Sexually active teens are neither the exclusive product of the ‘90s nor were they invented at Woodstock. But they are more numerous than they were. No one doubts or denies that because the evidence is simply there. Why?
Opportunities are more available because teens are more mobile and parents are away more often. But the main reasons are probably a drastic increase in pressure or at least encouragement to be sexually active—along with a decrease of things that used to give people second thoughts.
For example, it no longer causes a horrendous stir in the neighborhood when a teenage girl gets pregnant. She no longer has to go away for a few months to have her baby.
But if an action becomes easier to do than it used to be, that doesn't mean it's a good choice. If the guardrail that formerly kept most people from the edge of the cliff rusts away, that doesn't make it a good idea to toss a Frisbee there.
Check the Record
The word abstinence simply means choosing not to do, use or have something. You can abstain from anything—eating eggplant, for example. Some people, including myself, eagerly abstain from eggplant.. It's not exactly a difficult choice.
It's also not important. Eating eggplant never made a baby, broke a heart or wrecked any plans for the future. It may upset some people's taste buds, but it doesn't give them a disease. And it doesn't kill.
Sex can. And does—rather regularly these days.
We could take up a lot of space listing statistics about unplanned teen pregnancies, teen abortions, teen single parents and poverty, sexually transmitted diseases including AIDS, and other things associated with wrecked dreams and real unhappiness. But you know the statistics are alarming. By the time you read this, today's statistics will be out of date.
Many teens, including teen couples who have been going together for quite some time, have made a definite decision in favor of abstinence. They're dating but not mating, and they don't intend to change that policy. Their decision often stems from more than just fear of getting a disease or making a baby. They're keenly aware of those possibilities, and that awareness has entered into their decisions. But beyond that they find the idea of saving sex for marriage extremely appealing—difficult, no doubt, but appealing and definitely worth hanging onto.
There are many more teens who would strongly prefer to save sex for marriage. But they just don't see that as very likely or possible "these days." Or they've been persuaded by media, peers or both that it simply isn't normal. Or they foresee that such an attitude would limit their dating and relationship opportunities to a narrow selection of strange and/or uninteresting people.
But those are false fears. Youth Update talked with many "dating but waiting" teens. One major conclusion is this: "Virgin" is definitely not the same as "desperate and dateless." Abstinence is working for these young people. It's not because they can't find anyone to go out with, not because they never have an opportunity to behave otherwise and not because the idea of sex has never crossed their minds.
It's working because they've chosen it, they're convinced it's right and they want the benefits strongly enough to make it work.
Yes, these are all real teenagers; and, with one exception, these are their real names.
Kevin: Open for Discussion
I was on a retreat and this girl, a friend of mine, was talking about how she was looking forward to marrying a guy who was a virgin, but she wasn't very hopeful. Actually, she wasn't very hopeful there would even be any to meet. And I thought, man, what are we doing? It made me think of all the down sides. Not starting out marriage the way you'd like to is just one of them."
Kevin, 18, and the girl he's currently going with strongly believe that the possibility of sex has to be discussed. He admitted that bringing it up immediately might be anywhere from uncomfortable to tacky. "But after a couple months we were such good friends that a conversation like that could happen."
They're aware that the relationship may not last all the way to wedding bells. That's not looking on the dark side; it's a realistic and actually positive way of looking at the purpose of dating (besides having fun).
"But if and when the time to break up does come, there's a lot less pressure. It can come more naturally and easily. If there's been sex, then you'd have to deal with a lot more than just the idea, the mental aspect, of whether or not you should stay together."
Michalle: Wonder but Wait
The two of them "talk about everything, and we talk about all the big things ahead of time," Michalle, 18, said about her relationship with her boyfriend. "We talked about sex within the first month."
Abstinence "seemed like the logical thing—after all, sex is a big risk. But it wasn't just that. We just want to wait until we're married, no matter who we're married to. We don't want a relationship based only on the physical, because then sex will just take over."
Michalle and her boyfriend are heavily into closeness—but not sex. "We're closer because of not having sex," she said. "Not having sexual expectations makes us able to really talk, to really know each other. Even talking about the reasons we have for not having sex opens up lots of other topics, and talking about them reveals things that make us closer than sex would have."
We had been talking on the phone only a few minutes, but I trusted her lively, friendly voice enough to ask a blunt question. I got a laughter-filled, direct response.
"Well, sure we wonder what it would be like! But waiting for marriage is more important to us than finding out. And we know we can't lose because... well, God is behind this."
Spencer: What God Wants
Spencer cites religious motives as his primary reason for deciding in favor of virginity until marriage. He calls himself a nondenominational Christian. “I've attended a lot of churches, and there's a little bit of everything in me" (all 6'3", 225 pounds of him). "I'm convinced that this is what God wants, and nobody is going to come out short by doing what God wants."
He also cites close-at-hand experience—not his own, but that of many friends. "I've listened to too many stories. I've been on the phone till three, four in the morning listening to friends who did it and wished they hadn't. A girl who had been talked into sex for the first time cried in my arms for over an hour later that night. There's just too much pain from it too often."
Spencer has had a lot of opportunities to say, "Told you so," but he doesn't. "A lot of my friends have decided to be sexually active. All but one of them–no kidding--have later told me, `You were right. I shouldn't have done it.'" Instead, he recommends secondary virginity: the decision to save sex "from now on" for marriage, even though one has been sexually active in the past.
If you're figuring that Spencer has only a distant, academic view of sex as it happens among his peers, that's not so. "I've come close, really close, a couple of times to sex, but I'm glad—we're glad--that we didn't. When sex starts happening, it's almost guaranteed that the actual friendship stops growing, and then pretty soon it gets lost, and then all that's left is sex. Sooner or later, it tears the relationship apart."
Alice: Heart Protection
Alice is also making abstinence work—in the form of “secondary virginity.” She had two sexual contacts relatively early in her teen years. She's very blunt, and there's an edge of bitterness in her voice, even though she didn't get pregnant, didn't get a disease and didn't get pressured into sex by her partners.
"I tell my friends, yeah, I know what it's like all right, and I know what it's like later, too. Not worth it, that's what it's like." As for now, "Staying away from sex is the easy part."
"What's the hard part?" I asked.
"Dealing with anger," she answered. "I'm [synonym for "really upset"] at all the people who made sex sound like something I ought to do or had to do, and at myself for believing them."
Alice's anger and regret show the lie of the "safe and responsible sex" message: "No rape, no baby, no disease = no harm done." She's now practicing the only true safe sex, the kind that includes safety for your heart and your feelings.
Derrick: Freedom for Goals
“This way my girlfriend and I get to do more things." Now you know how that could be interpreted. But Derrick, 18, is talking about an abstinent style of dating and relating to his girlfriend. "This way we don't get caught in the should-we-or-shouldn't-we sex trap every time, or any time. It frees up so many more things."
Derrick made this decision in eighth grade after a Sex Respect program at his school "on Saturday, that my parents took me to, and I did not want to go! I thought for sure I'd hate it and totally disagree with it."
Instead he found reasons for abstinence which he made his own.
"I'm not a religious person," he says. "For some people, it's God and the Bible, and I respect that. For me, it's my goals. I want a good job that I've prepared for. I want a wife that I choose when the time comes. And I want kids when I'm ready to take care of them. In the meantime, sex could just ruin every bit of that."
Clare and Adam: True Friends
Clare, 15, and Adam, 16, whom I interviewed together, have been going together for almost three years. Their relationship has been through a lot of things, including adults who thought they were too young when they began going together and peers who thought they were wrong for each other.
They still get occasional static. Now it's from peers who don't understand their decision to remain virgins until marriage, which they're rather seriously planning on.
"Actually, my real friends don't get on my case," Clare said, "because most of them have made the same decision. But sometimes at parties other people will ask if we've done it, and when I say `no,' they're like, `Oh, my God, after all this time! You're nuts.' But it doesn't bother me."
"Are you sure it doesn't?" I asked.
"Real sure. Sometimes I just put it back in their face if they're being obnoxious. Afterwards I actually feel stronger about our decision." Adam may hear less static than some guys would. That might have something to do with the fact that he can bench-press 315 pounds. It probably seems a bit risky to toss sissy names at somebody like that.
"My close friends respect my decision, including friends that are sexually active," he said. "And, sure, as far as sex goes, I want to, but we've just got too much going for us to risk blowing it all, whether that's getting pregnant or just having sex come between us. We're special, and we want to keep it that way."
Decisions: Cheap or Costly
This Youth Update wasn't written to judge teenagers who have made different decisions than those above. Sex can happen between two teenagers who are in love. In that case, it's certainly not cheap.
But that doesn't make it a good decision, either. If sex accompanied each time a couple fell in love (or thought they had), they'd both end up pretty well used by the time of their wedding.
And sometimes teenage sex is mostly a matter of proving something to oneself and/or having a score story and "proof of normalcy" to tell friends. In that case, sex is cheap.
Abstinence avoids a lot of problems-and holds out a marvelous hope for a lasting future. It doesn't require hiding away in a monastery or tuning out the fact that you're male or female. The genuinely happy experience of too many teenagers proves otherwise.
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Jim Auer is a long-time teacher, a much-published author and husband to a wonderful wife as well as father to two great kids now in college.
Michael J. Daley, who was a summer intern at St. Anthony Messenger/St. Anthony Messenger Press, consulted with teenagers Liz Houston, 17, and Mark Smith, also 17, about this edition. Nancy Powell is their youth minister at All Saints Parish in Walton, Kentucky.