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Teen sex: The waiting is the hardest part

The Montana Abstinence Partnership and the Governor’s Council on Families launched a statewide media campaign last week that encourages young people to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. The campaign, funded with a grant from the federal Department of Health and Human Services, targets the state’s 12 to 18-year-olds, says Jon Berg, Montana Abstinence Partnership coordinator.

The $50,000 media campaign, “Abstinence ’til Marriage—the Smart Choice,” features billboards, posters and TV, radio and theater advertisements. The Montana Abstinence Partnership, funded with an annual $176,000 grant from Health and Human Services, has also given $95,000 to 12 organizations in 11 Montana cities to develop abstinence programs, workshops and other educational activities in 2004.

At the heart of the campaign is the controversy between abstinence-only sex education, which does not teach or promote contraceptive use as part of its curriculum, and what is generally called comprehensive sex education, which does emphasize safer sex methods and proper use of contraceptives.

Berg says abstinence-only programs focus on teaching teens how to make good choices when it comes to dating and how to refuse unwanted sexual advances. It also helps teens focus on their goals for the future, increases their connection to parents and helps them understand the consequences of sexual activity—including unwanted pregnancies and STDs, Berg says. “Safer sex [education] is called comprehensive, however, [abstinence-only] is a more comprehensive education, because safer sex tends to focus on contraception, and that’s about it. Very little about abstinence, if they mention it at all,” Berg says. “In a sense, we are much more comprehensive, but they’ve been called comprehensive sex education for quite a while so it’s kind of a misnomer.”

1st Way Pregnancy Center is the only organization in Missoula to have received state funds to teach abstinence-only sex education in 2004. 1st Way uses the $9,950 it received from the state to offer free presentations and speakers to public and private schools throughout Montana, focusing on students in grades seven through 12. The abstinence-only program offered through 1st Way also allows participants to sign “ATM cards”—abstinence ’til marriage cards—a pledge that students take to refrain from sex until their cards expire—specifically, on their wedding day.

A report released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at the National STD Prevention Conference in Philadelphia found that young people who took virginity pledges have the same rates of STDs as young people who do not take the pledge. The study concluded that teens who took the pledge were much less likely to use condoms when they did become sexually active. Some of the programs funded through the Montana Abstinence Partnership do talk about contraceptive use, Berg says, but only their failure rates. “We’re encouraging kids to make healthy choices and not put themselves at risk,” he says, admitting that not all teens are going to buy into the “abstinence ’til marriage” program. “You aren’t going to convince everybody, but we certainly want to set the standard high.” For the teens who are still sexually active—30 percent of high school students and 9 percent of middle school students, according to the 2003 Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey—Berg says that abstinence-only education works to help them understand all the complications of a sexually active lifestyle, not just unwanted pregnancies and STDs.

But Garry Kerr, adjunct instructor of human sexuality at the University of Montana, says that young people are not waiting to have sex until they get married. “The majority of students I’ve talked to don’t like abstinence-only. When they hear it they shut their ears right off.” Kerr acknowledges abstinence-only is not a bad program, and that he has students who strongly support abstinence-only, whether due to a religious upbringing or personal conviction. “Unfortunately, for a very small fraction of the population, abstinence-only might be a good choice,” Kerr says, “The majority (of students) feel abstinence-only is not getting them prepared to be sexually active adults in America.”

Kerr says it’s unrealistic to think that all students, male and female, in high school and college, are going to wait to have sex until they’re married. “So then you have students without the education who aren’t waiting, being exposed to diseases and pregnancies, and they are not given the tools to work with, and are sexually active without knowing the rules of the game.” According to data released by the Communicable Disease Control and Prevention Bureau of the Montana Department of Public Health, 2003 saw an increase of 20 reported cases of chlamydia in 2002, bringing the total number of cases up to 2,521, 40 percent of which were reported in young people ages 10 to 19. Chlamydia is a sexually transmitted disease that is preventable through correct use of a condom, says Laurie Kops, STD program manager for the state health department. Kops attributes the rising number of sexually transmitted diseases to more people having unprotected sex at a younger age. Kops also noted that Montana’s first case of syphilis in five years was reported last week. Regarding sex education, Kops says students need to have as much information as they can possibly get.

Kerr questions the effectiveness of the media campaign. He believes the government would do better to fund comprehensive sex education and let the communities or parents of the students decide whether they want their children to take part in the program.

A survey of 400 students taken after the Montana Abstinence Partnership launched a similar media campaign in 2002 found that of 89 percent of teens who reported seeing the ads, 66 percent said the TV versions were effective in delivering the message, while only 28 percent of respondents thought billboards were effective. As for viewers who may have seen the campaign and embarked on their own campaigns of abstinence until marriage, no numbers are available.

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