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Abstinence movement credited for teen sexuality decline

WASHINGTON (BP)–Even before the federal government’s new sexual abstinence education program goes into effect this fall, 1997 has been a good year for advocates of virginity.
Survey results announced in May by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed the first recorded decline in teenage sexual activity in 25 years. In a survey conducted in 1995, 50 percent of unmarried women 15 to 19 years of age said they had had sexual intercourse at least once. In 1990, the same survey found that 55 percent of women in that age range reported having had sex. Previous surveys found a steady increase in sexual activity from 29 percent in 1970 to 36 percent in 1974, 47 percent in 1982 and 53 percent in 1988.
Meanwhile, another survey conducted in 1995 and announced by HHS in May reported the percentage of unmarried men from 15 to 19 who said they had had sexual intercourse had declined to 55 percent from 60 percent in 1988. The finding reversed a trend measured since 1979.
For abstinence advocates, it is at least an encouragement, if not a bold affirmation, their message is having an impact, even before the government provides noteworthy help with its own program.
“I think it is interesting to note that the decline in teenage sexual activity began about the same time as ‘True Love Waits’ and the broader abstinence movement began to pick up steam,” said Richard Ross, the Baptist Sunday School Board youth ministry coordinator who started the now-international “True Love Waits” emphasis in 1993 as a ministry for the young people in his own church.
The survey results were not “altogether surprising,” but were “definitely encouraging,” said Gracie Hsu, a policy analyst for Family Research Council, a Washington-based advocacy organization that has sponsored an abstinence campaign. “One of the things that we can now say, at least, is that the movement toward abstinence is growing, and it’s growing more and more strong among young people today.”
Joe McIlhaney, a longtime obstetrician/gynecologist who now heads the Austin, Texas-based Medical Institute for Sexual Health, is more emphatic.
“I don’t think there is any question” the abstinence movement is the primary reason for the decline in teenage sex, McIlhaney said. “I mean, there is nothing else that would be contributing to that decline except that teenagers are hearing the message” to delay sex until marriage.
He added, “I do think there is the fear of AIDS. So I think the two pressures for teens to avoid sex until marriage” are behind the decline in teenage sexual activity.
When the data were announced, HHS Secretary Donna Shalala, while not known as an abstinence-only promoter, sounded like one.
These results “should encourage us to do more, not lull us into doing less,” she said in a prepared statement. “We need to change the cultural messages that have been accepted too long. Continual increases in teen sexual activity are not inevitable, and we can take action together to protect the health and well-being of our young people.”
Shalala’s comments, intentionally or not, served as a refutation of the “safe-sex” message promoted even by the federal government throughout most of the last quarter century. That message has been that teenagers are powerless to control their sexual desires, so they should be taught how to use condoms and birth control.
The “safe-sex” message “has fueled movement by teenagers in the direction of sexual activity because they feel they have been promised by authority figures in their lives that they can transgress moral boundaries without penalty,” Ross said. “A growing number of Americans recognize the so-called safe-sex movement as a failed approach to teenage sexuality.”
FRC’s Hsu said, “One of the great things about (the survey results) is no longer can the other side claim that the majority of kids are having sex anyway so we just have to teach them ‘safe sex.’
“When we give kids an easy fix with condoms, then it really is a false sense of security, when what they are really looking for is love.”