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Students make case for virginity

A confident minority choose chastity, going against the grain of popular culture.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 22, 2006

You won't find Cristina Barba's shorts advertising "JUICY" across the backside. Nor will her necklines plunge or her belly button make an appearance. And when she dates, the 22-year-old Penn State grad may part with a simple kiss. But that's it. She's saving herself for marriage and doing whatever it takes to hold true to her intentions.

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Ms. Barba is an alien, it seems, in a culture draped in ever more aggressive layers of sexuality. By many accounts, the random hookup has become this generation's peck on the cheek.

According to Nichole Murray-Swank, an assistant professor at Loyola College in Maryland, general surveys as well as her own research indicate that 70 percent of 19-year-olds have had sexual intercourse. Just last month, a study in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) even called into question an earlier statistical link between virginity pledges, first popularized by Christian groups, and a delay in teen sex.

But for many, the case for virginity is far from closed.

After all, as even the AJPH study noted, surveys of intimate activity are vulnerable to the changing beliefs and behaviors of participants. Some may be reluctant to admit sexual activity, others reluctant to deny it. And in a politically charged climate that pits the teaching of abstinence against the teaching of safe sex, advocates on both sides use data to gain ideological advantage – or at least more funding.

Virgins seem to have gotten lost in the numbers. But a confident minority do still choose virginity, their decisionmaking seemingly impervious to statistical expectations or the imprimatur of popular culture.

Many of them are motivated by religious beliefs. Ms. Murray-Swank, who tracks spirituality, religion, and sexuality in adolescents and adults, has found that those who regularly worship, pray, and consider themselves religious see sexuality as part of a broad faith journey. Their views are often shaped since childhood by church and home. "Most major world religions do tend to encourage abstinence," Ms. Murray-Swank says, and the more religiously conservative the believer, the less the likelihood of sex before marriage. The correlation between abstinence and strong religious belief is "robust, persistent, and consistent over time," she says.

Peder Wiegner, like many young people, seeks to live a service-oriented life, an outlook that influences his personal relationships and his sexual activity. A student at Eastern University, a Christian liberal arts school in suburban Philadelphia, Mr. Wiegner was raised by missionary parents in Bolivia and Costa Rica, and belongs to both Baptist and Mennonite congregations. Wiegner says his pacifist, Mennonite side frames his moral decisionmaking. When asked by an 11th-grade Spanish teacher to write a personal statement, he recalls, he included the intention to save sex for marriage. "When I'm in a relationship, it's always in the back of my mind," he says. [Editor's note: The original version misstated Wiegner's first name.]

The call to chastity is an offshoot of his attempt to model his life on Jesus, adds Wiegner, who aims to work in mediation or conflict resolution. "I've tried to center my life around serving others and serving God, and being a virgin fits into that," he says. "I don't see it as a bunch of rules to follow, but a lifestyle to lead."

If researchers tend to see sex as a laundry list of activities and a source of STDs, those favoring virginity until marriage tend to see it as part of a larger whole.

At Eastern, affiliated with the American Baptist Church, Bible-based sexual ethics puts intercourse squarely within marriage, says Joseph Modica, a professor of Bible studies. "We see Jesus affirming the marriage bonds" in the gospels. "We try to stress that abstinence is part of virtue education rather than just a matter of willpower," he says. "We try to help students understand the role of temperance, of prudence."

Recently, single-sex, student-initiated groups have emerged on campus, regularly meeting to discuss topics like modesty and Christian adult sexuality. But students are also warned against rushing into marriage. "Dating and courtship are wonderful. Marriage is a very long commitment," says Professor Modica.