- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008

“Have you ever had sexual intercourse?” Yes or no.

That’s the simple question that thousands of high school students are asked every two years in a federal survey called the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS).

The latest answer from 14,000 teens who took the 2007 YRBS came out a few days ago: Fifty-two percent of teens said nope, they have never had sexual intercourse.

What’s newsworthy about this is that this marks 10 years in which the teens abstaining from sex outnumbered the ones not abstaining from sex.

Of course, there’s no talk about a “new sexual norm,” in which most American teens wait until they graduate from high school before they have sex. That might be preposterous for baby boomers who can’t imagine a “Summer of No Love.”

I’m also sure the folks who live and work in communities where teen sex, teen pregnancies and teen births are rampant will find it hard to believe that most teens aren’t doing it.

But let’s step back a little.

The nation has been talking nonstop about teens delaying sex since the 1980s, when the deadly sexually transmitted disease (STD) known as AIDS appeared.

How is it possible that all that delay-your-sex messaging hasn’t paid off?

The definitive turnaround in teen sexual activity showed up in the 1997 YRBS, which is issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

When the YRBS started in 1991, a minority (45.9 percent) of high school students said they hadn’t had sex. But in 1997, the number of abstainers jumped to 51.6 percent.

This is “an important milestone,” Lloyd Kolbe, then-director of the CDC’s division on adolescent health, said at the time. It means that “students who haven’t engaged in sexual intercourse now can say they are in the majority,” he said.

What sparked the turnaround?

When I talked to experts in the late 1990s, they said the welfare debate was making unwed childbearing unpopular again.

AIDS education was another factor: By 1991, the YRBS found, eight-in-10 high school students had learned about AIDS, presumably including guidance on how to abstain from risky sex.

The burgeoning teen abstinence movement was also an influence.

By the 1980s, abstinence pioneers were in full swing. Some had won federal grants from a tiny pro-chastity program promoted in 1981 by Sen. Jeremiah Denton, Alabama Republican. Those early materials flowed into faith-based programs and laid the foundation for today’s major abstinence programs.

In 1987, Elayne Bennett’s “Best Friends” program held its first graduation ceremony for girls, and over the years, countless youth heard abstinence presentations by speakers like Molly Kelly, Lakita Garth and A.C. Green.

A watershed moment occurred in 1994, when more than 200,000 teens signed True Love Waits cards pledging to wait until marriage to have sex. Some 20,000 teens came to Washington, D.C., to plant a sea of pledge cards on the Mall.

Then in 1996, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy debuted with the mission to reduce teen pregnancy by a third within 10 years.

The campaign disseminated truckloads of materials — most of which urged teens (especially young ones) to delay sex — and in 2006, it declared victory and promptly set new goals to reduce both teen and unintended pregnancy.

And finally, American youth cannot help but have been influenced by the national debate that has raged since 1996, when Congress stepped up its funding of abstinence programs. Agree with the funding or not, virtually no one has escaped the arguments over whether abstinence or condoms are best.

I think the new generation will establish its own values and sexual mores, regardless of exhortations from the left or the right. The YRBS shows that most teens agree that sex can wait at least through the 10th grade — and for many of them, it waits until after graduation.

My question is when will we take aim at college-age teens and start talking nonstop about abstinence until 20. With an epidemic of STDs in that population, I think that’s a message that just can’t wait.

— Cheryl Wetzstein’s “On the Family” column appears Tuesday and Sundays. She can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.