Mixed Reviews for Abstinence-Only Programs

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When America last left Dirk Been the youth pastor and small-time actor was thanking God for giving him the chance to appear on Survivor. More than a year later Been is still confined to the purgatory of regional theater, but now he's found a new outlet for his survival skills: advising teens how to endure the often solitary desert isle that is virginity and keep their eye on the ultimate prize of sex during marriage. The celebrity face for the burgeoning virginity movement, Been was also the main attraction at the three-day "Abstinence: Taking the World By Storm" conference held last month in Miami where thousands of teens came together to talk about not having sex. "I'm a 25 year-old virgin," says Been. "On Survivor you had to stay focused. It's such a challenge to stay abstinent in this world where sex sells and we are sexual creatures."

A no-sex pitch like his may soon be on its way to a classroom near you. So- called abstinence-only-until-marriage education was born of a little-noticed provision of the 1996 GOP welfare-reform legislation that set aside $50 million over five years for states that exhort kids to save sex until marriage. To snap up the funds, schools and community groups must agree to teach of the "harmful psychological and physical effects" of intercourse and only mention contraception in the context of its shortcomings.

By 1999, according to one study, a full third of school districts had already embraced the abstinence-only approach. An entire industry has sprung up to help teens stick to their guns, including t-shirts blaring "Pet Your Dog Not Your Date" and pledge cards asking teens to forswear sex until marriage. Now the movement is getting an additional boost from above. Last month, the Health and Human Services department doled out $17 million in new federal grants and President Bush, a supporter of no-sex ed as governor of Texas, has vowed as part of his renewed focus on conservative values to push for even more funding. "Abstinence is not jut about saying 'no' — it's about saying yes to a happier, healthier future," Bush wrote to the teens at the Miami conference.

Though abstinence proponents like to take credit for the recent decline in teen pregnancy rates, there's nothing to say that chastity rather than broader use of condoms is responsible.
There are, of course, some logical inconsistencies in the fact that conservatives, who for years have fought against anything resembling national testing standards, appear to have no problem whatsoever with scripting a national no-sex ed curriculum. This flip-flop would be slightly easier to swallow if a) there was a groundswell of support for the approach (parents, on the contrary, in survey after survey support teaching abstinence in concert with birth control) or b) there was convincing evidence that this program works.

Though abstinence proponents like to take credit for the recent decline in teen pregnancy rates, there's nothing to say that chastity — rather than broader use of condoms — is responsible. They are also quick to trot out one part of a study of virginity pledges published last year by Peter Bearman of Columbia University and Hannah Brueckner, now of Yale University, that found students who took pledges delayed their first sexual encounter by an average of 18 months. Pro-abstinence folks conveniently neglect the portion of the study that followed the same students through their early sexual activities and found they were less likely to use birth control and thus more likely to put themselves at risk for STDs and unwanted pregnancies. What's more, the study concluded that as the number of virginity pledgers grows — roughly 2.5 million have already signed on — the practice could become too popular and teens could jettison their pledge cards like so many of yesterday's fashion fads. "Pledging works because it embeds kids in a community and makes them feel different," says author Bearman. "If they don't feel different anymore, or if they start pledging because people tell them to, it won't carry the same kind of power and might have deleterious consequences."

Still unknown are the long term effects of pledges — whether, as proponents insist, they will lead to happier, healthier marriages. Bearman is currently at work on a follow-up tracking the same students into their twenties. But judging by an informal survey, some pledgers may have a rough road ahead. Been, for one, whose website lists his favorite hobby as dating and favorite comfort item as his waterbed, has run into romantic troubles of late. "Survivor kind of killed my dating life," he says. Perhaps it was all that talk of abstaining.