Taking The Pledge

<B>Ed Bradley</B> Reports On Abstinence-Only Programs For Teens

Not only are kids who take virginity pledges just as likely to have sexually transmitted diseases as kids who don't, but they are even more likely to engage in high-risk sexual behavior. This finding - something that really surprised Bearman -- appeared two months ago in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

"Adolescents who take virginity pledges – who remain virgins, that is, who don't have vaginal sex, who technically remain virgins, are much more likely to have oral and anal sex," says Bearman.

"They're not thinking they're having sex?" asks Bradley.

"Well, if they are trying to preserve their virginity, their technical virginity by having oral or anal sex, then obviously they're defining these behaviors as not sex," says Bearman.

"So they're probably less likely to get tested for a sexually transmitted disease?" asks Bradley.

"They're much less likely to get tested for a sexually transmitted disease. They've taken a public pledge to remain a virgin until marriage. The sex that they have is much more likely to be hidden," says Bearman. "It's likely to be hidden from their parents. It's likely to be hidden from their peers. And if they live in a small community, it's quite likely to be hidden from their doctor."

But for Pattyn, the abstinence pledge isn't just about preventing disease. How important is faith in what he does now? "It's absolutely critical," says Pattyn, "because teenagers themselves tell us how important religious values are in making decisions of this magnitude."

"There's a group of people who are using abstinence as a vehicle, pretending to be concerned about public health," says Bearman. "But it's really a vehicle to advance a program, a cultural program that doesn't help public health."

"But if you've got kids who're saying, 'I'm going to abstain. I'm not gonna have sex.' So they're not going to get pregnant. They're not going to have a sexually transmitted disease. Isn't that improving public health?" asks Bradley.

"Well, it would if they didn't have sex," says Bearman. "But they do eventually have sex, and then they have unprotected sex, and that doesn't protect you."

Based on those interviews with more than 20,000 young people who took virginity pledges, Bearman found that 88 percent of them broke their pledge and had sex before marriage.

But the White House isn't relying only on virginity pledge programs to get the message across. Its main focus is the nation's schools.

Claude Allen is President Bush's domestic policy adviser and point man on abstinence-only education.

"The message is very important, not just for the Bush administration, but for the country. Parents are concerned about what's happening to their kids," says Allen. "Young people in this country are contracting sexually transmitted diseases at an alarming rate. And therefore it is a high priority for the administration as well for American families."

"What's wrong with telling kids, 'You should be abstinent, abstain from sex. But if you are going to be sexually active, use a condom'?" asks Bradley.

"In the case of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, the only 100 percent prevention message is to abstain," says Allen.

"So you're saying if you say, 'Abstain, but if you do have sex, use a condom,' that that's sending a mixed message to kids?" asks Bradley.

"Well, certainly it sends a mixed message, and I believe what you need to look at is that first of all, kids are most protected in an environment where they're getting clear messages from the adults in their lives," says Allen.

Bearman disagrees: "The message is clear: I care about your health. I care about your safety. Here are the things you need to do to protect yourself. First, don't have sex. Second, if you do, use a condom."

As recently as 1988, just one in 50 junior and senior high schools taught abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Today, those programs are in about one-third of schools in the United States, reaching some eight million students.

At Union Grove High School in McDonough, Ga., kids get the abstinence message from a curriculum called Choosing The Best, whose publisher has been awarded $4 million in federal assistance. Today's lesson: Condoms often fail.

What teachers like Laurie Sponsler can't do, if they follow the curricula, is tell students that when condoms are used correctly, they are nearly always effective. And if a student asks how to use a condom, Sponsler's not supposed to tell.

But condoms are not an issue right now for Amy and Rick. They say that so far they've been able to keep the virginity pledge they took three months ago.

Is there any temptation?

"Definitely, there is," says Amy.

"There is temptation, but this ring helps you out a lot," says Rick.

"But are you aware that 88 percent of people who take the pledge [end up breaking the pledge]?" asks Bradley.

"But the pledge still works because you still have that small percentage that do keep their commitment, and that do want to keep the promise and save sex until marriage," says Amy. "And if you have a small percentage, it's better than nothing."

"Right," says Bradley. "But if most of the people who take it break it, then it doesn't work."

"It's working for us," says Amy.