- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2005

Last month, leading news media reported (with a bit of smugness) study results showing adolescents who took a pledge of sexual abstinence were almost as likely as those who took no pledges to contract sexually transmitted diseases.

The Washington Post noted the report “sparked an immediate, bitter debate over the wisdom of teaching premarital abstinence.” Bill Smith, vice president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, crowed: “Not only do virginity pledges not work to keep our young people safe, they are causing harm by undermining condom use, contraception and medical treatment.”

A Nexis search of the words “abstinence,” “pledge” and “STDs” brought up 60 hits for the past 90 days, beginning with the Village Voice’s contribution ” … Abstinence” and ranging through the big networks and major newspapers.

Most conveyed the lesson in the headline, such as that of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Abstinence-only programs fail and deceive our kids, says Stacey I. Young.” Dozens of stories touted a related finding that those who pledged to abstain from sex were likelier to engage in anal or oral sex.

Yet the results of a new study showing abstinence programs do reduce sexual behavior get only two hits on Nexis — one a UPI story and the other a PR Newswire item. So much for the idea the media are no longer dominated by liberals.

Now, let’s look at substance. Despite the hyperventilating by Bill Smith and others in the condoms-on-cucumbers school of thought, the study on sexually transmitted diseases actually revealed very little about abstinence-only programs in schools. The report, which looked at data in the federally funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, found only that abstinence pledges were of limited (but not zero) utility. A pledge is not an abstinence program. As for data on risky anal and/or oral sex by so-called abstainers, those too were self-described pledgers, not participants in an abstinence program.

By contrast, the Journal of Adolescent and Family Health has just published a carefully crafted study of the Best Friends program and found it does, in fact, deliver on its promise — to promote abstinence from sex, drugs and alcohol among its school-age participants.

Best Friends (a companion program for boys is called Best Men) began in Washington, D.C., in 1987 and has since expanded to 24 cities in 15 states. Beginning in fifth grade, girls are initiated into a school-based program with teachers and other school personnel as mentors and with the girls themselves providing a positive and mutually reinforcing peer group.

The curriculum, which requires more than 110 hours per year both during the school day and before and after school, includes units on “Friendship,” “Love and Dating,” “Self-Respect,” “Decisionmaking,” “Alcohol Abuse,” “Drug Abuse,” “Physical Fitness and Nutrition,” and “AIDS and STDs.”

The program partly is group-based. But equally important is one-on-one mentoring relationships with teachers (all volunteers). Best Friends girls do not sign pledges, but commit to abstinence through the time they graduate from high school.

The results have been dramatic. Compared with D.C. girls of comparable age, income, race and family structure examined in the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBS), Best Friends girls were 8 times less likely to use drugs. They were 6 times less likely to engage in premarital sex. Among eighth-graders, 65.6 percent of Best Friends girls abstained from alcohol, compared to only 37.3 percent of YRBS youngsters.

How? Founder Elayne Bennett’s genius is to disguise wholesomeness, maturity and wisdom as cool. The younger girls get T-shirts, dance classes, camaraderie and Best Friends paraphernalia, in addition to study guides, films and stories.

As the girls reach high school, they meet leading women like Colin Powell’s wife Alma, anchorwoman Lark McCarthy and restaurateur Margaret Auger. The most promising win college scholarships financed by Best Friends donors.

At the annual “Recognition Ceremony,” usually at D.C.’s Kennedy Center, older girls get their first opportunity to dress in evening gowns and be received as dignified young ladies.

Dignity is not what the condom crowd wants. Therefore, this is probably the first you’ve heard of the impressive study.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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