Teens who favor sexual abstinence speak out in hope of reaching peers

November 29, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

With her funky hoop earrings and carefully styled hair, Elizabeth Moss looks just like all the other girls sharing heart-to-heart talks about their boyfriends in the school cafeteria.

She's more likely, however, to be thinking about her grades and her future. On dates, she shrugs off boys who try to seduce her into having casual sex. She's 15 and willing to wait.

"I don't feel pressured. Now it's just a choice," says the bright, outgoing junior at Baltimore's City College, who is active with a group that promotes sexual abstinence in the middle schools.

"I don't go over to anybody's house and turn off the lights. I talk to some boys and say, 'Slow down. You don't want to get AIDS or gonorrhea. Because once you have it, you're not going to get rid of it.' "

At a time of fast-rising rates of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and acquired immune deficiency syndrome, Elizabeth and other high school students across the nation are arguing that chastity makes more sense than promiscuity. Virginity, according to this small but increasingly outspoken contingent, is once again in vogue.

"I've had a boyfriend for 11 months," says Rebecca Severns, a senior at Western High School. "We've decided to wait until we're married."

Even though various studies, nationally and locally, indicate there are fewer teen virgins each year, those who do choose chastity are no longer hiding in embarrassment. Today's celibate youths feel comfortable coming forward to make their private virtue public.

With the help of celebrity role-models, ad campaigns, churches and public health officials, some teen-agers in Maryland have formed "virgin clubs." Others have taken to wearing T-shirts declaring their chastity, urging younger children to abstain and signing formal covenants vowing to remain pure until marriage.

The rebellion, two decades after the "Summer of Love" in San Francisco sparked a revolution in sexual mores, is catching on everywhere from southern churches to city high schools.

Virginity is considered more cool these days even in Baltimore, notorious for one of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the nation and dubbed, in word play on a motto intended to reflect interest in reading, "The City that Breeds."

In an attempt to encourage more youths to consider chastity, or at least greater caution, the Baltimore City Health Department is sponsoring a daylong workshop on sexual abstinence Jan. 26.

Parents, young people, health-care providers and clergy members will be invited to talk frankly about sex and hear Michael A. Carrera, a nationally recognized speaker on adolescent sexuality.

Ministers delighted

Some East Baltimore ministers who protested when the city apparently became the first in the nation to offer the contraceptive Norplant in school health clinics say they're delighted.

Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore (CURE), the group that contended loudly that the plan to offer Norplant appeared "genocidal" because most city school students are black, has long advocated abstinence.

"You'd be surprised. We've contended all along that there is a large number of young people who on their own admission practice abstinence," says the Rev. Gregory Perkins, pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church and a CURE member. "If you treat young people with respect and build their self-esteem, they're quite capable of using moral judgment."

It's the health consequences more than the moral issues involved with adolescent sex that trouble Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city health commissioner.

Sexually transmitted diseases, especially gonorrhea, have become increasingly widespread among adolescents.

Baltimore also still has a teen birth rate that's double the state average, and many of the babies are of low birth weight.

Against that backdrop, Dr. Beilenson wants to reach out to both young children who haven't experimented with sex yet and enlist those who already are sexually active to enter a period of "secondary abstinence."

Tamara Simpson is one of the latter. At age 17, she's learned the hazards of unprotected sex. She's expecting a baby right before Christmas.

"Sex really slows you down. It's just another burden on your back," says Tamara, now at the Laurence Paquin School for pregnant students and young mothers.

Determined to graduate and move on to a career in the medical field, Tamara says she doesn't plan to have sex again any time soon. "I want to finish school. I want to go to college. With sex, it's going to be like, 'I have a headache,' for a long time."

The message of secondary abstinence is important, Dr. Beilenson says, because well over 80 percent of high school students in the city have had sex by graduation.

Boys in Baltimore lose their virginity on average between the ages of 12 and 13, and girls between the ages of 13 and 14, the health commissioner said.

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