LIFESTYLES

Like a virgin

As some teens see it, abstinence makes the heart grow fonder

SCOTT STEELE March 14 1994
LIFESTYLES

Like a virgin

As some teens see it, abstinence makes the heart grow fonder

SCOTT STEELE March 14 1994

Like a virgin

LIFESTYLES

As some teens see it, abstinence makes the heart grow fonder

In most respects, they are typical teens with typical interests. Greg Smith, a husky 16-year-old attending Grade 11 in Toronto, loves U.S. college basketball, a fact made obvious by his trendy Duke Blue Devils cap and T-shirt. The basketball loyalties of 13-year-old Paul Nash, however, are more divided: the wiry Grade 8 student wears an Orlando Magic NBA jacket but a University of Nevada Running Rebels hat. Jessica Robertson, a perky 14-year-old in her first year of high school, is a self-confessed Blue Jays and Maple Leafs “fanatic.” Greg and his buddies talk about girls in the hockey dressing room, Paul and his pals hang out in the video arcade and Jessica and her girlfriends stay up all night at “sleep-overs.” But there is one thing that sets these three teens apart from many of their classmates. Encouraged by their pastor, Rev. Phil Burkett of the Toronto United Brethren Church, they recently pledged to remain “sexually pure” until marriage. “Some adults think that all teenagers are going to have sex,” says Jessica. “Not me. I want to wear a white dress when I get married.”

To many, the teen years mean raging hormones, grope sessions on rec-room sofas, heavy petting in the back seat of dad’s car. But for some teenagers these days, the reality is altogether different.

With role models such as NBA basketball forward A. C. Green of the Phoenix Suns, who has publicly proclaimed that he is saving himself for marriage, and staunch virgin Donna Martin, a character played by Tori Spelling on TV’s popular teen drama Beverly Hills 90210, they have consciously chosen not to have sex. The campaign that inspired Jessica and her friends to remain virgins, True Love Waits, is one of a number of pro-chastity programs across the country. “What some would call the old-fashioned idea of saving yourself for your mate is not dead,” says James Sclater, director of public policy for Focus on the Family, a Vancouver-based Christian support group. “There is a resurrection of the idea of chastity as a virtue, a pleasure, a freedom, rather than the notion that if you are not having sex you are missing out on life.”

Some chastity programs, including True Love Waits and Y Wait, a workshop run by the Canadian Foundation for the Love of Children in Edmonton, currently confine their efforts to church settings. Others, such as Teen-Aid—an education program that last year took the chastity message to more than 200 schools across Saskatchewan—do not outwardly stress Christian morality. “Our intention is to encourage chastity not from the perspective of right or wrong,” says Teen-Aid provincial co-ordinator Donna Korol, “but as the healthiest lifestyle choice.” And for teens who have already taken the plunge, the groups all encourage “secondary virginity” or renewed chastity. “Sure, you can’t go back physically,” says Mary Krupa, who chairs Y Wait. “But you can emotionally and spiritually.”

Chastity activists say that school-based sex education programs that emphasize birth control and condom use not only

give short shrift to abstinence, but may actually encourage teenage sexual activity. That view, however, alarms some sex educators. They argue that the chastity message is puritanical, dangerously simplistic and anti-contraceptive. “Abstinence is a viable choice,” says Howard Engel, interim co-director of AIDS Vancouver. “But I don’t think it is realistic to expect that it is necessarily going to happen. Showing some of the options on how to protect yourself is important, too.” Says Toronto-based registered nurse, sex educator and counsellor Sue Johanson: “Parents have been telling their kids just to say ‘no’ for years. Some of them may as well go and bark at the moon.”

Initiated in the United States last April by the Southern Baptist Convention and endorsed there by the Roman Catholic Church, True Love Waits was launched north of the border in January by

the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, a Christian coalition that represents about two million Canadians. For the next several months, youth leaders across the country will hold workshops promoting virginity and challenging teens to sign credit-card-sized chastity pledges. “People may make jokes about it,” says Paul Nash, who along with Jessica, Greg and 44 others signed on during a United Brethren weekend retreat in late January. “But if they get sexually transmitted diseases or AIDS, it won’t be so funny any more.”

Canadian organizers of True Love Waits did not set a campaign target. But their U.S. counterparts expect to collect between

500.000 and one million pledge cards before July 29, when they will display them publicly in Washington. That same day, during a Christian youth conference in Ottawa, a group of teens hopes to present the Canadian pledges to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. “The pressures on young people to be sexually active are incredible,” says Canadian project co-ordinator Don Simmonds. “We’ve almost betrayed the kids by not telling them about this option. Chastity should be congratulated and encouraged, not scorned.”

Still, abstinence does not make all hearts grow fonder. A 1992 Decima poll for Maclean’s found that seven per cent of 12and 13year-olds reported having engaged in sexual intercourse, compared with 61 per cent of 18and 19-year-olds. And in a survey of

4.000 teens that same year, Reginald Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, and Donald Posterski, a vicepresident of the Christian group World Vision Canada, concluded that 55 per cent of 15to 19-year-olds are sexually active. The threat of AIDS, Bibby and Posterski noted in Teen Trends, a book based on their findings, “is not contributing to an overall decrease in sexual activity. Abstinence has not grown in popularity.”

Chastity crusaders across Canada hope to change that. While their message is consistent with their moral views—indeed, many if not all support the Christian pro-life movement—they say the case for remaining a virgin until marriage goes well beyond religious conviction. Among their reasons: the “emotional

turmoil” that a teenage sexual relationship can inflict, the risk of sexually transmitted diseases and the “social costs” of teenage pregnancy.

All the programs emphasize so-called safe dating methods—such as going out in groups and setting personal limits—to reinforce chastity as a conscious lifestyle decision. ‘Teens are feeling pressured into having sex because they’re told that it’s a normal part of their lifestyle,” says 22-year-old chastity promoter Rebecca Morcos of Ottawa. “What we should be doing is giving them tools to stand up to the pressure.” Morcos herself is one of 24 young people who plan to travel in minivans to high schools across the country this spring as part of an awareness campaign called Challenge ’94. They hope to reach 50,000 students with a combination of humorous skits and warnings about the risks of sex.

That message is also stressed by Focus on the Family’s Susan Martinuk, who in September began presenting what she calls “a medical case for abstinence” in a seminar called the Myth of Safe Sex. Like other chastity advocates, Martinuk emphasizes that condoms are no guarantee of protection. “Teenagers are getting the message that it is OK to just do it, everybody is doing it, bring your own condom,” she says. “We present the other side so they can make an informed choice.”

Secular sex educators, meanwhile, say it is ludicrous to suggest that they teach that condoms are 100-per-cent safe. ‘What we all say without a moment’s hesitation is that there is no such thing as safe sex—the best thing I can do for you is safer sex,” says Sue Johanson, who hosts a nationally syndicated open-line radio program on sexuality. “But what we also say is if you chose not to say no, the next best thing you can do is use birth control pills and condoms combined.” Bonnie Johnson, executive director of the Planned Parenthood Federation of Canada, agrees wholeheartedly. “Many young adults are in fact not being sexually active and we want to do everything that we can to support them,” she says. “The problem with the so-called chastity movement is that it says that chastity is the only solution, and that if we talk about protecting young adults from pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases then we are promoting promiscuity. That is where I come unglued with it.”

But chastity proponents make no apologies for their efforts. “A lot of adults carry a tremendous amount of baggage on this issue,” says Marilyn Bergeron, co-ordinator of the Canadian Alliance for Chastity, a national network formed last fall. “They cannot even perceive that someone could present this message without guilt.” Bergeron became involved in the chastity movement five years ago in Cornwall, Ont., where she founded the TAC Force (the acronym stands for Teens and Chastity), a support group for teenagers and their parents. This spring, the TAC Force will hold a “creative dating contest” for teens who come up with novel—and chaste— ways to spend time with the opposite sex.

Of course, the decision to have sex or not ultimately rests with teenagers themselves. “I have not been manipulated,” says Toronto teen Nash. “My parents can tell me that I shouldn’t have sex, but they can’t actually stop me. That is something I have decided to do.” And like most other chaste teens, Crystal Caswell, a 16-year-old from Edmonton, says she does not care if some people find her decision odd. “It is my life,” she declares, “and it shouldn’t matter to anyone if I have sex or not.” Adds Kevin McDonald, an 18-year-old virgin in his final year of high school in Cornwall: “If you’re secure in your decision, what other people say is not going to affect you.”

SCOTT STEELE