America, the land of extremes, boasts of almost a thousand no-sex-till-marriage organizations. Take for example the abstinence program-Virginity Rules. Its brand ambassador beautiful teen Jami Waite, has been an emblem of sexual abstinence for the group, which has risen from a single operation in Longview, Texas, to become an eight-county abstinence franchise.
"People can be abstinent, and it's not weird," Waite declares.
Yet, for the first time, however, Virginity Rules and 700 such abstinence education programs are fighting serious threats to their future. Eleven state health departments rejected abstinence education this year, while legislatures in Colorado, Iowa and Washington passed laws that hamper its presence in public schools.
Opponents of the motion were overjoyed when the most extensive study of abstinence education, found no sign that it delayed a teenager's sexual debut.
This June, the abstinence programs received their first cut in financing from the Senate appropriations committee since 2001, though the final outcome is still in question.
At the same time, it is observed that teenagers throughout the country are both abstaining more, and, especially among older ones, more likely to use contraception when they do not abstain.
While the reasons are not all understood, government data show the trend began years before abstinence education became the multimillion-dollar enterprise it is today. Through a combination of less sex and more contraception, pregnancy and birth rates among American teenagers as a whole have been falling since about 1991.
Texas, however, has seen the smallest decline despite receiving almost $17 million in the name of virginity. And, no state has more to lose in this battle than Texas, which draws more abstinence money than any other. Very common here are billboards showing teens declaring slogans like: "No is where I stand until I have a wedding band."
At the same time, some teens that abstain from sex till marriage, do not agree with courses that try to scare teenagers with harrowing talk of ruined lives. "In those classes, there are going to be kids who have had sex and that hasn't happened," says one of them. "So they're going to think that doesn't apply to them."
In northeastern Texas, advocates of abstinence education vow to fight for their mission because to them, it is not just a matter of sexuality or even public health. Getting a teenager to the other side of high school without viruses or babies is a bonus, but not the real goal. They see casual sex as toxic to future marriage, family and even, in an oblique way, opposition to abortion.
"You have to look at why sex was created," says Eric Love, the director of the East Texas Abstinence Program, which runs Virginity Rules,"Sex was designed to bond two people together."
To make the point, Love grabbed a tape dispenser and snapped off two fresh pieces. He slapped them to his filing cabinet and the floor; they trapped dirt, lint, and a small metal bolt. "Now when it comes time for them to get married, the marriage pulls apart so easily," he said, trying to unite the grimy strips. "Why? Because they gave the stickiness away."
It was Mr. Robert Rector, fellow at the Heritage Foundation, that wrote the first bill that legally defined abstinence education. According to Rector, viewing abstinence primarily through the lens of public health distracts the focus from marriage. "Once you understand that that's the principal issue," he says, "you understand that handing out condoms to a 17-year-old is utterly irrelevant."
In abandoning abstinence education, states have largely said that comprehensive sex education programs, which discuss contraception beyond the failure rates, have a better scientific grounding. New laws in Colorado, Iowa and Washington state that sex education must be based on "research" or "science" which is often interpreted as code for programs that include discussions of safer sex.
Most studies so far have found no significant impact on behavior, and the few that do see only modest changes. In April, Mathematica Policy Research released a report that was nine years and $8 million in the making. Scientists followed middle school children enrolled in four separate abstinence programs for about five years, and found no difference in the age of first intercourse between them and their peers.
Yet, according to one of the leading experts on sex education programs, Dr. John Jemmott of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, some abstinence education programs in the future might show promise. He is hopeful about an abstinence curriculum that he has designed which, unlike many, tries to get teenagers to think long-term about their behavior and its consequences, questioning, for example, whether a boyfriend would really love you if you had sex with him. Many programs dwell on the risks of sex, not the reasons, he emphasizes.