- Abstinence

By 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 young people.

Yet abstinence – or the “New Virginity,” as Newsweek magazine called it in a cover story – appears to be an increasingly attractive lifestyle option for America’s youth. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the percentage of kids in high school who say they’ve never had sex rose from 46% to 54% between 1991 and 2001.

That’s 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 you’re abstinent, it’s like you’re the one set aside from society because you’re 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 seen.

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 nation’s 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” program.

“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.

Explicit 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 movement.

“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 condoms.”

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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t 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 can’t believe it.”

In the trenches
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 to teens.

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 organization’s 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. That’s the success of our approach – it’s not only the curriculum, but who presents it.”

Some of Mullarkey’s 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, it’s 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 can’t believe I learned so much!’ and ‘Thank you for helping me to learn how to set boundaries.’ … [A]nd if someone says, ‘That skit was stupid,’ they’ll never see it again. It’ll 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-ization’s 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 it’s keeping that pledge and how to do that – ‘What are the skills I need to keep that pledge?’ – that’s 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.

Mentoring teens
Mike Long has also found a hunger for the right message in America’s 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 their struggles.

“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 didn’t 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 searching for.”

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. Don’t lecture me, don’t 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. “That’s just not the culture. But yet they are just crying out for it.”

The parents aren’t much better prepared for the discussion. “When you’re dealing with such a highly sensitive issue as sex, and you’re not really sure how best to deal with this culture of teenagers, your overwhelming response to them tends to be, ‘Well, just don’t 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 instructive.

“I came up with this strategy of teaching pretty much from what I learned from that special group of kids. It’s training parents and teachers how to get on a teenager’s level in a way that they don’t 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 consequences.”

There aren’t too many adults – or kids – who wouldn’t be happy with that.

Abstinence organizations
While this article highlighted only two abstinence-based programs, there are a number of fine organizations. Below are links to their Web sites:
Project S.O.S.
Everyone Is NOT Doing It
Club A.C.
Howard Flaherty
Lakita Garth

Mary-Louise Kurey
National Abstinence Clearinghouse
Project Reality

Sex Can Wait

True Love Waits