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Talking About Sex-Ed that Works

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In a season that's all about a virgin birth, the Washington Post has decided to play Scrooge. Virginity pledges don't work, an article in that paper recently proclaimed, citing a study packed with the usual hyperbole: abstinence talk is for adults living in a sexless fantasy land! When it comes to kids it's all about sex, and those silly folks who pretend otherwise are making our kids sick and pregnant.

"Taking a pledge doesn't seem to make any difference at all in any sexual behavior," researcher Janet E. Rosenbaum of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told the Post. "But it does seem to make a difference in condom use and other forms of birth control that is quite striking."

An official from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy led the charge in what turned out to be an orgy of abstinence bashing on the Post's part: "This study again raises the issue of why the federal government is continuing to invest in abstinence-only programs," she fumed. These folks miss something fundamental: a virginity pledge is more than abstinence education -- it's a promise.

The National Abstinence Education Association disputed the whole premise of the study, using this obvious tack. Its executive director, Valerie Huber, remarked to me in an e-mail interview: "The author inaccurately equates the holistic breadth of an abstinence education program to the one-time event of a virginity pledge. A pledge and an abstinence program are not synonymous."

But the problem goes beyond lumping in a simple, cut-and-dried oath with the complicated issue of abstinence education. The conundrum boils down to this: it's not all about sex. It's no shock to anyone who understands human nature, never mind kids, that any virginity pledge that fixates on brute carnal relations is not going to work. Repeating the mantra "Don't do it," even when you've got a teen doing the repeating, isn't enough. How could it work? Popular culture is obsessed with sex. We can't even manage a family dog movie ("Marley & Me") without Jennifer Aniston taking off her clothes. And until that changes, of course, a hormone-mad teenager will be sorely tempted to join in the seemingly ubiquitous fornication, pledge or no pledge.

Does that mean we pass out condoms at school because we're not going to change the culture anytime soon? No. It means kids need support and reasons engage in activities other than sex. Abstinence has to be about saying "yes" to something in order to work. We need to focus on the idea that kids can actually think, and should want more from a relationship than sex. We need to be open to programs that aren't all about copulation, but about character education.

Because, as Huber and others have noted, building strong lines of parent-child communication while developing and maintaining a sturdy ethical core helps kids immensely when it comes to keeping their pants on.

Meet a child in the Best Friends program, and you'll see what I mean. An abstinence-education program aimed at inner-city kids, Best Friends adheres to a program that's met with resounding success. By emphasizing the wealth of activities available to today's youth, with a special focus on fun and constructive, communal activities, Best Friends can deliver a message that sticks.

Some studies suggest that early premarital sex leads to all sorts of problems, including later divorce. But common sense suggests this as well, and programs like Best Friends teach that sort of thinking -- along with a healthy dose of self-respect. Acting responsibly and waiting for a committed, loving relationship pays dividends down the line. And the more examples kids have of successful marriages, the more likely they are to put off sex until after the nuptials.

Forever ingrained in my mind is a scene from 2007's hit film "Juno," in which the titular teen, who has recently learned that she's pregnant, enters an abortion clinic and is offered flavored condoms by a distant receptionist. Once the troublesome baby bump is taken care of, the assumption is, Juno will return to the activities that landed her in the situation to begin with. But this time she'll be safe! The scene was a great example of the way we handle sex in popular culture and schools: teen sex and teen bodies are problems to be managed and then ignored. Why should teens respect themselves when we don't respect them?

Family, religion, and yes, abstinence-education programs that focus on character development address this very problem. They treat teens as people -- complicated souls who deserve fulfillment and happiness. Contrary to the common caricature, we conservatives don't hate sex. It's out of respect for this great gift that we want to teach a respect for it, marriage, and the individual.

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