a virgin until marriage. The purity ring is the tangible signal of this public commitment and is designed to help a teen “focus on what the Lord has ordained.” (www.purityrings.com)
Rings of the Lord trilogy
Given the religious underpinnings of the programs it should be little surprise that they appeal to teens’ via moralizing about premarital intercourse per se more than by assessment of disease risk. Nevertheless, one can investigate the correspondence between taking such a purity ring pledge and contracting or avoiding STDs. Several longitudinal studies of adolescent sexual behavior (Bruckner & Bearman, 2005; Bersamin et al, 2005; Martino et al., 2008) have done just this.
The results are mixed enough that they can be employed selectively either to advocate for or to condemn True Love Waits and its ilk. Martino et al., for example, determined that 33.6% of 12-17 year-old virgins who make the pledge, initiate (non-marital) intercourse within 3 years, as compared to 42.4% of those who are matched on the relevant demographic variables but have not made the pledge. The 33.6% by itself could be viewed as either a success or a failure, but it is significantly (in both senses of the word) lower than the 42.4%.
Despite having delayed initiation of sexual activity and fewer total sex partners, however, pledgers do not enjoy the expected benefit of reduced STD risk (Bruckner & Bearman, 2005) – a result that leaves some scratching their heads, and others scratching elsewhere. This is attributable in part to lower likelihood of using condoms during first intercourse, lower likelihood of getting tested for STDs, and for a subset of pledgers, their chosen alternatives to penile-vaginal intercourse. “[S]lightly more than 1% of male non-pledgers report anal sex but no vaginal sex, compared with…4% for consistent pledgers.” I’ve heard of getting off on a technicality, but this is ridiculous.
The results are paradoxical but can be condensed to this: making the virginity pledge appears to reduce the likelihood of initiating intercourse and, in turn, the total frequency of intercourse during adolescence. However, the risk of disease transmission per sexual act is correspondingly higher among pledgers to such an extent that it cancels out the health advantage which the reduction in sexual activity would otherwise convey. That, presumably, is what Pat Robertson meant to say.
Bersamin, M.M., Walker, S., Waiters, E.D., Fisher, D.A., & Grube, J.W. (2005). Promising to wait: Virginity pledges and adolescent sexual behavior. Journal of Adolescent Health, 36, 428-436.
Brucker, H. & Bearman, P. (2005). After the promise: The STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges. Journal of Adolescent Health, 36, 271-278.
Martino, S.C., Elliott, M.N.,Collins, R.L., Kanouse, D.E., & Berry, S.H. (2008). Virginity pledges among the willing: Delays in first intercourse and consistency of condom use. Journal of Adolescent Health, 43, 341-348.