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American students learn to say 'no' to premarital sex
( 2003-09-18 10:02) (HK Edition)

It's the world of teenage sexual abstinence, a choice championed by the reigning Miss America Britney Spears (following her confessions about the true nature of her relationship with Justin Timberlake), where some 500 girls and boys are in a church hall to spend a few hours talking about sex.

Then, they are going to declare in front of total strangers that they will swear not to have sex until they are married.

"I just want to wait until I meet the right person," says 16-year-old Lindsey Bocheck.

In an age obsessed with sex, they appear to inhabit a different universe where intercourse turns relationships stale and leads to break-ups and where condoms don't work.

Anyone who does have sex is seen as weak and sorry to have done so.

"You don't realize what you are doing until everything has changed," says 16-year-old John Wagster, peering through glasses as he explains his decision to remain a virgin. "It's like eating Pringles. Once you start, you can't stop."

However, the growing desire to remain a virgin has alarmed organizations such as Planned Parenthood, and those who support sex education in schools.

In a country where the teenage pregnancy rate is rather high, 35 per cent of school districts have replaced sex education with classes that focus on why not to have sex.

During the last few years Planned Parenthood itself has been forced to mention abstinence as a strategy for avoiding pregnancy and disease.

For organizations such as the Silver Ring Thing, which hosts the church event, it is the only way.

It claims to have persuaded 14,000 young people since 1995 to remain virgins until the day they wed.

The Silver Ring Thing's premise is simple. In a confusing world of choice it says stay pure or suffer from emotional and physical health problems.

But people don't think such schemes will work. Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood, advocates a more reasoned approach to family planning rather than abstinence-only programmes.

It is impossible to dismiss abstinence movements outright though.

While it is highly unlikely that the teenagers took part in the church ceremony in Pennsylvania will stay virgins until they marry, they will keep the faith for an average of one to two years, according to a 2001 study in the American Journal of Sociology.

Peter Bearman, co-author of the study and professor at Columbia University, says: "For kids who took the pledge, the age when they first had sex was 18 months after they otherwise would have."

But for Feldt and others, the implications are clear. The focus on abstinence is little more than a return to the dark ages.

"It is frightening," she says. "It is back to the 1950s - only it's even worse now because in the 1950s they didn't talk about it at all."

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