At 7:45 on a Wednesday morning, five teenage girls are relaxing in a sunlit lounge at Charlestown High School, talking about classes, jobs, and boyfriends. As they pour glasses of orange juice and spread cream cheese on bagels, school nurse Esther Splaine asks casually, "Any slip-ups since our last meeting?" Translation: Did any of you have sex with your boyfriend? The girls shake their heads in a victorious "no."
In any other setting, that deeply personal question might provoke a defensive "none-of-your-business" response.
But avoiding sex is precisely what has brought students to this unusual weekly gathering, an abstinence support group called Girls Against Premarital Sex.
"I tell my boyfriend, 'I can't have sex with you because I'm in the group,'" explains Tacha, a sophomore who, like the others, does not want her real name used. She adds, "Sex is not the most important thing in a relationship."
That perspective lies at the heart of the messages Mrs. Splaine conveys. Instead of preaching about "safe sex," she urges members to "save sex" until later, preferably until marriage. She also reminds them of the group's rules: Never be alone with a boy. Go to church or temple every week. Attend a church or temple youth group weekly.
Every year, 12 million American teenagers are sexually active. Nearly 1 million teens become pregnant, and 3 million contract a sexually transmitted disease. Only through abstinence, Splaine and a growing number of educators argue, will teenagers avoid these and other problems related to too-early sex.
Splaine, an energetic and outspoken mother of five, founded the group last year to counterbalance traditional sex education classes in the school that cover both contraception and abstinence. Participants receive 1-1/2 academic credits.
"The problem I have with sex ed is that there is one sentence on abstinence and 10 sentences on how to use a condom," she explains.
Yet as messages like hers increase, they are heightening tension between those who promote abstinence and those who advocate teaching about contraception. "Every new generation needs education and access to reproductive health care," says Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America in New York.
"One of the things we need to do desperately is be honest with young people," adds Debra Haffner, president of Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States in New York. "In the same way that we have to support the virgins in America's classrooms, we need to help young people who are sexually active, whether adults like it or not."
Also stirring controversy is a provision of the Welfare Reform Act. Known as Title V, it allocates $50 million a year for five years to programs that emphasize abstinence until marriage, with no mention of contraception. Already two states, California and New Hampshire, have returned their federal grants, refusing to participate.
Changes in sex ed
Opponents claim that the funding, combined with a broader abstinence movement, is changing the content of sex education programs in some communities.
"In the last couple years we've seen a huge increase in the number of public schools that are restricting the amount and type of information teachers can provide in the classroom," says Debra Hauser, vice president of Advocates for Youth in Washington. Ms. Hauser emphasizes that her group approves of helping young people remain abstinent. But, she adds, "We also believe strongly in providing information about contraception. The majority of people will eventually become sexually active and need information about contraception and its use, about relationships, and how to make a good choice for the circumstances they're in."
But even good information is not always enough, according to abstinence-education supporters. "A lot of times condoms don't protect against disease," says Wanda Boyenga, director of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse in Sioux Falls, S.D. Noting that it's often hard to get teenagers even to take out the garbage consistently, she asks, "What makes us think they'll use a condom consistently every time?"
Splaine sees other problems. "When teens start getting sexually active, they think they're grown up to some degree," she says. "They start acting out at home."
She also objects to the practice in some school-based teen health centers of giving teenagers birth control without parents' knowledge. "Mom doesn't know. Now you've introduced secrets. You've made the boyfriend very powerful. Then within a year, two years tops, these girls are often pregnant.... The girl can go to any teen health center in Boston and be referred to a medical center for an abortion."
Less obvious but still devastating for many teens, abstinence supporters say, is the emotional fallout from early sexual relations. "Condoms don't protect the heart," observes Ms. Boyenga.
Kathleen Sullivan, director of Project Reality in Golf, Ill., a state-funded abstinence-only education program, explains that young teenage girls are generally more mature than boys, and relationships seldom last. "The girls usually break them off and move on to older guys," Ms. Sullivan says. "These young boys hurt just as much as the girls, but they internalize it. It's shown in 'machoism,' in a defensive 'I-don't-care' attitude."
Sullivan and others are beginning to ask if some of these negative experiences might play out later as sexual harassment in the workplace or even domestic violence. She says, "We need research into how many of these adult problems may have been rooted in very early sexual involvement and rejection."
She is also looking for possible links between early sexuality and teen suicide. Noting that many more boys than girls commit suicide, Sullivan says, "It appears that a tremendous number of those take place after a broken sexual relationship."
As one way of encouraging abstinence, her group is launching what she calls a "massive" advertising campaign, complete with bus ads and videos. A poster urges young people: "Avoid the pain. Abstain."
Teens, Boyenga finds, are "very open" to messages like this. "They really want some kind of boundaries established."
Empowering young women
Splaine, ever the realist, cushions her directness with empathy. When Fara, a sophomore, tells the group that she broke up with a previous boyfriend because he always wanted to know where she was ("It's like he was my father"), Splaine says, "Those feelings are like your sensors. They're valid concerns."
No one here pretends that maintaining high standards is easy. But Fara speaks for others when she says that her weekly attendance "helps a lot." She adds, "It gives me more strength to say no to my boyfriend."
Comments like that encourage Splaine, who urges girls to say, "'I'm going to take the energy I would put into a sexual relationship and channel that toward sports, grades, developing better friendships with my girlfriends.'" She adds, "I tell them, 'When you practice abstinence and self-control, the likelihood of getting sidetracked is so much less. The likelihood of reaching your dreams is so much greater.'"
FOR MORE INFO:
National Abstinence Clearinghouse
Planned Parenthood Federation of America
Advocates for Youth
Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States