DECIDING IT'S OK TO WAIT

The abstinence movement is growing, but the issue of teen sexual activity is more complex.

Slouching comfortably at a desk in a Boston public high school, James quickly rattles off why sexual abstinence is important to him: "I'm not ready, I'm worried about my future, and," the senior pauses to adjust his hat, "[abstinence] is cool.

"I see girls pregnant, guys crying about how they are going to afford it. I don't want to go through that," he adds with a shrug.

An increasing number of high school students are taking a stand for chastity, as James is doing, signaling a slight but noteworthy shift in attitudes over the past decade. Though surveys continue to suggest the majority of teens are sexually active, it seems that a growing segment of young people feel that waiting is best - at least until they finish high school.

Abstinence is viewed positively by more than three-fourths of teens, according to a 1998 study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-research organization. And the number of high school students who said they had had intercourse declined from 54 percent in 1991 to 50 percent in 1999.

It's a "movement," as observers say, driven by separate public and private organizations with a united purpose. On one hand are church groups advocating premarital chastity as a biblical imperative. On the other are conservative efforts to promote abstinence, largely to lower the rates of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

The school connection

"There is a [small] segment for whom premarital chastity is exceedingly important," says Deborah Roffman, author of "Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking Sense About Sex." For most parents and educators, "abstinence is valued [for teens] because it's what's healthy and developmentally appropriate."

Since 1996, some $440 million in federal-state matching funds has been shelled out to public schools to promote abstinence-only education.

That compares with a total of $60 million spent from 1981 to '96. As a result, abstinence-only education has increased elevenfold in middle and high schools.

Indeed, adolescent pregnancy rates are the lowest since records have been kept, and in the 1990s alone, the rate declined 17 percent, mostly because of increased birth-control use, but partly because of abstinence. The Alan Guttmacher Institute says 20 percent of the decrease is due to abstinence.

The attitude shift also stems from church groups, who since 1993 have been gaining ground in encouraging kids to sign chastity-until-marriage pledges.

Organizations like SHARE, Friends First, and True Love Waits have launched wide-reaching campaigns, throwing rallies at public high schools and in churches from North Carolina and Virginia to California, where teens publicly declare their stand by signing pledges.

It's a commitment that Kylene, of Peru, Ind., stuck to in high school six years ago - despite pressure from boys and peers. She carried her pledge card with her as a constant reminder, and when she turned 18, her parents bought her a ring.

"There were chances.... [Friends] tried to convince me," she says. Senior year, a friend of hers became pregnant and another didn't graduate because she had a child. "The girls that hadn't waited said they wish they had," she reflects.

However, while teens may have the best intentions, not all are able to keep their word.

"On one side, you have kids who will be sexually active no matter what. On the other side, there are kids who won't. There are a lot of kids in between. The abstinence pledges are affecting this group," says Jimmy Hester, coordinator of Nashville, Tenn.-based True Love Waits, the group that initiated the pledge movement in 1993. It's run by Lifeway Christian Resources, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention and works with 80 religious and school groups.

Signing a pledge does seem to act as a deterrent.

A recent study by Columbia University showed that the 2.5 million teens nationwide who signed since 1993 were 34 percent less likely to have sex than those who didn't.

Pledge takers also delayed having intercourse 18 months longer than those who did not sign. But the study also found that teens who reneged on their pledge were less likely to use contraception, perhaps because they had not been taught about it.

The pledge was especially effective with 16- and 17-year-olds, but had little impact on teens 18 and older, according to the same study.

Researchers say the abstinence movement is largely a social phenomenon: A group identity forms, which fosters the social support needed to undergird commitment. But when too many kids took chastity vows - 30 percent or more - pledging lost its effect because it undermined a sense of being different.

"They want to be part of a club, and this provides it. It's positive peer pressure," says Mr. Hester of True Love Waits.

"The written agreement helps me.... It's something I can point to," says Brian Hiatt of McGrawsville, Ind.

But many teens don't share the view that waiting is best. Jaymie, a senior at a Boston public high school, thinks sex should be a normal part of relating in high school.

"The choice depends on who you are. Some people care [if you have sex] and some people don't," he says. But he adds, "I've never broken up with someone for that reason."

Kylene, now a college graduate, says that having a network of friends in high school who were pledge takers provided her with support when she needed it.

She concedes that while pledging was accepted among peers, she was teased lightly for her stance. Plus, she adds, the "cool" kids didn't always wait.

This attitude parallels findings from a study by Seventeen magazine and the Kaiser Foundation that said 9 in 10 teens think it's best for young people to postpone sex until they are older, but only 57 percent think they will actually wait.

Confusion over terminology

There's also the problem of defining "sex."

Studies show that other forms of sexual behavior are on the rise - including an increase in oral sex among high school and middle-school kids.

Young people say there are no clear-cut boundaries. Lacking direction about what's acceptable, many teens incorrectly see behavior like oral sex as a no-risk alternative to intercourse. Yet adults, who have traditionally focused on pregnancy prevention, rarely address it.

"We've said so long, 'Don't have sex, don't have sex,' ... and the kids thought we meant just intercourse. They have thought that other behaviors are safe," says Ms. Roffman. "We haven't done our jobs as adults in explaining what we mean. No one's quite sure what's OK and not OK with the opposite sex."

Parents also say they don't feel comfortable discussing topics like oral sex with kids.

Most say they address "the birds and the bees" with their children a few years before adolescence, but when it comes to other forms of sex, "we don't want kids to think about it," says Phyllis Bowie, a South Carolina mom. "Many parents don't realize it's an issue."

Both parents and teens say they're up against a major influence - an increase in sexual situations on TV, in music, and video games. The abstinence message clashes head-on with these images competing for kids' attention.

In New Orleans, for instance, billboards proclaim: "Virgin: Teach your kids it's not a dirty word." Glossy teen magazines and pop stars like Britney Spears try to tout the virtues of "staying pure" amid a flood of sexually charged messages.

Media seem to fill the void when parents aren't around, Roffman says.

"Parents need to help kids be better adept at interpreting cultural undertones. Scenes in movies and on TV ... kids take them in as truths; we need to tell them it's entertainment. We have to ... agree on what we think is the proper context of sexual behavior [and] point out when those values are not in place," she says.

Teens see that media have a desensitizing effect on how they relate.

"[Glamorization] takes away the baggage and consequences when [sex is] abused," says Brian, the Indiana senior. "You see a lot of dysfunctional relationships in the media because that's what sells. I think that a lot of kids have a messed-up sense of how a relationship should be."

Another problem young people may face are inconsistent guidelines set by liberal, moderate, and conservative groups pushing to get their messages out through schools, media, and events.

Many teachers and organizations support the approach of ensuring kids know about birth control, while they also hold out the ideal of abstinence. Others say this method only confuses kids, and they feel abstinence-only education is best.

"If you speak about sexual abstinence, how can you talk about contraception on the other side of your mouth? You take away from your message. We've got to hold up an ideal to teens," says Hester.

While most parents agree that waiting should be emphasized, many see the abstinence-only approach as too narrow and feel preventative information should be taught as well.

The result, they argue, is that students who don't abstain won't know how to protect themselves or won't bother.

"I don't see how abstinence and contraception are mixed messages. We all want our kids to be healthy, that is our common ground. But we can't leave those who won't wait without any information. We're talking about ... life-altering consequences," Roffman says.

Parents have influence

There is, of course, no single approach for every teen. And, in addition to peers, a fundamental influence in young people's decisionmaking is parents.

In fact, the Columbia University study also showed that teens hold off longer if they live in a two-parent home, are religious, have a high self esteem, and are academically involved.

Kids and parents see communication as vital, but lacking in a fast-paced world.

They acknowledge that busy schedules and less one-on-one time has meant young people learn more about sex from peers, leaving parents - and kids - in the dark about what's really going on.

"There are many empty homes after school," says Jennifer Brewington of Ellicott City, Md. "So many parents are so busy with careers and families that it makes it difficult to back up what they do say."

For Ms. Brewington, mother of two teens, moderate supervision has proven helpful. She told her kids a few years before adolescence that sexual behavior was not appropriate for young people.

She also talked to them about birth control, how to handle potentially risky situations, and she made them promise not to hang out at friends' houses if parents weren't there.

She says that while supervision has given her kids less opportunity to "deviate," providing them with a degree of freedom has proven equally important.

"You cannot follow them everywhere and watch everything they are doing - and you don't want to," she says.

"You have to let them make their own decisions and their own mistakes. Being too strict can backfire."

But parents should start by setting a positive example themselves, says Greg Hiatt, a pastor and father of four who lives in McGrawsville, Ind., and has been involved with grassroots religious efforts to promote abstinence.

"We have to set the standard high and know that it is possible, and know that there is acceptance and forgiving when people fail," the Rev. Hiatt says.

"As parents, our job is to raise our kids to make good and wise choices that are their choices, not ours. Many kids are desirous of choosing a right and moral way. We need to give them [the confidence] that we will stand beside them."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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