Message of `abstain' isn't enough

October 09, 2001|By Susan Reimer

WHEN I WAS a teen-ager, the prevailing wisdom among boys was that there were two sure-fire ways to meet girls: join the class play or the church youth group.

We knew what the boys were thinking, and I confess I spent more time in front of the mirror before youth ministry meetings than I did before school. The advantage of these venues was that they satisfied the ferocious need of teens to be together and talk, but they were parent-approved.

This is still true today, but the painful irony is that some churches and some parents can't get together on the one issue that is as important to both now as it was then: preventing teen-agers from having sex and getting pregnant.

The divide between those who consider teen sex a moral issue ("Abstain!") and those who consider it a public health issue ("Protect yourself!") appears as unbridgeable as ever.

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy has sought since its 1996 inception to find a middle ground between these two camps. It recently released a survey in which teens say morals, values and religion play more of a role - by far - than fear of AIDS and pregnancy in their decision to delay sexual activity.

This should not be a surprise. These teens are the children of adults who almost universally identify themselves as "religious" or "spiritual" when surveyed.

"Teens, like adults, make decisions about their sexual behavior based in part on their values about what is right and wrong, what is proper and what is not," the report says.

But the bad news is this: The survey showed that those who postpone sexual activity for religious or moral reasons are less likely to use contraceptives when they begin.

What's the message here? The message may be that fear of God alone doesn't keep kids from having sex. It may be that the powerful religious admonitions against sex outside of marriage do not leave young people with enough moral wiggle room to protect themselves if or when they fall from grace.

This is the religious version of the deluded teen-speak that so often results in pregnancy: "If I take steps to protect myself, that means I was planning to have sex, and I am not planning to have sex because I am not that kind of person."

The survey released by the National Campaign also shows that religious leaders have almost no influence on teens in matters of sex (parents continue to hold the overwhelming lead in this area). And parents and teens don't see churches doing enough to prevent teen pregnancy.

The bottom line is, whether teen-age pregnancy is a black mark on the soul or a family crisis or a public health statistic, churches aren't playing the role they want to play in this drama.

I attended those youth ministry meetings "religiously" as a teen. I believed, and I believed I was devout. But I was a serious boy-watcher, and cute guys from a neighboring high school were guaranteed to be there. Youth group was as good as a Friday night football game for flirting.

My senior year, the Rev. Keith Brown, our very youthful youth leader, announced that he was planning a couple of sermon-ettes about sex. Make sure it's OK with your parents, he said, and be here on Wednesday nights for the next two weeks.

The tiny church outbuilding was packed the next week as Brown explained the mechanics of sex and birth control to the teens. The second week, he talked about why we should wait to have sex until we were married. "Because God asks you to," was his answer.

Unfortunately, I was at home with the flu and a raging fever for the first lecture (it took me years to catch up), and all I heard was the second.

It is like that for a lot of teens today, too. The church is only giving teens half the message they need to hear.

The church tells them to wait because God asks them to wait. But the church must also tell them what to do if they can't wait.

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