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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 September, 2003, 10:29 GMT 11:29 UK
Chastity pressed on US teens
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

America's chastity movement may have lost one of its most famous role models after unmarried teen queen Britney Spears - for years a self-proclaimed virgin - divulged some of her more intimate secrets to a magazine.

Young mothers with pushchairs
Many developed countries are trying to curb the teenage pregnancy rate
But whatever the extent of Miss Spears' one-time contribution to the no-sex-before-marriage camp, it pales into insignificance against that of its now most famous benefactor - President George Bush, who has massively increased funding and support to the abstinence movement during his three years in office.

The movement has expanded from a collection of disparate groups into a centrally funded drive that seeks to tackle the country's teenage pregnancy rate - one of the highest in the developed world - by telling young Americans that contraception does not work and that the only safe sex is no sex.

Teenage pregnancy rates per 1,000
Russia - 101.7
United States - 83.6
Bulgaria - 83.3
England and Wales - 46.9
Australia - 43.7
Sweden - 24.9
Netherlands - 12.2
Source: Alan Guttmacher Institute 2000
"You cannot begin to describe how immensely helpful it has been to have a president who backs the abstinence cause," says Richard Ross, a spokesman for True Love Waits, a Christian abstinence organisation which says it has more than one million card-carrying young members.

"It has been a great encouragement to so many young people."

'Sex harms'

It was Democratic President Bill Clinton who signed the act which paved the way for the expansion of abstinence-only programmes into law, but it has been under President Bush, a fervent Christian, that they have grown so rapidly.

Under the terms of the multi-million-dollar fund which have been made available under President Bush for abstinence education, schools and groups can only claim federal money for sex education programmes if the classes have as their "exclusive purpose" the promotion of abstinence.

They must make clear that sexual activity outside of marriage is harmful, both mentally and physically. If contraception is mentioned, it must only be in the context of its fallibility.

The state of Louisiana, for example, has abolished all programmes providing what is known as comprehensive sex education - classes which give students information about contraception and abortion in addition to encouraging them to wait before entering into a sexual relationship.

Dan Richey, state coordinator of the Louisiana Governor's Program on Abstinence, believes that telling young people about condoms and other forms of contraception increases sexual activity, and consequently increases the rate of teenage pregnancy and the transmission of sexual diseases.

Ultimately the abstinence programme isn't protecting young people but leaving them more open to unwanted pregnancies and sexual diseases
Adrienne Verrilli
"Many adults seem to think that if the kids are using contraception then everything's OK. But contraception does not necessarily prevent pregnancy, nor does it stop the contraction of diseases. Everyone thinks condoms are effective - but they are not," he says.

"We're having to circumvent the adults and go straight to the teenagers in order to arm this generation with the truth."

In other states, abstinence groups receive grants from the federal fund to promote their message.

Silver Ring Thing, for example, a faith-based abstinence group with headquarters in Pennsylvania, this year received a $700,000 grant to help it expand its campaign nationally.

Whose result?

The efficacy of pro-abstinence education in reducing teenage pregnancies is a source of bitter controversy.

For the abstinence campaigners, the gradual reduction of the teenage pregnancy rate - which still remains indisputably high - is a direct result of their efforts.

For supporters of comprehensive sex education, the figures are testimony to years of informing young people about birth control.

They see the fruits of their labour being jeopardised by the abstinence movement, which they believe is turning young people against contraception while not necessarily stopping them having sex.

"It's not surprising really that if young people are always being told that contraception is basically useless, when they do come to have sex they don't bother with it," says Adrienne Verrilli of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the US (Siecus).

She cites research which suggests condom use among sexually active young people is, for the first time, levelling off, rather than increasing.

"Ultimately the abstinence programme isn't protecting young people but leaving them more open to unwanted pregnancies and sexual diseases."

Siecus and other groups also believe that the philosophy behind the abstinence movement - with its focus on marriage and the heterosexual couple - alienates many young people.

"Basically we are saying to kids with single mothers that the way their parents live is wrong. We are saying to homosexual kids that their feelings are wrong. Any choice outside heterosexual marriage is deemed wrong," says Ms Verrilli.

Balance desired

The truth about who is responsible for the decline in teenage pregnancies is probably somewhere in between the two camps, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancy.

"On the one hand there is less sexual activity, on the other hand more are using contraception. So both sides can take some credit for bringing the teenage pregnancy rate down," says spokesman Bill Albert.

"But what we want is a balanced message. It is not in the interest of 15 and 16-year-olds to be having sex, so we should be saying abstinence first.

You cannot begin to describe how immensely helpful it has been to have a president who backs the abstinence cause
True Love Waits
"However if they are having sex, we want them to have all the information they need - and there is a real and legitimate concern that with the focus on abstinence, they are not getting reliable information."

Mr Albert also stresses that the reasons why teenagers get pregnant and carry a baby to term are much more complicated than the content of sex education lessons - and notes that many young people take no notice of what they are taught at school.

Researchers at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health think-tank, found in their comparison of teenage pregnancy rates between five developed countries that there was no relation between the amount of sexual activity and frequency of pregnancies.

Young people in Sweden, which had the lowest rate of teenage pregnancy, are more sexually active than their US counterparts, but the rate of teenage pregnancy is nearly four times lower.

The report concluded that access to and information about contraception was often a problem for US teenagers, but that this could not alone account for the difference.

Instead, it suggested that a variety of cultural, social and economic factors were at play, pointing in particular to low aspirations among poorly educated teenagers in the US.

"We have to get to the bottom of what motivates teens if we really are going to bring down the rate of teenage pregnancy, and that means more than just having a fight about sex education," says Mr Albert.

"We have to understand how to change the aspirations of young people so that they see more options than having a baby."

Britney's boast busts virgin myth
09 Jul 03  |  Entertainment
Young mother warns teenagers
09 Oct 02  |  England
Sex lessons
18 Jul 02  |  4x4 Reports
Like a virgin
10 Oct 00  |  UK News

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