Monday September 8, 2003
The Bush administration is pouring millions of dollars into programmes that persuade teenagers to hold on to their virginity. And it's working. Suzanne Goldenberg reports.
It's a few minutes before showtime, and the air in the church hall has that slightly tingling sense of anticipation that often occurs in crowds of sweaty teenagers. The girls are tugging at their T-shirts and smoothing their hair, the boys laughing too loudly. They are here to spend the next few hours talking about sex. Then, they are going to declare in front of total strangers that they will swear off all forms of sex until they are married.
"I just want to wait until I meet the right person," says 16-year-old Lindsey Bocheck. "The world is so messed up as it is. Society wants you to be a whore basically."
Welcome to the world of teenage abstinence, a choice championed by the reigning Miss America and until recently (following her confessions about the true nature of her relationship with Justin Timberlake) Britney Spears, and embraced by some 2.5 million young people in the United States in the past decade. In an age obsessed with sex, they inhabit an interior universe where intercourse turns relationships stale and leads to break-ups, condoms don't work and those weak enough to have tried the pleasures of the flesh are inevitably sorry.
"You don't realise what you are doing until everything has changed," says 16-year-old John Wagster, peering earnestly through round glasses as he explains his decision to embrace chastity. "You are having oral sex, and you don't realise it's wrong. It's like eating Pringles. Once you start, you can't stop."
Only you can - or you should. At least that is the message heavily promoted by the Bush administration which has allocated $117m (£74m) for abstinence-only education for teenagers this year, and hopes to raise it to $135m.
The administration has also begun to preach the same gospel to adults, releasing funds to make the nation chaste. In June, the Department of Health and Human Services published a circular on funding for family planning projects for the poor. It said programmes with "extramarital abstinence education and counselling" were the highest priority.
The growing desire to remain a virgin, and the Bush government's eagerness to back programmes which would lead Americans to a biblical lifestyle, has alarmed organisations such as Planned Parenthood, and those who support sex education in schools. In a country where the teenage pregnancy rate is double that of Britain's, 35% of all school districts have replaced sex education with classes that focus solely on why not to have sex. During the last few years Planned Parenthood itself has been forced to mention abstinence as a strategy for avoiding pregnancy and disease.
For organisations such as the Silver Ring Thing, which hosts tonight's event, it is the only way. Since emerging in 1995 from Christian youth outreach programmes, Silver Ring Thing claims to have persuaded 14,000 young people to keep themselves pure until the day they wed. Since August, it has become impeccably situated to do so, after it received $700,000 (£443,000) from the US government, the largest such grant awarded.
The Silver Ring Thing's premise is simple. In a confusing world of choice it offers only absolutes: stay pure or else have sex, lose your boyfriend and your self-respect, and arrive at the altar at some unspecified future date as damaged goods. Those are the emotional costs. The health risks conjured up are even scarier, as activists make extremely liberal use of data on the rise in sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia and the human papilloma virus, a main cause of cervical cancer. The moral perils are scarier still, with dark warnings that the "epidemic" of oral sex has got "out of control".
None of what Silver Ring Thing preaches is new - even its tirades against condoms are familiar fodder in Bible-thumping sermons of the American south. What is different on this night, where 500 teenagers - mostly white, and mostly female - have assembled to take the pledge, is the fact that these exercises are now being funded and supported by the US government.
The sermons have now become shows. At the Silver Ring Thing events testimonials are mixed with loud music, skits, videos and flashing lights. Fellow teens recount the pressures to have sex, and rue the day it ruined their relationships. "Couples stop having fun when they have sex," says one follower of the programme, now married. "I was able to give my wife the best gift you could give - your virginity".
Nobody on stage actually talks about sexuality, beyond stock references to raging hormones. Nobody is very specific about what they mean by sex - though it's clear that they think oral sex is bad. There is no mention of masturbation. Heterosexuality is automatically assumed.
After sitting through two hours of this, the teens stand to take the pledge publicly. They then slip on a silver ring, on sale in the foyer for $12.
The symbolism is no accident, says Denny Pattyn, who developed Silver Ring Thing while working at a Christian youth ministry in Arizona. During the show, a woman, Deb, appears to tell the new pledgees that if they are going to fall further down the road and have sex, they should flush the ring down the toilet, rather than dishonour their comrades.
"This is a constant reminder. They are making a vow tonight to wait until they are married to have sex," Pattyn says before the show. He is a little more explicit on stage where he warns the crowd that the modern world is quite literally a cesspool, swirling with sexually transmitted diseases. "On your wedding day you give the ring to your husband or wife and say, 'I waited for you, let's get it on'," he tells the audience. Then he leads a short prayer, asking the teens to take Jesus into their lives.
In the foyer Shelly Povazan is trying to extract a smile from her daughter, Kayla. Povazan, a neo-natal nurse who says she has seen far too many teenage mothers on her ward, does not really expect her daughter to remain a virgin until she is married. But she is afraid for her.
"I just want her to be older [when she loses her virginity]. I'm thinking, Kayla is 12. Soon she could be making that kind of decision. I would just like her to wait," she says. "When we were growing up, it was just 'Don't get pregnant'. Now it is much bigger."
Kayla isn't quite ready to deal with sex. "It would be nice if you had told me before I came here. Then I wouldn't have come," she hisses at her mother. But she soon relents. "The rings are cool," she says.
Such adult fears of teenage sexuality - and teenage assertiveness - have colluded in the growth of the abstinence cult. "It's been out there for decades, but now they have George W Bush in the bully pulpit and he has increased funding for abstinence-only programmes many times over," says Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood and advocate of a more reasoned approach to family planning.
Meanwhile, spending on sex education has declined, and projects are stifled yet further by being prohibited from mentioning abortion. In contrast to the $117m allocated to abstinence programmes, the US government has set aside just $48m for sex education, and that sum includes free samples of contraceptives.
For Planned Parenthood and others, the consequences are clear: a new generation of teenagers is growing up ignorant, or misinformed, and the abstinence-only movements perpetuate that trap. They also fear the sermons against condoms are going to reverse progress made in 20 years of safe-sex campaigns. But it is impossible to dismiss abstinence movements outright. While it is highly unlikely that the teenagers who slipped on their silver rings near Pittsburgh will stay virgins until they marry, they will keep the faith for an average of between one and two years, according to a 2001 study in the American Journal of Sociology.
"Of course the programme fails in an absolute way, but I would not say it fails," says Peter Bearman, co-author of the study and director of Columbia University's Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy. "For kids who took the pledge, the age when they first had sex was 18 months after they otherwise would have."
But when they do become sexually active, they are far less likely to use contraception than other teens - partly because they spent those months denying that they would ever need it - and so increase their risks of pregnancy and disease.
The power of the virginity pledges is also limited. The vows work best for teens aged 15 to 17, and hold sway only as long as the pledgees are in a community with a number of like-minded teens. They also cease to be effective once an entire high school class is won over and the special identity has been lost.
Bearman's research was conducted before Bush came to power, and before the US government began making a cult of abstinence, so it is impossible to predict the long-term effects of the abstinence movements on the generation just coming of age in America.
But for Feldt and others, the implications are clear. The focus on abstinence harkens a return to the dark ages. "It is horrifying. It is frightening," she says. "It is back to the 1950s - only it's even worse now because in the 1950s they simply didn't talk about it at all."
Claire the LIbrarian