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Chastity Makes a Comeback

COLUMN ONE

Abstinence-only programs for teens are changing the face of sex education today. While conservatives relish the achievement, liberals are put on defensive.

August 10, 1999|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the age gap between puberty and marriage has grown over the years, most sex educators have come to see sexual activity among young people as inevitable. Recent surveys, however, report that previously unprecedented rates of sexual activity among teenagers have started to drop. Now, less than half of all high school students have had sex. In 1998, the average age of first intercourse was 16.3, up from 15.8 in 1997, according to the Durex Global Survey. Teen pregnancies, abortions and births have also declined. On the other hand, 3 million new cases of STDs are diagnosed among teenagers each year, and half of all new HIV cases occur among those under age 25.

"In general," says Madaras, "kids today who have it together, have it a lot more together. But a lot more kids are slipping through the cracks than ever before."

Contrary to popular images, teen sex is rarely sexy, Madaras says. Some have sex to be popular, to achieve status, or to prove they're not gay. "For most kids," Madaras says, "having sex is like holding their nose and jumping into an ice-cold pool."

Some liberal sex educators admit that abstinence is a subject many students need to hear more about. Dr. Drew Pinsky, co-host of the raunchy and irreverent MTV and syndicated radio show "Loveline," champions abstinence as the best choice for teenagers' emotional health. Most girls under age 18, he says, are not prepared for an intense emotional bond. When they have sex too soon, they risk depression in addition to pregnancy and disease. Young men, he says, can become clingy if they have sex before they are "fully developed and autonomous as a person."

But Pinsky says abstinence alone is a dangerous--even immoral--policy beyond a certain age. Surveys show that fewer than 15% of those who marry are virgins. By withholding knowledge, spreading medical misinformation and including anti-abortion messages, liberal advocates say many abstinence-only programs leave people without any backup plan to protect themselves from pregnancy or disease.

Looking to Expand Abstinence Programs

Meanwhile, Robert Rector is looking to expand abstinence education.

"The next step of the debate in my mind is to recognize that we don't just have a problem with teen sexuality; we have a problem with young adult sexuality," he says. "Almost all unmarried people in their 20s are sexually active, and a lot of this behavior is not moving toward stable relationships. That's a very serious thing."

He has already been lobbying state officials to mix a pro-marriage message with their welfare programs. He expects that proposals this year will be made to increase the federal abstinence-only funding. He also envisions bills on marriage and character education.

If the abstinence club at Stanford University is any indicator, though, young adults may prove to be a tougher sell than teenagers. Five years ago, a few students formed a club called "True Love Waits" in reaction to a freshman safe sex program they felt promoted a " '60s mentality." The organization attracted as many as 80 members and put together dorm talks on saving sex for marriage.

Last year, co-president Brendan Stuhan, 19, said he became frustrated by other students' challenges during the talks. "There are lots of people who want to make exceptions," he says. "'How far is OK?' 'What about cohabiting?' 'What if you plan to get married next week?' 'What if you're stranded on a desert island with no priest to perform the ceremony?' "

This year, membership in "True Love Waits" dwindled to six. The panel discussions were discontinued.

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