Ed Vitagliano | AFA Journal News Editor
The majority of teenagers in high school are virgins.
Surprised? In our over-sexed society, it may seem hard to believe
that sexual self-restraint may be catching on again and even
more unexpected that it is catching on among a growing number of
Yet abstinence or the New Virginity, as Newsweek
magazine called it in a cover story appears to be an increasingly
attractive lifestyle option for Americas youth. According
to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the
percentage of kids in high school who say theyve never had
sex rose from 46% to 54% between 1991 and 2001.
Thats not a huge shift, to be sure, but there are rumblings
beneath the surface that kids are taking a fresh look at not doing
it. In fact, Newsweek insisted on identifying abstinent
teens as part of a new counterculture that is clearly at odds
with the mainstream media and their routine use of sex to boost
ratings and peddle product.
Amanda Wing, for example, a 17-year-old Colorado high schooler interviewed
by Newsweek, said, If youre abstinent, its
like youre the one set aside from society because youre
not doing it.
No one is quite sure why more kids are delaying sexual involvement,
and whether the growing abstinence movement represents a long-term
and widespread rejection of the sexual revolution remains to be
What is certain, however, is that the culture in which American
kids are growing up is saturated with sexualized images like no
other time in our nations history.
When it comes to a teenager today, there is no other issue
than sex, said Mike Long, who has been teaching kids about
sex for 18 years through his Everyone Is NOT Doing It
Everything in their lives revolves around it, from peer pressure
to television to music to movies to advertising, to comprehensive
sex ed in the schools, to the Internet bombarding them with porno
sites so there really is no other issue.
At the center of the storm over what our culture should be doing
about all this sex is the public school system. Should school sex
education classes teach kids to protect themselves from pregnancy
and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) by using condoms (the so-called
safe sex approach)? Or should kids be taught to abstain
from sex until they are married?
The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that roughly 34% of
high schools take an abstinence-only approach when they teach sex
education to their teens, while 58% of schools take a comprehensive,
contraception-based approach. While abstinence-only sex ed is still
a minority approach, however, it is a growing approach: according
to the Chicago Tribune, only 2% of surveyed U.S. teachers in 1988
taught that abstinence was the only way to prevent unwanted pregnancies
and STDs. Eleven years later, that had jumped to 23%.
The federal government has also been involved in this shift. In
1996 Congress authorized $50 million a year for abstinence-only
sex education in public schools, and President Bush has asked Congress
to increase the amount earmarked for abstinence funding to $135
million a year.
sex ed rejected by parents
Groups like the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the
United States (SIECUS), however, not only promote comprehensive
sex education in the public schools but resent this growing abstinence
With the White House set to sink another quarter of a billion
dollars into unproven abstinence-only-until-marriage education,
it is critical that lawmakers take this opportunity to make important
changes to the law, SIECUS President Tamara Kreinin said in
a press release by the organization. Our young people need,
want, and deserve open, honest, and medically accurate information
and education about their sexual health to prevent unintended pregnancy,
STDs and HIV/AIDS not programs that are shame and fear-based,
biased, and misrepresent the effectiveness of contraception and
Moreover, SIECUS insists that they are in lock step with parental
wishes when it comes to sex education. The organization claims that
93% of Americans support the teaching of sexuality education
to high school students, and 84% support sexuality education for
middle/junior high school students.
That doesnt surprise Long, who said most parents lack the
confidence to teach their values about sex to their kids, although
they want someone to do it. The task usually falls to schools.
However, SIECUS claims turn out to be a mile wide but only
an inch deep. A recent poll conducted by Zogby International indicated
that when parents were informed about the specifics of what SIECUS
and its ilk want to teach children, they balked. For example, a
large majority of parents rejected SIECUS explicit teachings
to kids about masturbation (79%), pornography (55%), demonstrations
of the use of condoms (71%), or the distribution of condoms by schools
without parental approval (70%). Meanwhile, a majority of parents
also said they favored a message of abstinence until marriage (70%),
while disapproving of schools teaching that cohabitation was as
good as marriage (56%).
That doesnt surprise Long, either. When parents really
learn what they are teaching in these comprehensive sex ed programs,
they literally go ballistic, he said. They absolutely
cant believe it.
It is precisely that parental reaction that has opened the doors
in many places to a message of abstinence. Across the nation, in
the trenches of the American public school system, a multitude of
adults are raising the standard of the new virginity
in a culture awash in sex.
One of those is Pam Mullarkey, Ph. D., founder and executive director
of Project Save Our Students, Inc. (Project S.O.S.), a secular non-profit
organization in Florida. The largest provider of abstinence teaching
in that state, Mullarkey and her staff go into schools to present
an intriguing, entertaining and informative message about abstinence
Mullarkey said the Project S.O.S. curriculum has been approved by
the Florida Department of Health, and her key presenters, Grayson
Marshall and Judy Krug, do a fantastic job. However, Mullarkey said
the organizations secret weapon is a staff of young people
who are trained to make much of the presentations to their own peers.
I use young people, she said, and the young people
I have are just phenomenal. Thats the success of our approach
its not only the curriculum, but who presents it.
Some of Mullarkeys youthful staff have been around the block
themselves. Half of them were sexually active, some of them
were drinking and drugging. All of them have been abstinent now
for a minimum of one year, but most of my staff, its been
four or five [years]. Half of my staff have never had sex, never
done alcohol, never done drugs.
The young people use personal testimonies, skits and demonstrations
in their presentations, and Mullarkey said the organization takes
very seriously what the kids in the audience think about it all.
After the program, Mullarkey said, we use completely anonymous
surveys and ask the kids, What would you do differently if
you were in charge of this program? Very rarely, if ever,
do we have any negative comments. Instead, she said, the
reactions are usually, Oh, this was awesome, and I
cant believe I learned so much! and Thank you
for helping me to learn how to set boundaries.
if someone says, That skit was stupid, theyll
never see it again. Itll be gone.
This school year, Mullarkey said, the Project S.O.S. program will
reach 30,000 kids with the message of abstinence. Next year that
number will jump to 50,000. The organ-izations follow-up support
groups, called APE Clubs (Abstinence Protects Everyone), have been
established in 40 middle and high schools in Florida.
While the message of the Project S.O.S. presentations is abstinence
complete with statistics on STDs, condom effectiveness, and
good health the message goes much deeper. Mullarkey said
the core teaching of Project S.O.S. is that young people are
too valuable to suffer the consequences of early sexual activity,
because it holds them back from their goals. They have to set certain
boundaries in their lives to be successful.
Thus Project S.O.S. emphasizes the skills to keep a commitment.
We can get any kid to make a pledge [to remain abstinent], but its
keeping that pledge and how to do that What are the
skills I need to keep that pledge? thats what
we teach, she said.
That strategy has been paying off. We are one of the most
successful in the nation when you look at our evaluations and survey
results, Mullarkey said. Of the kids who go through the Project
S.O.S. programs, 75% make a commitment to abstain from sex and avoid
using drugs and alcohol.
Follow-up inquiries, conducted with forms that do not identify Project
S.O.S. as the surveyor, have found that, 18 months after these kids
made their commitments, 85-90% have kept them.
This success rate has not gone unnoticed. While the 10-year-old
program has been mainly a Florida-based conduit, Mullarkey said
other doors have been opening.
We are not nationwide, but we have had requests to start going
in that direction. We sell our curriculum around the nation, and
we also have an eight-tape video series that is being marketed
around the country by another firm, she said, and Project S.O.S.
also trains people nationwide.
Three years ago Mullarkey went to Moscow and taught 1,200 American,
Russian and Chinese delegates about abstinence. She said Project
S.O.S. has been busily trying to get all its materials translated
into Russian for future visits.
Mike Long has also found a hunger for the right message in Americas
public schools. Since he left his career as a North Carolina junior
high school teacher in 1985 to start Everyone Is NOT Doing
It, he has trained over 30,000 educators in 45 states
and spoken to well over a million kids.
Although he left the public school system 18 years ago, he insists
that his abstinence program is fashioned on what he learned while
teaching what the school had labeled lost-cause kids.
Long became a sounding board for his students, deciding that the
best way to help them develop character was not to develop
a teacher-student relationship but to develop a mentor
relationship. Kids knew they could come to him and discuss
In doing a lot of listening, I began to hear their questions
and their concerns about peer pressure, about alcohol, about drugs,
and definitely about sex, he said.
What was interesting was that, at the end of every conversation
with these kids it was always, Thank you so much, Mr. Long,
for helping me, he said. But my thought was always,
But I didnt tell you anything. And what I learned
from [these kids] was all they were looking for was someone who
would not label them, someone who would just get on their level
and give them the direction in life that they were so desperately
As he addresses kids across the nation, Long said he continually
sees the same need today. If I had to tell you what I see
screaming from their eyes in all these assembly programs it is,
Somebody please give me some direction about sex. Dont
lecture me, dont put a finger in my face, just give me direction,
he said. How can I be a teenager [and] live a happy,
healthy and more fulfilled life, and never have to worry about these
life-scarring consequences that I hear so much about?
However, even though kids are awash in a culture that talks about
virtually nothing else but sex, the average teen is not going
to walk up to a teacher or a parent and say, Mom, Dad, teacher
would you give me direction about sex? Long said.
Thats just not the culture. But yet they are just crying
out for it.
The parents arent much better prepared for the discussion.
When youre dealing with such a highly sensitive issue
as sex, and youre not really sure how best to deal with this
culture of teenagers, your overwhelming response to them tends to
be, Well, just dont do it, or The Bible
says not to do it, Long said.
That approach tends to simply go in one ear and out the other, he
added, and so he came up with a strategy of teaching parents and
teachers based on a mentoring model, called Directive Education.
Not only does Long address school assemblies and gatherings of parents
or teachers, but he has a series of books and videos which are also
I came up with this strategy of teaching pretty much from
what I learned from that special group of kids. Its training
parents and teachers how to get on a teenagers level in a
way that they dont come across as a finger-in-the-face or
a lecture, so that you direct teenagers to make these smart, healthy
decisions in life, Long said. And at the same time you
build their character, you build responsibility, you build maturity,
you build discipline, and you completely free them from life-scarring
There arent too many adults or kids who wouldnt
be happy with that.