Glenn McCown is a Baltimore eighth-grader who is keenly aware of the pressure on students his age to have sex.
"Your friends pump you up to lose what you have," said McCown, a student at Southeast Middle School. "They say, 'Go ahead, it doesn't hurt.' Especially if you're a virgin.
"Then, when you do lose it, you realize you should have kept it."
He is convinced that, at his stage in life, "the best sex is no sex."
That view got some powerful support yesterday from a pair of high school students who spoke to McCown's health class about teen-age sexuality and the value of abstinence.
Their appearance was the first of five sessions in a unique peer-counseling pilot program, intended to encourage sexual abstinence among young teen-agers.
The idea is simple: Students are more likely to listen to fellow students on the subject of sexual abstinence than to a teacher -- or to their parents.
So, over the next few months, carefully screened pairs of high school students will visit six middle schools around the city, talking to younger students about sexuality.
Those discussions will include the role that peer pressure plays in sexual activity, the importance of abstinence for teen-agers and the consequences of early sexual activity.
The sessions will be followed up by a survey intended to gauge knowledge and behavior before and after the counseling sessions.
The program also will include related material presented in sessions with the health teacher and separate sessions for parents. Students whose parents object to their participation can opt to have them not included in the program.
Approved by the school board last November, the $52,000 program was inspired by a successful peer-counseling program used in Atlanta since 1983.
"It's the only program I know of that's successfully promoted abstinence," said John Santelli, director of school and adolescent health services for the city Health Department.
Abstinence is notoriously difficult to encourage among teen-agers, he noted.
"They don't listen to adults on the issue," Santelli said. "They're more likely to listen to their 'colleagues.' "
The need for such a program could hardly be greater.
From 1982 to 1986, the number of women between the ages of 15 and 19 who had had sex at least once increased to 53.2 percent from 47.1 percent, Santelli said. "Nationally, the age of first intercourse is continuing to decline," he said.
And Baltimore has one of the highest proportions of teen-age births in the country -- 22.9 percent in 1987, compared with a national average of 12.4 percent, Santelli said.
Meanwhile, young people are bombarded by cultural messages that seem to encourage early sexual activity, said Sara Mullin, whose health class at Southeast Middle School is hosting two high school peer counselors.
"It's an issue with them, with the songs, with the media, with the movies they watch," she said.
Though the students may have important questions about sexuality, "they're not going to ask me, and they're not going to ask their parents."
William Brooks, a senior at Walbrook Senior High School and one of the counselors at Southeast Middle School yesterday, said teen-agers can get the abstinence message across to their peers.
"Most eighth-graders, people under 17, can't really go and talk to their parents, but they can talk to their best friends," Brooks said.
"When they come to somebody who's younger, they find it's easier to talk," said Gwendolyn Johnson, a senior at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School and the other member of the team.
The eighth-graders themselves give the new program high marks.
Said Monique Dashields, another eighth-grader, of the high school visitors: "They're a big influence on us. They're still in school."