Politics & Policy

No Accounting for Chaste

Why abstinence efforts have yet to make it to first base.

The case is closed! “Abstinence classes don’t work.” newspapers this weekend declared. Not so fast. Had anyone not in Planned Parenthood’s thrall analyzed the report, they would have discovered something far more important: If the data is to be believed, sex education doesn’t work. 

Buried in the Associated Press account of the federally funded report by Mathematica Policy Research, which analyzed only four out of the hundreds of abstinence-only programs, is this striking observation from Chris Trenholm, who oversaw the study:“I really do think it’s a two-part story. First, there is no evidence that the programs increased the rate of sexual abstinence. However, the second part of the story that I think is equally important is that we find no evidence that the programs increased the rate of unprotected sex.”

To understand what a dramatic statement that is, one has only to read the press releases that sex-ed advocates have issued in their relentless effort to defund abstinence-only education programs. They insist, as Planned Parenthood does on its website, that “[i]t is known…that when they do become sexually active, teens who received abstinence-only education often fail to use condoms or other contraceptives.”

Although it went unreported, Friday’s news casts doubt on this sweeping conclusion. In the Mathematica study, two groups of students were analyzed: One group took abstinence-only classes, while the control group had access to a varied array of sex-ed programs.

While the report doesn’t detail the type of sex education the control group received, it makes it clear that they did receive some type of sex education. That the control group would then prove to be no more diligent in condom usage (or any other type of contraception, according to the study) than those uninstructed in prophylactics has serious implications for sex-ed advocates.

While Bush administration officials cautioned against generalizing from the study’s small sample of programs, Harry Wilson, commissioner of the Administration for Children and Families’ Family and Youth Services Bureau, admitted that the report highlighted a weakness in abstinence education.

 “You can’t expect one dose [of abstinence ed] in middle school, or a small dose, to be protective all throughout the youth’s high school career,” Wilson told the AP.

One need hardly add that any “dose” of such teachings is a drop in the bucket next to to the flood of hypersexualized messages that assault youths via the media, peers, and family members who treat sex as little more than a commodity.

To prepare for marriage and family life, students need to learn not only abstinence, but chastity.

Abstinence is ultimately a negative, because it focuses on avoidance. Chastity is positive, because it focuses upon personal growth. It requires learning to view others as unique individuals, rather than commodities. The character qualities it develops — including patience, temperance, and selflessness — are essential for a lasting marriage. For that reason, the married who follow the ideals of chastity, even though they have sex, may still be called “chaste.”

Due to its religious connotation, chastity is a forbidden topic in many public schools. That’s a shame, because chastity, taught and encouraged in church environments, could protect youths’ bodies and hearts far better than anything taught in public schools.

Christian abstinence programs such as Silver Ring Thing have encouraged millions of teens to hold onto their virginity, but many such initiatives do precious little to win back those who slip. Once teens are no longer able to wear their silver ring, the best they can hope for, in the terminology of many such programs, is “secondary virginity” — a term that makes one feel rather like a used car. It sounds like “second-string,” and nobody wants to be a second-string anything.

But while such abstinence advocates may throw extra adjectives at no-longer-virgins, the wider culture is only too happy to embrace those who have discovered premarital sex. For many youths, the choice between re-entering a virginity culture that no longer fully embraces them or delving deeper into a lifestyle promoted by the culture at large is not really a choice at all.

Teenagers need to be told that loss of virginity need not mean a permanent descent into a life of premarital sex. Churches can help by sponsoring activities for teens and young adults that enable them to get to know one another without the fishbowl-like pressure of singles events, and by tutoring them in building intimacy through means other than sex.

We can’t all be virgins. But we can all be chaste.

 – Dawn Eden is author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On.

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