Teens are having more sex--and getting more diseases. But is telling them to wait the answer?
What is sex?
Elizabeth Walters, a nurse midwife and counselor at HiTOPS, recalls the recent visit of a mother and her 12-year-old son. "He was this sweaty soccer-jock type," she says. The mother had noticed that her son was withdrawn and irritable after sleep-away camp. "The mom kept asking questions," says Walters. Finally, as she was ferrying him from practice in the family minivan, he told her what was wrong: He had engaged in anal sex with a girl at camp. "It was all she could do to keep the car on the road," says Walters.
Increasingly, kids are turning to sexual behaviors that were once considered taboo in order to maintain their "technical virginity," says Kushner. They're getting the message that abstinence is the goal--indeed, they're placing a premium on it. More kids are reporting having less sexual intercourse. In 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available, two thirds of graduating seniors, and 50 percent of all high schoolers, reported having engaged in intercourse, down overall from 54 percent of all high schoolers in 1991. But what's becoming clear is that their efforts often amount to a letter rather than spirit-of-the-law approach. Health workers say that kids don't seem to view many sexual behaviors as real sex. For example, some 24 percent of teens consider anal sex abstinent behavior, according to a recent North Carolina State University study. And half of all teens don't consider oral sex sex. "There has been a shift in this idea of what constitutes sex," says Claude Allen, who, as deputy secretary of health and human services, is in charge of the Bush administration's abstinence initiative. "When we ask young people, `Have you engaged in sexual activity?' we often hear, `Well, what do you mean by that?' "
At Promiseland church in Austin, youth pastor Ricky Poe is regularly consulted by his kids in the manner of, say, a revered referee: Is holding hands out of bounds? How about kissing? Nearly 120 of Promiseland's teens took a pledge of abstinence in February, but Poe thought it might be a good idea to have a recommitment ceremony last month. Some of the teens, he felt, were not quite getting the point of the earlier abstinence pledge. "They were beginning to ask if oral sex is sex, things like that." So, like leaders of many pledge groups across the country, Poe has shifted his focus from "abstinence" to "purity." "It's not just about not having intercourse," he told the teens who gathered at the front of the altar on recommitment day. "It's about saying that you're not going to play around."
Poe worries about whether his teens will hear the message and acknowledges that many won't. "We know it's the best proven way to keep the kids safe," Poe says. "But is it realistic? I tell them, `Your youth pastor waited,' " he adds. " `And I wasn't 18--I was 23!' That gets the gasps."
Today, as many as 1 in 6 teens nationwide is estimated to have taken a virginity pledge through rapidly growing programs like True Love Waits. One widely publicized joint study from Columbia and Yale universities had good and bad news for pledgers. The teens in the study who made pledges were found to delay the age of "sexual debut" by an average of 18 months--no small feat. When the kids did have sex, however, they were less likely to use contraception.