Value of Chastity

Abstinence is the best policy

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Alexandra Stevenson raised a lot of eyebrows when she made it all the way to the Wimbledon semifinals. And the 18-year-old almost certainly raised as many eyebrows when she recently revealed in a nationally televised interview that she has never been kissed.

Indeed, it's one thing for a teen-ager to make an overnight transition from a promising high-school tennis player to a serious contender for a Grand Slam tennis title. But to think that she made it all the way through high school without having sex, without having so much as a kiss forget about it.

Well, as it happens, young Alexandra is not such an aberration. In fact, an increasing number of her fellow teens are also practicing chastity. And much of the credit for this must go the growing number of abstinence-only programs that are reaching youngsters throughout the country.

The teen-abstinence movement got a major boost by the 1996 welfare reform law, which included a provision setting aside $250 million over five years for a federal program to discourage teen sex.

The ground rules of the program are to teach younger Americans "the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity" and to caution teens that "sexual activity outside of ... marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."

States can get a share of the federal money by putting up $3 for every $4 they request from Washington. The maximum yearly grant a state may receive is $5.7 million, which the state must match with $4.2 million of its own.

Over the past two years, the states have created nearly 700 new abstinence-only programs, bringing the nationwide total to roughly 1,000. And even the lone state government that has chosen not to participate in the federal program, California, is funding abstinence-only programs out of state coffers.

This represents a radical shift in public policy with respect to teens and sex. For the past quarter-century, at least, the prevailing wisdom has been that the government ought not waste time and tax dollars trying to discourage the underaged from having sex.

The more "realistic" and "sensible" approach, the thinking went, was for the government to bend its efforts to preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases by supporting programs that make condoms and birth control pills more readily available to youngsters.

Well, this "teens-will-be-teens" orthodoxy has not withered away by any stretch of the imagination, but it does face a serious challenge today from the abstinence-only movement. And this challenge has the "sex education" crowd (which teaches chastity as one of several sexual "options" for kids) plenty worried.

And with good cause. The abstinence-only movement is producing desired results. Indeed, since federal funds started flowing to abstinence-only programs in 1997, the number of teen-age pregnancies, abortions and births have fallen. Moreover, the average age at which youngsters have their first sexual experience has risen from 15.8 in 1997 to 16.3 in 1998, according to the Durex Global Survey.

These developments show that the prevailing wisdom about teen sex that kids simply cannot control their raging hormones, that they are bound to have sex is a fallacy. Kids live up or down to expectations.

Indeed, if adults impart the message to teens that they are expected to be sexually active, that it's OK as long as they use a condom or take the pill, then those teens are that much more likely to engage in sexual activity.

On the other hand, if teens get the message that underage, premarital sex is not normative, that adults will not tacitly condone teen promiscuity by providing contraceptives on demand, no questions asked, then youngsters will be less inclined to have sex.

There are millions of responsible teens out there, like Alexandra Stevenson, who are living proof that younger Americans are quite capable of waiting at least until they are adults before becoming sexually active.

They recognize that the best way to avoid unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases is not by practicing so-called "safe sex" by using condoms and birth control pills but by refraining from sex altogether. (Copyright 1999 Newspaper Enterprise Assn. Joseph Perkins is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.)

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