By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Saying no. Purity rings. Encouraging those who've "strayed from the path" to seek forgiveness, to ask God for a "second virginity." Among a growing number of adolescents, most of whom are white, middle-class, and raised by conservative, churchgoing parents, these seemingly square sentiments are becoming a kind of fad. William Mattox, a conservative columnist who frequently contributes to the Washington Times, takes encouragement from a recent study completed by the National Center for Health Statistics that found the number of high school guys who believe themselves to be "sexually experienced" dropped from 61 percent to 49 percent between 1990 and 1997. This, he says, combined with NCHS data showing a similar, but less pronounced, decline in sexual activity among like-aged girls, has led him to believe the nation could be in the early stages of a major shift in youth sexual behavior--at the threshold of, as Tom Prichard puts it, a "new sexual revolution."
Anecdotally, at least, the signs are there. There are popular books on the subject, such as Joshua Harris's I Kissed Dating Good-bye, which has become a bestseller among evangelicals. Church groups nationwide have initiated campaigns like "True Love Waits," which Mattox says have convinced hundreds of thousands of kids to sign cards promising abstinence. Last June, more than 350 socially conservative activists and sex educators met to trade information at the first National Abstinence Conference at the Airport Hilton in Minneapolis. Smythe's group, New Life Family Services, sends speakers out to public schools to spread the message. "If it were up to me, I'd have abstinence education for everyone," she says. "If we teach kids about condoms, it's like we're giving them permission."
Gozola agrees: "In school, they show us everything you can do with birth control. And I think maybe that puts ideas in people's minds. It encourages people to have sex."
"The real problem," Olson concludes, "is that they don't talk about the social and emotional consequences of sex before marriage."
While the two teens get motivated in their church group, where recently they said a "prayer for prom," St. Paul Central juniors Anna Smith-Lindall and Baron Tisthammer and sophomore Leora Maccabee have been lobbying their classmates to speak out in favor of their school board's plan to hand out contraception. Photocopying handmade flyers, printing pieces in the school newspapers, even delivering speeches at board meetings, the three believe sex is best left for later. They worry, though, that if some of their classmates aren't taught how to have protected intercourse, there will be more teen mothers walking their halls than ever.
"I just think (handing out contraception) is a necessary evil," Smith-Lindall says. "Like it or not, this is how our culture and our schools have evolved. If you take away comprehensive sex education, the system will break down. This is the last time to reach everyone and teach them what's safe. After graduation, people just scatter."
"My parents are Roman Catholic, so they aren't very comfortable talking about sex," Tisthammer notes. "I have to depend more on school and reading. For people to get it, the information needs to be everywhere--if not at home, then out in the community or in school."
"Look," Maccabee asserts, "if this is an issue driven by your religion, send your kids to private school. You have to accept that other people are different. They're going to make different decisions. It's just sad that some people only think about themselves."
Now that the St. Paul school board has made its final ruling on the matter, the three friends, gathered at a coffee shop near Macalester College, are in a reflective mood. Tisthammer, who watched the vote go down, says the guy who talked about condoms in a candy dish really angered him. That meeting, he remembers with distaste, was "hysterical." Maccabee talks about lost innocence. "My nine-year-old sister is debating marijuana in the classroom," she says. "Times have changed."
It's Smith-Lindall, though, who seems to innately understand what adults on both sides of the abstinence issue too often forget in the fray. "I looked around the room that night, and there were so many different people at that meeting. And they all came from a different walk of life, a different point of view. That's what it's like in our schools today. Why don't people see that? Why don't they understand?"