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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 January, 2004, 17:49 GMT
The power of the ring thing
By Richard Alwyn, This World
Producer and director of American Virgins

Abstinence programmes, and the organisations that promote them, are gaining momentum in the United States. An increasing number of teenagers are pledging themselves to no sex before marriage.

Silver Ring Thing ring
The silver ring is a constant reminder of the abstinence promise
I'm standing on a piece of tarmac that makes me think of the long-stay car-park at Gatwick Airport. In a distant corner is a row of airport shuttle busses. The terminal building is behind me.

But there's no smell of jet fuel, no roar of engines, and no sign of a runway. In fact, the terminal isn't a terminal at all. It's a Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina.

Size, as everyone knows, matters in the US of A.

As evening falls, the car-park comes alive. Sports Utility Vehicles deposit gaggles of teenage girls and boys. A large number of them sport t-shirts that proclaim the identity of their favourite star.

It seems that Nike are missing a trick; they don't have Christ on their books.

Soon, rows of tables outside the church are enveloped by youngsters offering their personal details, including the size of their ring finger.

It's an important detail as in three hours' time most of them will be exchanging $12 for a silver ring and a bible. The ring is a symbol of the pledge that they will have made: to remain sexually pure until marriage.

The abstinence movement is flourishing in America. Its proponents claim that 65 million Americans are afflicted by a sexually transmitted disease.

The "epidemic", they say, is a result of the promiscuity unleashed by the sexual revolution of the '60s. America, the abstinence lobby says, is reaping what it has sewn.

Spreading the word

In Columbia, the Silver Ring Thing is in town. It's a sexual abstinence programme that seeks to persuade teenage America that no sex before marriage is the way to go.

Silver Ring Thing crew in Columbia
The SRT crew arrive with $80,000 worth of sound and lighting equipment

In a spectacle of flashing lights, videos and sketches, the "crew" urge their young audience to resist temptation and avoid the risk of disease.

Onstage, 16-year-old Nikki insists that being single is cool. She exalts her young audience not to cheat, as she would have it, on their future wives or husbands.

Meanwhile Rachel, a fellow 16-year-old crew member, has a slightly different spin on things. The scary world of sexually transmitted disease is less an issue for her than the obligations of Christianity. For her, the decision is a moral one.

And here's the hub of the debate surrounding the abstinence movement in the USA: is it a legitimate response to a clear medical danger, or is it a moral crusade, driven by a specific interpretation of Christian values?

Whatever the answer, it is clear that the conservative Christian morality of President Bush is finding its way into legislation that promotes abstinence.

The Bush administration gave $120m to abstinence organisations last year.

President Bush
President Bush has boosted funding for abstinence groups

For some Republican members of the administration, the abstinence issue is a clear case of Christian conscience. For others, it is a way of boosting their conservative credentials via an issue that remains less contentious than abortion.

Many of the abstinence organisations, like the Silver Ring Thing which received $700,000 in federal funding, are faith-based groups.

Conflict of interest?

The tightrope that these groups must walk, however, is at the heart of the American constitution, which demands the separation of church and state. The Silver Ring Thing cannot spend Bush's bucks on God.

But is this ultimately possible? The Silver Ring Thing's ringmaster, Denny Pattyn, is an ordained minister.

Abstinence, he says, is the brainchild of God. He has been preaching it for many years, only now he has a secular medical case to add to his Christian arsenal.

So what is the bottom line for Denny and the Silver Ring Thing?

Founder Denny Pattyn's ambitions extend to Africa

They do present a seminar to the youngsters where faith is not mentioned. But in a moment of quietness, Denny confides that he believes that the end of the world is nigh and that Christ will return within a generation.

And so where does abstinence fit into that vision? Well, abstinence, he says, is a tool to reach young people for God, safeguarding them for the Second Coming.

Meanwhile, the Columbia show concludes with hundreds of children pledging their virginity, slipping on their rings and clutching their bibles.

Underneath the cacophony can be heard the Silver Ring Thing's very own rap - "Oh no, don't give it away..." - while in Washington, Congress prepares to vote more dollars into the abstinence purse.

American Virgins was broadcast in the UK on Sunday, 25 January, 2004 at 2100 on BBC Two.

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