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Abstinence leaders dispute report assessing teen oral sex

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A study released in the April edition of the journal Pediatrics may present a distorted picture in reporting that about one in five ninth-graders say they have had oral sex and almost one-third intend to try it during the next six months.

Cautions about the study were raised not only by the founders of True Love Waits, one of the nation’s leading abstinence movements, but also by a New York Times columnist.

The study, based on a survey of 580 ethnically diverse ninth-graders in two California public high schools, found that 20 percent said they had engaged in oral sex, compared to 14 percent who said they had engaged in sexual intercourse. The study, as described by the Associated Press, concluded that the teens view oral sex as less risky, more common and more acceptable for their age group than intercourse.

The study’s lead author, Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a pediatrician at the University of California, San Francisco, wrote, “Given the suggestion that adolescents do not view oral sex as sex and see oral sex as a way of preserving their virginity while still gaining intimacy and sexual pleasure, they are likely to interpret sexual health messages as referring to vaginal sex.”

But Richard Ross, co-founder of True Love Waits, said the movement has been clear about telling teens that sexual purity means abstaining from all sexual activity, including oral sex.

“Those of us helping to guide the True Love Waits movement never fell in the trap of focusing only on intercourse,” Ross told Baptist Press. “All our support materials challenge teenagers to live Christ-like and pure in all ways in all relationships.

“The True Love Waits promise itself is centered around ‘a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship,'” said Ross, professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas.

Church leaders and parents must avoid two extremes in dealing with teenagers’ sexuality, Ross noted.

“On the one hand, adults must not bury their heads in the sand and thus miss new and potentially destructive practices by young people,” he said. “On the other hand, Christians must be careful not to accept shallow research and journalism as fact. For example, it would be very unwise to assume middle schoolers all across the U.S. are involved with oral sex based on the experiences of a handful in two California schools.”

In fact, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote April 20 that while teens are displaying public hedonism with their tight clothes, “acres of exposed pelvic skin” and consumption of sexually provocative media, privately they are exercising more restraint than previous generations.

Teenage pregnancy rates, he noted, have declined by about a third over the past 15 years and teenage birth and abortion rates have dropped as much. The percentage of 15-year-olds who have had sex has dropped significantly, and among 13-year-olds, the percentage has dropped even more.

The number of high schoolers who report having had four or more sexual partners during their lives has declined by about a quarter, Brooks wrote, and half of all high school boys now say they are virgins, up from 39 percent in 1990.

There’s very little evidence to support claims that an epidemic of teenage oral sex is sweeping the nation, Brooks wrote, and there has been a distinct rise in the number of teenagers who say casual sex is wrong.

“When you actually look at the intimate life of America’s youth, you find this heterodoxical pattern: People can seem raunchy on the surface but are wholesome within,” Brooks wrote. “… In other words, American pop culture may look trashy, but America’s social fabric is in the middle of an amazing moment of improvement and repair.”

Teenagers are starting to realize that the extreme sexuality they see in the movies, on television and in music videos is make-believe when what matters is reality, Brooks added.

“The reality is that we have a generation of kids who have seen the ravages of divorce, who are more likely to respect and listen to their parents and their ministers, who are worried about sexually transmitted diseases and who don’t want to mess up their careers,” he wrote.

But for those teens confused about where to draw the line on the broad scale from holding hands to intercourse, Jimmy Hester, who founded True Love Waits with Ross, says sexual purity in every dimension should be the goal.

“While sexual purity certainly includes abstaining from sexual intercourse until marriage, it is more than just setting limits on one’s behavior,” Hester, director of student ministry publishing at LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention, noted in a column for Baptist Press.

“Sexual purity is a total commitment of sexual needs, desires, thoughts and actions to God,” Hester wrote.

“A Christian view of sexuality does not ask, ‘How far from purity can I wander before I have sinned?’ Rather, a Christian perspective guides us toward purity and to seek it in our attitudes and actions.”

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