You won't read it in the papers

Posted: Apr 29, 2005 12:00 AM

Last month, the leading lights of journalism reported (with a trace of smugness) the results of a study showing that adolescents who took a pledge of sexual abstinence were almost as likely as those who took no pledges to contract sexually transmitted diseases.
The Washington Post noted that the report "sparked an immediate, bitter debate over the wisdom of teaching premarital abstinence." Bill Smith, vice president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, crowed, "Not only do virginity pledges not work to keep our young people safe, they are causing harm by undermining condom use, contraception and medical treatment."

 A Nexis search of the words "abstinence," "pledge" and "STDs" brought up 60 hits for the past 90 days, beginning with the Village Voice's contribution "F--- Abstinence" and ranging through the big networks and major newspapers.

 Most conveyed the lesson in the headline, such as that of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Abstinence-only programs fail and deceive our kids, says Stacey I. Young." There were dozens of stories touting a related finding that those who pledged to abstain from sex were more likely than others to engage in anal or oral sex.

 Yet the results of a new study showing that abstinence programs do work to reduce sexual behavior get only two hits on Nexis -- one a UPI story and the other a PR Newswire item. So much for the idea that the media are no longer dominated by liberals.

 Now, let's look at substance. Despite the hyperventilating by Bill Smith and others in the condoms on cucumbers school of thought, the study on sexually transmitted diseases actually revealed very little about abstinence-only programs in schools. The report, which looked at data contained in the federally funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, found only that abstinence pledges were of limited (but not zero) utility. A pledge is not an abstinence program. As for data on risky anal and or oral sex by so-called abstainers, those too were self-described pledgers, not participants in an abstinence program.

 By contrast, the Journal of Adolescent and Family Health has just published a carefully crafted study of the Best Friends program and found that it does, in fact, deliver on its promise -- to promote abstinence from sex, drugs and alcohol among its school-age participants.

 Best Friends (there is a companion program for boys called Best Men) began in Washington, D.C., in 1987 and has since expanded to serve 24 cities in 15 states. Beginning in fifth grade, girls are initiated into a school-based program with teachers and other school personnel serving as mentors and with the girls themselves offering a positive and mutually reinforcing peer group.

 The curriculum, which requires more than 110 hours per year both during the school day and before and after school, includes units on "Friendship," "Love and Dating," "Self-Respect," "Decision-Making," "Alcohol Abuse," "Drug Abuse," "Physical Fitness and Nutrition," and "AIDS and STDs."

 Part of the program is group-based, but an equally important piece is one-on-one mentoring relationships with teachers (all volunteers). Best Friends girls do not sign pledges, but do commit to abstinence through high school graduation.

 The results of the program have been dramatic. Compared with District of Columbia girls of comparable age, income, race and family structure examined in the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey (YRBS), Best Friends girls were eight times less likely than others to use drugs. They were six times less likely than YRBS girls to engage in premarital sex. Among eighth-graders, 65.6 percent of Best Friends girls abstained from alcohol, compared to only 37.3 percent of YRBS youngsters.

 How do they do it? Founder Elayne Bennett's genius is to disguise wholesomeness, maturity and wisdom as cool. The younger girls get T-shirts, dance classes, camaraderie and Best Friends paraphernalia, in addition to the necessary study guides and films and stories.

 As the girls reach high school, they are exposed to leading women like Alma Powell, wife of Colin Powell, Lark McCarthy, anchorwoman, and Margaret Auger, restaurateur. The most promising win college scholarships financed by Best Friends donors. At the annual "Recognition Ceremony," usually held at Washington's Kennedy Center, the older girls get their first opportunity to dress in evening gowns and be received as dignified young ladies.

 Dignity is not what the condom crowd is after -- which is why this column is probably the first you've heard about this impressive study.

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