Teens who favor sexual abstinence speak out in hope of reaching peers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

With her funky hoop earrings and carefully styled hair, Elizabeth Moss looks just like all the other girls sharing heart-to-heart talks about their boyfriends in the school cafeteria.

She's more likely, however, to be thinking about her grades and her future. On dates, she shrugs off boys who try to seduce her into having casual sex. She's 15 and willing to wait.

"I don't feel pressured. Now it's just a choice," says the bright, outgoing junior at Baltimore's City College, who is active with a group that promotes sexual abstinence in the middle schools.

"I don't go over to anybody's house and turn off the lights. I talk to some boys and say, 'Slow down. You don't want to get AIDS or gonorrhea. Because once you have it, you're not going to get rid of it.' "

At a time of fast-rising rates of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and acquired immune deficiency syndrome, Elizabeth and other high school students across the nation are arguing that chastity makes more sense than promiscuity. Virginity, according to this small but increasingly outspoken contingent, is once again in vogue.

"I've had a boyfriend for 11 months," says Rebecca Severns, a senior at Western High School. "We've decided to wait until we're married."

Even though various studies, nationally and locally, indicate there are fewer teen virgins each year, those who do choose chastity are no longer hiding in embarrassment. Today's celibate youths feel comfortable coming forward to make their private virtue public.

With the help of celebrity role-models, ad campaigns, churches and public health officials, some teen-agers in Maryland have formed "virgin clubs." Others have taken to wearing T-shirts declaring their chastity, urging younger children to abstain and signing formal covenants vowing to remain pure until marriage.

The rebellion, two decades after the "Summer of Love" in San Francisco sparked a revolution in sexual mores, is catching on everywhere from southern churches to city high schools.

Virginity is considered more cool these days even in Baltimore, notorious for one of the highest adolescent pregnancy rates in the nation and dubbed, in word play on a motto intended to reflect interest in reading, "The City that Breeds."

In an attempt to encourage more youths to consider chastity, or at least greater caution, the Baltimore City Health Department is sponsoring a daylong workshop on sexual abstinence Jan. 26.

Parents, young people, health-care providers and clergy members will be invited to talk frankly about sex and hear Michael A. Carrera, a nationally recognized speaker on adolescent sexuality.

Ministers delighted

Some East Baltimore ministers who protested when the city apparently became the first in the nation to offer the contraceptive Norplant in school health clinics say they're delighted.

Clergy United for the Renewal of East Baltimore (CURE), the group that contended loudly that the plan to offer Norplant appeared "genocidal" because most city school students are black, has long advocated abstinence.

"You'd be surprised. We've contended all along that there is a large number of young people who on their own admission practice abstinence," says the Rev. Gregory Perkins, pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church and a CURE member. "If you treat young people with respect and build their self-esteem, they're quite capable of using moral judgment."

It's the health consequences more than the moral issues involved with adolescent sex that trouble Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city health commissioner.

Sexually transmitted diseases, especially gonorrhea, have become increasingly widespread among adolescents.

Baltimore also still has a teen birth rate that's double the state average, and many of the babies are of low birth weight.

Against that backdrop, Dr. Beilenson wants to reach out to both young children who haven't experimented with sex yet and enlist those who already are sexually active to enter a period of "secondary abstinence."

Tamara Simpson is one of the latter. At age 17, she's learned the hazards of unprotected sex. She's expecting a baby right before Christmas.

"Sex really slows you down. It's just another burden on your back," says Tamara, now at the Laurence Paquin School for pregnant students and young mothers.

Determined to graduate and move on to a career in the medical field, Tamara says she doesn't plan to have sex again any time soon. "I want to finish school. I want to go to college. With sex, it's going to be like, 'I have a headache,' for a long time."

The message of secondary abstinence is important, Dr. Beilenson says, because well over 80 percent of high school students in the city have had sex by graduation.

Boys in Baltimore lose their virginity on average between the ages of 12 and 13, and girls between the ages of 13 and 14, the health commissioner said.

A 1990 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta found nationwide that 32 percent of girls and 48.7 percent of boys have sex in ninth grade. Three out of four high school students reported having had sex by the time they graduated. Nearly 40 percent of the 11,631 students polled said they'd had sex in the last three months.

"We're reaching out to people who have been sexually active, and we're reaching out to elementary kids because we want to get to them before they're sexually active," Dr. Beilenson says. -- "We want to focus on how to really talk to teen-agers about abstinence. It's not as simple as 'just say no.' "

Gaining acceptance

Two dozen schoolchildren in Baltimore interviewed in recent weeks said sex still is considered cool by the popular crowds, but chastity no longer is a sure sign of being a nerd. Boys brag in the halls about their sexual exploits, and girls often boast about getting expensive clothes and gold earrings spelling out their names in return for sex.

But long-term relationships are valued more than one-night stands, students say.

"In sixth grade, I remember you'd be in the bathroom talking about, 'He so fine,' and asking 'How do I get him?' " recalled 17-year-old Melinda Carter, the mother of a 10-month-old boy, Marque. "And someone would say, 'Have sex with him.' "

Derek Jones, a 16-year-old at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical Senior High School, says teens are confused by conflicting messages -- "Just Say No" vs. "Just Do It." Sex, he says, is "the topic of conversation, and a lot of times the girls are even more graphic than the guys."

He agrees with Kenia Brown, a 15-year-old from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, who believes many high school students don't necessarily want to have sex, but see it as a rite of passage. Both of them are active with the group, Preparing Responsible Individuals, counseling eighth-graders on the risks and responsibilities of sex.

Reasons for waiting

In a classroom full of giggling 13-year-olds, Rebecca Severns, who is just three years older, remained calm and collected as she listed the reasons for waiting to have sex. "Pregnancy. AIDS. Sexually transmitted diseases. Your reputation."

The walls of the health classroom at Fallstaff Middle School are covered with posters from Campaign for Our Children, which is best known for the giant billboards that show the word "Virgin" scrawled in spray paint and a slogan, "Teach your kids it's not a dirty word."

One of the school posters says, "A baby costs $474 a month. How much do you have in your pocket?"

Rebecca says she was amazed when she moved to Baltimore from Western Maryland at the start of high school and discovered most of her classmates were having sex. She now has six friends who were pregnant. But she's no longer embarrassed to say she and her boyfriend plan to wait until they're married to have sex.

For boys, public celibacy can require more bravery than bragging about sex. "I think it's harder for guys. A guy will respect a girl, but if you tell another guy that you're abstinent, they'll think you're weird or homosexual or bisexual or don't like girls," confesses Charles Mullins, a 16-year-old senior at Mergenthaler who says he is waiting to fall in love with the right person.

Just how effective the message from him and other peer counselors will be remains to be seen. Derek Jones, for example, passes on the word to eighth-graders, but admits he doesn't practice abstinence himself. Still, he's committed to the program. "I was just like them in eighth grade. You're curious, your body is going through a lot of changes, and you don't want some 40-year-old person standing up and talking at you," he says. "Strangely enough, it's becoming more acceptable to be a virgin these days. I do think it can be an option for people."

Artesia Fulcher isn't sure if chastity is the answer, but she believes in every effort that provides more information on sex and its consequences.

Her parents just told her to say no, she says. Now, she's 18 -- and a mother.

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