- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 3, 2002

Brooke Arnold wears several stylish silver rings on her slim hands. There is one piece of jewelry of which she is especially proud. It is the one with the subtle inscription, "True Love Waits."

"I got it freshman year," says Brooke, a 17-year-old senior at Centreville High School. "I wear it every day."

The inscription reminds Brooke of her commitment to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. She is among an estimated 3 million teen-agers who have signed pledge cards since national campaigns such as True Love Waits (sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention) began in 1993. There are other pledge organizations some religious-based, some secular but True Love Waits remains the largest.

Vows of virginity are not easy in 2002, Brooke says. Some of her peers at Centreville Baptist Church agree. Teen queens such as Britney Spears wear push-up bras to sell Pepsi. Turn on the TV set, and girls with pants cut down to there are gyrating on MTV and having sex on "Dawson's Creek."

In real life, sex is all around, too. The same fashions are in the halls of schools nationwide, where teens talk about who got drunk at what party, who left with whom and what happened later.

"It is easy to remain committed in church," says Danielle Varughese, also a 17-year-old senior at Centreville. "It is harder in the real world. Sex has become so casual. People say, 'whatever'; it is no big thing, and that makes it tougher to remain faithful to the pledge."

Says Brooke: "God never said it was going to be easy."

The teens say upholding their values has become more difficult as they have grown older. When they first signed pledge cards three years ago, it was hard to imagine dates and parties and the complicated social maze of a public high school.

"I didn't even know what a guy was at 13," Danielle says.

Still, both girls say they will proudly sign pledge cards again later this month, when True Love Waits has its national signing campaign in conjunction with Valentine's Day.

Jeremy Minor, 17, and Matt Spainhour, 16, both high school juniors involved with the youth ministry at Centreville Baptist, say they intend to reaffirm their commitment as well. Matt and Jeremy both say they are upfront about their values when they get to know someone.

"You have got to draw the line," Matt says. "Pledging to remain abstinent is a covenant with God. If I wait, he is going to bless that and make it 10 times better."

"Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my friends, my future mate, and my future children, to be sexually abstinent from this day until I enter a biblical marriage relationship." Text of the True Love Waits pledge card.

Signing a pledge is empowering rather than limiting for many teens, says Jimmy Hester, national coordinator for True Love Waits. They are making their own decision to remain abstinent, he says. The card does not use the word "virgin" because he wants the idea of waiting until marriage to appeal even to those who already have had sex.

"We did that on purpose to not exclude kids who have already been sexually active," Mr. Hester says. "They can stop doing what they have been doing and sign the pledge."

Teen-agers who do sign are accountable just to themselves, he adds. There is, of course, no penalty for breaking the vow. It is an exercise in self-control, he says.

"There is nothing magic about the card," Mr. Hester says. "It is what you choose to do after you sign it that counts."

One recent study showed that signing a pledge has some impact on teens. Columbia University sociologist Peter Bearman interviewed 20,000 teen-agers as part of his research for the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which was published in 2000.

Mr. Bearman found that teens who took abstinence pledges waited significantly longer to have sex for the first time than their peers who did not pledge. On average, pledging teens waited about 18 months longer.

Pledging was found to have the greatest impact on teens ages 14 to 16 and little impact on teens 16 to 18, he says. By the time the pledging teens were 17 years old, 65 percent of the them were still virgins, while only half of the non-pledgers remained abstinent.

"What makes a difference is that kids feel they are doing something special," Mr. Bearman says. "By pledging, they have an important sense of community and identity."

However, the study also noted that teens who broke the promise were much less likely to use contraception, he says.

"To be contraceptively prepared is to have gone through the psychological process of thinking about it and getting it," Mr. Bearman says. "It is difficult to have two contradictory ideas."

Mr. Bearman says his research eventually will look at what happens to the teens who pledge as they become young adults. Pledging to remain abstinent until marriage is a lot easier at 15, for instance, than it is at 21, he says.

"The average age for marriage is 25 [for women] and 27 [for men]," he says. "That is a very long window of time."

The Centreville Baptist teens say they have not thought that far ahead. They have thoughts about college, though. Both Brooke and Danielle plan to attend large state schools, where they know their values will become even tougher to uphold.

"It definitely will get harder with no parents around and fewer restrictions," Brooke says, "but I intend to follow through. You have to pick someone with the same values. What if you don't and you fall in love?"

The right forum?

Surgeon General David Satcher received a torrent of criticism last summer when he said education programs that promote abstinence do not work. That was in conflict with the federal government, which gave more than $100 million last year for school educators to teach abstinence rather than encourage the use of contraception.

"The abstinence-only approach is not realistic," says Deborah Roffman, a Baltimore sexuality educator and the author of the book "Sex and Sensibility: The Thinking Parent's Guide to Talking About Sex." "Fifty percent of kids have already had intercourse. There is abso-lutely nothing wrong with a strong abstinence message, but [to say it is the only option] is culturally inappropriate because of the kind of environment we are raising our children in."

Richard Panzer, founder of Free Teens, an abstinence education and pledge group funded by the state of New Jersey, says the message works if presented the right way.

"We work with the public schools to teach there are a lot of practical reasons to not have sex," Mr. Panzer says. "It is not just the medical side. Our main focus is asking about future goals. Once they have that in place, we talk about relationship intelligence. For kids, that is not always so obvious. We are big on the issue that every child should have two committed parents.

"We need to talk about the benefits," he says. "If we just talk about abstinence to avoid pregnancy, that is not enough for some kids."

Everyone is not doing it

Whether presented through church or state, the fact that abstinence is being shown as an option at all indicates how things are changing, says Bill Albert, spokesman for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a private nonprofit agency.

"These groups have put virginity back on the map," he says. "Too many of us believed that teens are going to have sex no matter what, so we should just get over it, but the tide has turned."

Mr. Albert's group estimates that about 50 percent of teens in grades 9 through 12 have had intercourse. Among 12th-graders, he says, the number shoots to 60 percent.

"Some teens assume everyone is having sex," Mr. Albert says. "That is simply not true. Abstinence programs help teens understand that if they are abstinent, then others are doing that, too."

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy recently conducted a survey of 1,011 adults and 500 teens. The teens said morals and religious beliefs were overwhelmingly the most important factor in deciding whether to have sex. Nearly 50 percent of the teens said that parents had the most influence when it came to decisions about sex.

Answers like that are pretty much in line with the thinking of Matt, Jeremy, Brooke and Danielle, who say that support from their parents, church community and like-minded teens is crucial.

"Without my mother's encouragement, it would be so much harder," Brooke says.

Brooke's mother, Wanda Arnold, says, "I'm very proud of my daughter. Each time she has signed the pledge card, I have seen the maturation at different levels. It gives you great confidence. The decision has been made. You may get into a situation, but the decision has been made not to do it. These kids have complete lives. They are not just sitting home. They have made some hard choices."

Things are sure to get tougher as Brooke gets older. She says she is committed for the long run.

"I take the pledge to mean to stay sexually pure," she says. "I can kiss, but there is no need for all the rest of it. When I accepted Jesus, I signed on to do what he asked of me. The Scripture says to wait until I am in a biblical marriage, and that is what I am going to do."

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