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LUCKY SEVERSON: Now, the growing faith-based movement for teenage sexual abstinence. As parents, teachers, and politicians debate the role of abstinence in sex education, religious teenagers are making promises to themselves, their parents, and God to delay sexual intercourse until marriage. To date, the Southern Baptist group True Love Waits — a leader in the movement — boasts over one million pledges from youth. The movement is nationwide. We begin our story in Washington, D.C.
On the mall in Washington this past September, a gathering of thousands of kids, high schoolers — not a party or a protest, but a promise to remain pure. These are young Evangelicals.
RICHARD ROSS (Founder, True Love Waits): God, through your generation, has won many battles. But the war is not over. Students, we gather today to call the nation to purity.
SEVERSON: This is Richard Ross, a middle-aged Southern Baptist preacher. In 1994, he founded a growing movement called True Love Waits for teenaged kids. His message — no sexual intercourse until marriage.
ROSS: For teenagers to be bold, standing up for abstinence — yes, that still goes against the grain.
SEVERSON: And, young people are listening.
Undentified Teen Girl: I’ve made a commitment to stay a virgin until I’m married.
SEVERSON: And in Philadelphia, another abstinence rally, another group. This one called Pure Love Alliance, sponsored by the Unification Church, founded by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon.
HUNG SU: My name is Hung Su. I’m from New Jersey. I’m 16, and I’m here to promote purity before marriage and fidelity within.
Unidentified Male: I really believe that that’s God’s will. You know, just one. One love, one life, one man, one wife. That’s it.
SEVERSON: They’re rapping, they’re dancing, they’re marching. They’re upbeat and determined — one million and counting, across America. Kids swearing to abstain. And saying, it’s cool.
JAGO GAVIN (Pure Love Alliance): We’re up here trying to say that abstinence is not a boring lifestyle.
SEVERSON: At the Faith Temple Church in Omaha, a ring ceremony. Moms and dads fit a band on the ring finger of their sons and daughters — a constant reminder that “true love waits.”
TERRANCE ENNIS: You can hug her, give her a kiss, tell her goodbye, walk her to the door, give her another kiss, and go home.
SEVERSON: Karnetta Ennis is Terrance’s mom, and a youth minister at Faith Temple.
KARNETTA ENNIS: He’s a handsome young man, and he’s very popular. The girls really love my son. But at the same time, I want to let him know that’s okay. That’s great. But abstinence, your education, God, all those things, should be first.
SEVERSON: Look what kids today are up against — a culture that seems preoccupied with sex. Sex is everywhere.
ROSS: School leaders have been so awed by the problems related to sexuality that they have invited people to come in and speak from a “true love waits” perspective. Even though it is a Christian movement at heart.
SEVERSON: Since 1996, Congress has allocated 50 million dollars annually for community based abstinence programs. And an increasing number of public schools are now replacing comprehensive sex education — which includes abstinence — with courses that teach only abstinence.
Movement leaders keep the momentum going by keeping it light — young and hip, even sexy. This is peer pressure of a different kind.
Unidentified Teen Girl: I think it’s a lot easier to stay abstinent once I’ve joined this alliance.
GAVIN: [I] don’t think of myself as a big geek or a nerd. And you know, I’ve had fun my whole high school [career].
SEVERSON: Jago lives in Chicago’s South Side. He and his five brothers all belong to the Pure Love Alliance, and he leads workshops to spread the message.
GAVIN: I’ve taught in five different schools in the Chicago area. And their reflections show that, you know, all they needed was some positive reinforcement, that positive peer pressure.
SEVERSON: Whatever the reason, the number of teenagers having sexual intercourse has dropped almost ten percent in the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
But there are critics of the movement, even in the Bible Belt, who applaud the goal but not the method. They argue that teaching kids abstinence only, without sex education, denies them the information they need — emotionally and physically — to make smart choices.
Debbie Chisolm is the youth minister at the Royal Lane Baptist Church in Dallas.
DEBBIE CHISOLM: What concerns me more than anything is that a lot of people think that because of the the movement, we don’t need to worry. We have a lot of kids who are having sex, we have a lot of Baptist kids who are having sex. We have a lot of teenagers getting pregnant in our youth groups. Teenagers that signed the cards and now, they’re having babies.
SEVERSON: Debbie and her husband, also a Baptist minister want their three teenage daughters to stay abstinent until marriage. But they also want them to be informed.
MRS. CHISOLM: Sex plays a big part in a marital relationship, so we want to make sure that they feel comfortable with it, and they definitely know we feel comfortable with it. So …
JENNIFER CHISOLM: If you’re gonna have sex, don’t be stupid about it. Melissa is right.
MRS. CHISOLM: Kids need to be educated not just in the diseases that can occur, but also how to use condoms, how to use birth control.
JENNIFER: That’s what they always say. If you’re gonna do it, we can’t stop you, but at least tell us so we can get you birth control.
SEVERSON: A recent Kaiser Foundation report found that most parents want their teenage kids to have more, not less, sex education. A whopping 84% want schools to teach kids about birth control.
But leaders of True Love Waits and Pure Love Alliance argue that sex education doesn’t teach about moral values and character.
MICHELLE MYERS (Pure Love Alliance): The curriculum being taught in public schools is all about comprehensive sex education and all the other alternatives besides abstinence. And I don’t think that empowers young people to make good decisions in their lives. And it’s also devoid of any kind of belief in something higher than themselves.
ROSS: God himself said in Scripture, if you love me keep my commandments. Well, that’s what teenagers want to do. They want to love God. Well, one of the commandments is you don’t fool around until you’re married and that’s what teenagers have agreed [to do].
SEVERSON: Critics argue that abstaining for kids today is a whole lot easier said than done.
MRS. CHISOLM: We’re saying to kids, your sexual interest and your sexual desires are going to get turned on at age 10, and we want you to say no to those until age 35, when you get married. I mean that’s ridiculous.
We have to have physical intimacy with other people, we are created to do that, and [to] deny that is unnatural.
SEVERSON: But these high schoolers and their leaders will tell you, it’s not curbing physical desire that’s powering the abstinence movement, it’s something higher.
GAVIN: Does God want me to go out and use his own children for my own pleasure? No, he doesn’t. You know he wants me to bring up his children to a higher level.
ROSS: It is the sense that I have promised almighty God that I’m not going to have sex until I get married. That’s where the teenagers really find the power and strength to keep that promise.
MS. ENNIS: I’m looking at our nation today, and looking at how gays are standing up for their rights and abortionists are standing up for their rights, so it’s time for us to stand up for ours, and encourage our young people to abstain from sex.
SEVERSON: Still, [there are] no hard facts to prove that the abstinence message works in the long run. But the young people making the promise are fervently convinced that it does, and the movement continues to grow.