- The Washington Times - Monday, July 22, 2002

A decade ago, more than half of high school teens had sexual intercourse while they were in high school.
Now, according to new federal data, it appears that the tables have turned, and virginal teens outnumber the sexually active ones.
While some people are quick to say abstinence education has been the pivotal factor, others say that teens are simply responding to a bombardment of "please just wait" messages.
The data was released late last month in the 2001 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS) report, which asked 13,601 teens about such things as substance use, sexual behavior and physical activity.
In 1990, the YRBSS found that 54.3 percent of teens in grades 9-12 had had sexual intercourse.
By 2001, however, 54.4 percent of high schoolers said they had not had sex.
The turning point occurred in the mid-1990s, right around the time the federal government started funding abstinence programs teaching teens to save sex for marriage, said Peter Brandt of Focus on the Family, a traditional values group in Colorado Springs, Colo.
"There is no doubt that kids are responding to an unambiguous abstinence message," he said. "The federal Title V abstinence program is having a tremendous impact."
"The only thing that changed in that time frame is the amount of talk and programming for abstinence until marriage," added LeAnna Benn, director of the Teen-Aid abstinence program in Spokane, Wash., and advisory board member of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, which today begins its national conference in Washington.
William Smith, director of public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, sees a broader explanation for declining teen sexual activity rates.
"I think that it coincides with the overwhelming number of young people who are reporting that they are getting HIV/AIDS education," he said, noting that virtually 90 percent of high school students say they are learning about AIDS, according to the 1999 and 2001 YRBSS reports.
"Sex is natural, healthy and great, but it's also serious business, and I think some of the HIV/AIDS education out there are underscoring that [teens] don't have to have sex, that it's important for young people to delay sexual activity until they're ready for it, emotionally or otherwise," said Mr. Smith.
The YRBSS, conducted every two years by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been one of two primary vehicles to track teen sexual behavior, said Kristin A. Moore, president of Child Trends Inc.
The National Survey of Family Growth is the other vehicle, she said. The most recent NSFG, however, was in 1995, and the next one due in a year or so is eagerly anticipated because it will include teens who are not in school, she said.
While the YRBSS data show an important change in teen sexual activity, "I don't think it's strong enough to be a U-turn," said Ms. Moore.
"It's trending down," she said, "but even with improvements, we have a lot of kids who are having risky sex." It even appears that there could be two very different groups of teens "some of whom are committed to abstinence to marriage and some of whom are really quite sexually active," she added.
Abstinence education is up for debate with other welfare issues in Congress this year.
In 1996 Congress created the Title V $50 million-a-year program for abstinence-only education programs as part of the welfare law. A House bill renews the Title V program; a Senate Finance Committee bill also renews it but adds a second, $50 million-a-year program for "abstinence-first" programs.
Abstinence-first programs encourage teens to abstain from sex but also teaches them how to prevent pregnancy and disease should they decide to have sex. Proponents say this is what parents and teens want.
However, abstinence-only supporters say this is just the same old sex education that led to increases in teen pregnancy and disease. "They all say wait until you get your condoms," said Mrs. Benn.

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