US chastity crusade gets cool response in secular Britain

Lisa High's story is a classic salutary tale of adolescent sex. After getting her pregnant at 17, her boyfriend got cold feet. She thought briefly of abortion, but couldn't go through with it.

Now Lisa is 21, a single mom living in South London - but she is hardly unique. Every year, 40,000 British girls under 18 become pregnant, a promiscuity "epidemic" that gives Britain by far the highest rate of teenage mothers in Western Europe.

Figures like these have persuaded an American group espousing total chastity to bring its missionary zeal to Britain's teenagers.

The Silver Ring Thing, which claims to have won over 22,000 young Americans to the virtues of abstinence, is bringing more than two dozen of its converts to spread the word through a series of glitzy media events starting Friday in this town south of London.

Yet the Silver Ring Thing tour is proving controversial before it has even started.

Early press coverage has been snippy at best, hostile at worst. Cultural commentators have scoffed that outreach based on American Christian-based values, supported by $700,000 in US federal funds, will not necessarily transplant easily in a society that has become defiantly secular.

Government officials argue that a vow of chastity is a brittle line of defense, that self-discipline often falters - and then what?

For Lisa High, the abstinence message just might have made a difference.

"I think it's a message that should be told to our kids," she says. "I would have listened [to the notion of abstinence] if it had come from another teenager."

Many young people, however, ridicule the very idea of abstinence.

"I didn't listen to the message then and I wouldn't now," says Beckie Darvill, a 21-year-old mother of two who had her first child when she was 16.

"I went to a Catholic school and was told all that stuff, not to have sex, stay a virgin until you're married, but I didn't. Young people nowadays just want to grow up faster."

The indifferent British response is irksome to Silver Ring Thing founder Denny Pattyn, and ordained minister who wonders why a society with such a big problem is unwilling to look at new ways to deal with it.

Since the 1960s, when the sexual revolution threw off the last vestiges of Victorian values,the British approach has started from the position that many children will experiment with sex. Information is therefore crucial, and efforts have concentrated on sex education in schools, informing children about contraception, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), risk reduction, and family planning.

Yet statistics show the approach has yet to turn the tide. Teen pregnancy rates in Britain remain five times as high as some parts of Europe such as the Netherlands and Sweden - though still much lower than in the United States.

Officials blame it on a historical reluctance to talk openly about sex in private - particularly on the part of parents reluctant to relate to the growing sexuality of their teenage offspring.

The Rev. Mr. Pattyn says the statistics show the approach thus far has failed. He says the overall message is too confusing and that teenagers need clearer guidance.

"Anyone who deals with teenagers knows you can't give them a mixed message," he says. "They are going to take the risk."

He freely admits that he does not expect to convert every last British teenager to the ways of premarital purity. But he argues that every young person who takes the vow and dons the $12 silver ring granted as part of an abstinence "ceremony" is another youth spared the misery of unwanted pregnancy and STDs such as chlamydia and gonorrhea. Government figures show that the number of STD "episodes" doubled in Britain between 1991 and 2001.

"Britain has a critical problem and abstinence is an answer," he says in a telephone interview from Sewickley, Pa. "We are bringing over kids who will stand before you and say it is working in their lives and that they are thrilled to have answer to what's attacking them and their generation: STD and teenage pregnancy."

Yet critics are adamant that abstinence is not the answer. A recent US survey showed that those who have taken chastity vows have almost the same rate of STDs as other young people because they are less likely to practice safe sex if they "fall off the wagon."

"Signing up children to a pledge that they could potentially fail is not the way to go," says Rhodri Jones of the government's Teenage Pregnancy Unit, a special team set up six years ago to reverse youth pregnancy rates.

"Young people stick with it for a while and then the pledge is broken and they are left without a safety net."

The government prefers the message offered by a domestic program called APAUSE (Added Power and Understanding in Sex Education) that counsels an ABC of good practice (Abstinence, Be faithful, use a Condom).

One of its architects, John Tripp of Exeter University, says that while Britain is unlikely to embrace US chastity evangelists, it can learn from US efforts to change cultural norms.

Part of the problem, he says, is that sex will continue to be used as a selling point in the media and peer pressure will remain intense. But there is no reason, he adds, why a strong public campaign (supported by proponents more credible than Britney Spears) cannot steer morality in a new direction.

"We shouldn't knock the possibility that culture can be changed," Mr. Tripp says, noting recent successful efforts by Uganda to reverse critical sexually transmitted infection rates. "It's not a losing battle."

He says society has to stop giving young people a double message, glamorizing sex while at the same time advocating responsible behavior in school-based sex education.

"If the mood changes and people start to criticize the press for giving this double message it will change," Tripp says. "Just look at drinking driving: Young people have got that message far better than older generations."

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