Can teens be taught to keep virginity? U.S. programs show that many will

January 16, 1994|By New York Times News Service

SAN DIEGO -- Lori Brown, 14, is practicing how to say no to sex, learning strategies to save her virginity.

Her instructor is Dajahn Blevins, a health educator from the Urban League in San Diego, who plays the role of the girl's would-be seducer and tests her with the crude patois of the street and the sweet promises of a fairy tale.

NTC Mr. Blevins tells Lori that she's the only girl at Roosevelt Junior High School who is not "hooking up." He says it's time to "take your panties off" or be dumped for someone who will.

She looks him straight in the eye and says, "No," just as she was taught, without excuse or explanation.

Still, he badgers her, saying she must be stuck up or scared. Then he whispers that he wants her so badly that he will do anything: beg, crawl, buy her expensive gifts.

But Lori is steadfast. "Stop pressuring me," she says. "I'm not into that now. I'm into education."

Lori is one of a growing number of teen-agers around the country, 180,000 of them here in California, who are learning the rewards of postponing sex.

In classrooms, community centers and church basements, these young people, often in the impressionable junior high school years, are being encouraged to resist the messages of rap lyrics and the bullying of their peers and to prepare for success rather than settle for pregnancy and poverty.

These programs, which emphasize abstinence rather than contraception, were scoffed at until recently by most family planning experts, who assumed that teen-agers were going to have sex whether adults liked it or not so the grown-ups should stop preaching and pass out condoms.

In fact, the model for the California program, devised at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, showed impressive results nearly a decade ago, but drew hardly a ripple of interest from elsewhere in the nation until recently.

"The pendulum is finally swinging," said Jacqueline Jackson, the director of education at the San Diego Urban League, one of 28 community organizations teaching the California abstinence curriculum. "It's been on the other side for so long and led to the destruction of so many young people."

California's three-year, $5 million initiative, now in its second year, is one of several examples, both secular and religious, of this trend, which experts say is inspired in large measure by AIDS and the epidemic of teen-age pregnancy.

In Maryland, for instance, posters along highways and on buses say, "Abstinence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder," and billboards trumpet that virgin is "Not a Dirty Word."

State officials say that the messages, part of a $5 million advertising campaign, are responsible for reducing teen-age pregnancy by more than 10 percent in two years.

Religious groups as well, spearheaded by the Southern Baptist Convention, say they are reaching huge new audiences, albeit with a different approach, with entreaties about reserving sex for marriage.

The Baptist campaign, called "True Love Waits," will culminate with a rally in Washington this summer, when hundreds of thousands of teen-agers of many denominations are expected to pledge their purity and listen to Christian rap artists, like DC Talk, whose lyrics urge young people to "wait for the mate that's straight from God" while better-known rappers populate their songs with "bitches" and "whores."

At the same time, characters who are virgins and proud of it are showing up on popular television shows such as "Beverly Hills 90210" and "L.A. Law."

And a group of professional athletes, led by the basketball player A. C. Green of the Phoenix Suns, are boasting of their virginity and touring high schools with an abstinence video.

Some young people are joining virgin clubs, like the Abstinence Girls at Baltimore's Southern High School, to meet like-minded friends.

The new interest in chastity is "part of a broader cultural shift," said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a New York City research group that studies families and children. "There is now a widespread, gnawing fear about the environment our children live in regarding sexual behavior," he said.

Each year, more than 1 million teen-agers -- one in nine girls ages 15 to 19 -- become pregnant. According to experts who evaluate programs intended to curb sexual activity by adolescents, the most effective efforts are those that combine sex education and the distribution of condoms with lessons in how to resist social and peer pressure.

One of the earliest and most successful of those was begun by Marion Howard, a professor of gynecology at Emory University in Atlanta who is director of a clinic for teen-agers at Grady Memorial Hospital.

In the mid-1970s, Dr. Howard and her colleagues began teaching junior high school students in the Atlanta public schools about birth control, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, without having an effect on their level of sexual activity or use of contraception.

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