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Not Everybody's Doing It, and That Makes Virginity Actually Hip

March 20, 2000|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If last year's hit movie "American Pie" is correct, the pursuit of the first sexual experience is still a defining theme of youth. The comedy chronicled the antics of four high school friends who vow to lose their virginity by prom night.

But for a minority of teens and 20-somethings, virginity is not only a defining characteristic, but, in some cases, even hip.

"I made the commitment in eighth grade," said 17-year-old Tyler Watts of Riverside, who pledged himself, for religious reasons, to sexual abstinence. His parents gave him a gold ring to symbolize it.

"It was really a decision I made after a week of talking with my youth pastor," said Tyler. "It is my commitment to God and my future spouse. I think it has gotten easier to take a stand because more people are doing it."

Even celebrities. Last month's US magazine proclaimed virginity a trend. Pop music star Enrique Iglesias, 24, is one, and so is actress LeeLee Sobieski, 17, who played Joan of Arc in a miniseries.

These days, even if it is lost, virginity can be regained.

At Azuza Pacific College, students take what is called a "purity pledge." If a person slips up, the student can become a "born-again" virgin by recommitting to abstinence.

There are some signs that celibacy has been, to a small degree, partly responsible for the decrease in teen pregnancy. Between 1990 and 1996 in the U.S., pregnancy rates declined for teens 15 to 19 by 17% from 1990 to 1996. The teen abortion rate also has declined steadily.

"Our estimate is that a quarter of the decrease in pregnancy is due to slightly fewer women becoming sexually active," said Jacqueline Darroch of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a New York nonprofit group that studies reproductive health and policy. "But we think the key change responsible for the rest of the drop is more effective and consistent use of contraceptives."

Most religion-based abstinence movements exclude information about contraceptives and characterize premarital sex as a sin. But even some nonreligious "abstinence-only" programs exclude talk about contraception.

"We do not make it a religious or moral issue," said Kim Watts, who coordinates the "Worth the Wait" program for middle school students at Scott & White Memorial Hospital in Temple, Texas. "We talk about condom failure rate. . . . We tell them about the health risks of intercourse . . . and that there could be emotional hurt." Abstinence pledge cards are part of the program. Teens who made a pledge to virginity were 75% less likely to have had sex, according to a 1997 article in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. (Parental disapproval was a secondary deterrent.)

But Darroch and others criticize sex education that fails to include contraception. "The theory is if you keep them ignorant about contraception, you will keep them from becoming sexually active," said Darroch. "But research does not bear that out. You can give the message that it is important to delay sexual activity. But by the time teens are 19, over 80% are sexually active." At that point, she said, they need to know how to use contraception effectively.

One 23-year-old college student, who is a virgin, works as a peer counselor for Cal State Northridge's Education and Resources on Sexuality program, which embraces abstinence and full information about contraception.

"I am celibate . . . for cultural and religious reasons," said the woman, a Muslim who emigrated at 14 with her family from Pakistan. "It is to maintain purity, and I believe you have one partner for the rest of your life. It is not difficult. I don't date."

The celibate life is not always easy, even for those who are committed to it, said a 25-year-old Cal State Northridge graduate student who asked for anonymity.

"The temptation is definitely there because sex is everywhere, and none of my friends are virgins," she said. "I get so bonded just from kissing the guys I've dated. It is devastating to end a relationship after being physical. I am just so happy I never slept with any of them."

Birds & Bees is a weekly column on relationships and sexuality. Kathleen Kelleher can be reached atkellehr@gte.net.

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