From abstinence to love: a question of character

What is to be done about teenagers and their sexuality? The question is never far from the minds of their parents, nor from the media and public debate. In the United States a decade of support by the federal government for education programmes devoted to getting teens to save sex for marriage may soon come to an end. Sceptics now have enough representation in Congress -- and the findings of a recent study (yes, one study) -- to achieve the withdrawal of funding for abstinence-only education and to throw more money at programmes based on contraception and "protection". 

Too often the debate over sex education is determined by public health goals -- reducing teenage pregnancies and diseases -- rather than by concern for the good of young people themselves. Abstinence education, whatever the merits of the ideal it represents, seems a roundabout and unrealistic way of reducing the bad statistics.

Love is the bigger picture; chastity is a way of getting there. And the journey starts in the family.

Yet the great majority of parents (and young people themselves) recognize that saving sex for marriage is better for them than experimenting with sex and premature romantic relationships. This is what a survey published earlier this year by the US National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy indicated: people want to hear a strong abstinence message. 

The same survey showed, however, that many adopt a compromise position, supporting the safer sex approach -- "just in case". As a matter of fact (that is, more than one study)(1), this approach will fail to protect many young people from bad consequences of sex in the short or long term. Sadly, it will also give them a confused idea of the meaning of sex and rob them of willpower and confidence in the face of pressure.

How, then, can parents themselves develop the confidence to "say no" to compromises that may harm their children? How can they have the courage of their conviction that abstinence, or chastity, is not only best but really possible for today's young people? How can they actually tackle the task with serenity?

These are questions being addressed by an international network of parents and educators who will meet later this year in Manila for two days of expert input and discussions, followed by a motivational youth event. The congress is the second of its kind, the first being held in Mexico last year.

November's gathering will feature such experts in the field of character, or virtue, education as Thomas Lickona, director of the Centre for the 4th and 5th Rs (Respect and Responsibility) at the State University of New York; and Kevin Ryan, founder of the Centre for Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University.  

Character education, according to CAEC's Manifesto, aims to help children develop good dispositions that will lead students to responsible and mature adulthood. It is a matter of virtues rather than just values, of settled habits rather than slogans on the wall or a lapel button. A key virtue in the area of sexuality is self-mastery, another term for the cardinal virtue of temperance. But pretty well every virtue has a bearing on sexual behaviour: honesty, kindness, justice, courage…

Forming a child's character is clearly the parents' task first of all but teachers and the whole school community also play a key role. The community dimension is critical. As Andrew Mullins shows dramatically in another article this week, virtues, like vices, are caught -- from the example of parents and other models in the child's environment and particularly those to whom she or he is attached emotionally -- rather than verbally taught.

Interestingly, leading US sex education researcher Douglas Kirby has come to appreciate the importance of "norms and attachment" in the sex education enterprise. In an essay of 2001 about "what works" in sex-ed, based on a major review of sex education studies, he had this to say:

Innumerable studies demonstrated that the norms of individuals to whom teenagers are attached (e.g., family members, close friends and romantic partners) were strongly related to and consistent with the adolescents' own sexual and contraceptive behavior. In addition, when youth were more connected to groups or institutions that typically have or express values against adolescents' engaging in sex or unprotected sex (e.g., their families, schools and faith communities), they were less likely to engage in sex or unprotected sex. When they were more connected to groups or individuals typically with more permissive values (e.g., peers or boyfriends or girlfriends, especially older boyfriends or girlfriends), then they were much more likely to engage in sex. 

From this we can take it that where parents and school community -- and possibly a faith community -- are united in living certain virtues and sexual norms, they can be optimistic about a formal in sexuality education programme which is centred on abstinence and chastity. So long as they are good friends with their young people.

Perhaps this helps to explain the success of a programme used in a Santiago (Chile) girls' public high school -- evaluated in one of the few abstinence studies to qualify for inclusion in Kirby's latest meta-analysis. TeenSTAR was introduced for girls in their first year at the school. By following up three cohorts of girls for four years, the study found that the programme reduced pregnancy rates five-fold compared with girls who did not follow it.

Key features of the programme are:

* Parental approval -- written consent was required and 98 per cent of parents gave it.

* Mentoring of individual students by teachers.

* Weekly sessions over a time span (a year, or at least one term) long enough to generate changes in habits (norms, virtues) or to reinforce existing habits.

* Content that addresses all aspects of the young person, including the psychological and emotional development they are experiencing.

Further to the last point: the programme tackles in a straightforward way the strong sexual impulses of adolescence and gives students opportunities to develop skills for self-control. Girls are also trained in fertility awareness. Contraceptive methods are mentioned and explained theoretically towards the end of the course, but contraceptive use is not recommended. Sexual abstinence is recommended.

One can detect behind the scientific description of this particular experience the existence of a community of virtues and norms -- by no means perfect or homogeneous, but with its ideals more or less intact. It is people from precisely these sorts of communities that the organisers of the Manila gathering hope to attract with their upbeat catchline, Love, Laughter and Life Ever After.

And it is love, more than abstinence or even chastity, that sexuality education is about, according to educator and congress director Antonio Torralba: "Chastity is everyone's lifelong commitment to love. Love is the essence of, the reason for and the whole purpose of chastity. Love is the bigger picture; chastity is a way of getting there. And the journey starts in the family."

Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet


1. Alba DiCenso et al, "Interventions to reduce unintended pregnancies among adolescents: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials," Brtish Medical Journal 2002;324:1426 (15 June) 

* The Congress is being organised by InterMedia Consulting, EDUCHILD Foundation, Inc., and the Developmental Advocacy for Women Volunteerism, in collaboration with I Am S.T.R.O.N.G, a leadership and values formation program on responsible decision-making for Filipino adolescents, and with the full support of the Department of Education of the Philippines. For inquiries, please visit or call +632 6356114.


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