SBC Life Articles

True Abstinence Accounting

A key proponent of sexual abstinence until marriage has questioned a national Associated Press story May 20 reporting that a "safe-sex" emphasis on condom use is "more effective" than teen sexual abstinence.

Richard Ross, a spokesman for the popular abstinence-based True Love Waits campaign, commented, for example, on the definitions of abstinence used in a Princeton University study highlighted by the AP and also by the Journal of the American Medical Association in its May 20 edition.

The Princeton University study, of 659 sixth- and seventh-graders at three inner-city Philadelphia schools, described "abstinence intervention" as stressing "delaying sexual intercourse or reducing its frequency."

Ross, youth ministry consultant for the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, said such a definition often is used in government and academic circles, but noted, "To say to a teenager, 'Could you wait just a little bit longer?' does not influence their behavior."

On the idea of abstinence as a reduction in frequency in sexual intercourse, Ross stated, "It is interesting to note that no one in Washington or in education is challenging teenagers to smoke fewer cigarettes — or to drink and drive less often or to commit hate crimes with less frequency.

"The best opportunity to help a teenager avoid lung cancer is to challenge him to stop smoking. The best option for challenging a teenager to be abstinent is to challenge him to wait until marriage."

The study is not, however, the first academic inquiry involving abstinence — nor the most comprehensive.

A study reported in the same Journal of the American Medical Association last September, utilizing a questionnaire completed by more than 90,000 seventh- through twelfth-graders, reached a starkly different conclusion: A pledge of virginity is the strongest factor in shaping a teenager's sexual behavior.

The federally funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, often called the Add Health study, also found that teens who take a pledge of virginity, have loving parents, and regard religion and prayer as important are the least likely of all adolescents to report engaging in early sexual behavior.

"Critics of the True Love Waits campaign enjoy saying, 'It is easier to break a promise than a condom,'" Ross reflected. "The Add Health study confirms what we have known all along for the vast majority of True Love Waits students. The promise lasts."

In the recent Princeton University study, which explored ways to curb risky sexual behavior which can spread infection by the HIV virus, the 659 African American students were divided into three groups, each receiving eight hours of instructional sessions over three Saturday mornings. One group focused on abstinence, as defined by the study; the second focused on condom use; and the third group focused on health issues unrelated to sexual behavior. The average age of the sixth- and seventh-graders was 11.8 years.

Students in the abstinence group, according to the study's findings, were less likely to report having sexual intercourse in the three months after the instructional sessions than the third group, but not at six- or twelve-month follow-ups.

And, among students who were sexually active at the start of the study, those in the condom-use group reported less sexual intercourse at the six- and twelve-month points than those in the abstinence group, the study found.

Not reported by the Associated Press was this comment from a news release by the Journal of the American Medical Association: "The authors stress that the findings of this study may not be generalized to all inner city African American adolescents or if the same results would be observed in older African American adolescents or suburban white adolescents. They encourage further research in other adolescent populations and settings."

"It would be a mistake," Ross said, "to assume from this very limited study that highlighting the abstinence option before teenagers is without long-term effect.

"True Love Waits, as the most visible element of the broader Christian abstinence movement, is making a lifetime difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands," he said, noting the now-international campaign begun in 1993 is "different from the approach used in this study in several powerful ways:"

• "There is no indication that the eight hours of instruction given on abstinence had anything to do with moral absolutes," Ross said. "In fact, the overriding theme was simply delaying sexual involvement.

"Teenagers are influenced by the issue of right and wrong," he said, noting for example, "That is why we teach them that discrimination is wrong as well as illegal.

"Values-neutral instruction," Ross said, "has limited ability to shape lives."

• "The program in the study did not involve making a promise," Ross stated. "Most teenagers have not made up their minds about sexual involvement," he continued. "They simply live making decisions based on pressures of the day. We have found there is great value in teenagers making up their minds and making a sincere promise to God and to others in this important area of life."

Citing "the absence of reference to God" in the study, Ross noted Gallup polling has reported 94 percent of American teenagers believe there is a God. "For many of those teenagers, a promise made directly to God does carry weight," Ross said.

Additionally, the True Love Waits pledge taken by teens includes a promise made to one's future mate, Ross said. "True Love Waits teenagers enjoy knowing they are living chaste as a gift to the person they will someday marry.

"The pledge includes a promise to one's future child," he continued. "True Love Waits teenagers enjoy knowing they will bring their first child into a complete home."

Ample research exists "that teenagers who marry as virgins have a dramatically lower rate of divorce," Ross said.

"These and many other advantages of waiting must be included in any program that will affect long-term behavior," he said.

• "A major weakness with the study was the absence of ongoing peer support for those who choose abstinence," Ross said. "A hallmark of the True Love Waits campaign is the linking of arms among all teenagers who are choosing purity. Teenagers who make a True Love Waits promise in their home, church, or school club are instantly surrounded by others who have made a similar promise. Most Christian groups involved with True Love Waits provide Bible study, sharing, and prayer times for months or years on this issue after the promise is made."

• "The study does not indicate that the teenagers were challenged to join a countercultural movement," Ross said. "True Love Waits teenagers have a strong feeling that they are breaking the norm. They especially enjoy feeling that they are running counter to the expectations of adults who assume all teenagers will live like barnyard animals. That countercultural element is another factor that causes the True Love Waits promise to influence behavior long-term."

Gracie Hsu, a policy analyst with the Family Research Council in Washington, noted the youth in the Princeton study indeed responded to the abstinence message of the instruction sessions and were far more likely to abstain from sex in the three months thereafter.

"But the abstinence education wasn't continued; if it were, then we'd probably see a sustained impact over time of fewer teens engaging in sex," Hsu said.

"We shouldn't give up on these kids," Hsu stated, citing the Best Friends program in inner-city Washington as "a prime example of how kids can overcome the odds against them" Focusing on girls in the fifth through twelfth grades, Best Friends includes classroom instruction, positive peer pressure, mentors for each girl either within the school or the community and after-school activities such as aerobics and dance classes. It also provides opportunities to win scholarships for summer internships and colleges.

"The Best Friends program, after seven years and 700 girls, resulted in only 1.1 percent of all the girls becoming pregnant, versus a 25 percent citywide rate," Hsu said. "Now that's success that no 'safe-sex' program can compete with."



Making an Impact

The abstinence movement appears to making a substantial impact on the nations youth, according to a report in the May 6, 1998, Citizen Issues Alert.

A study released by the National Center for Health Statistics found that the number of teen females giving birth, from every state and racial group, dropped 8.5 percent from 1991 to 1995.

In addition, A New York Times/CBS poll found that nearly half of teens surveyed believe that sex before marriage is "always wrong."

Furthermore, data from the center for Disease Control and Prevention show that the national abortion rate fell 15 percent from 1990 to 1995, and that the abortion rate among teens also fell modestly during the same period.

In the Issues Alert report, Amy Stephens, a Focus on the Family public-policy representative, said, "The safe-sex message has had decades of Title X contraceptive funding and classroom time to prove itself. But the tide only turned with the advent of the privately funded abstinence movement in the late '80s and early '90s."