Jennifer Liss

May 8, 2007

Lubbock, Texas, the setting in the documentary “The Education of Shelby Knox,” has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country. Hang around on a Friday night, and you’ll hear about sex, lots of it, and maybe even Fuck Fest, a rating game where boys score girls. An influential town pastor, self-described as an intolerant Christian, who says that “sex is what two dogs do on a street corner,” is fighting the problem with abstinence advocacy. So is Shelby Knox, a self-described liberal Christian who took an abstinence pledge–but also set out to take down the school board’s abstinence-only sex education policy.

One teen I spoke with said that when people hear “teen” and “sex” they think about two things: pregnancy and STDs. Shelby, and others like her with their complex sexuality and sophisticated sexual politics, defy that perception. And now that the teen pregnancy rate is at an all-time low, the understanding of what teens are doing in the bedroom (or not doing) might begin to change. I spoke with teen abstinence advocates and teen editors at Sex Etc., a national magazine and website on sexual health written by teens and published by Answer, a national comprehensive sexuality education organization, about why they think teen pregnancy is on the decline.

Virgin and proud

In Chicago’s south side in front of an auditorium of her peers–many who are sexually active, some who are already parents–Taylor Moore says something that could be totally alienating.

“I’m not worried about STDs or pregnancy. I’m a 17-year-old virgin.”

But there is something about Taylor and her abstinence message that seems to inspire girls, even girls who are nothing like her. Taylor thinks that something is about hope and possibility and success–three things that many of her peers may know little about.

“When you open yourself up to STDs or teen pregnancy, you limit the possibilities in your life as far as success,” says Taylor who will be attending college this fall to study instrumental music performance, with an emphasis in percussion.

Motherhood, Taylor says, is the first thing that many of her schoolmates have to feel proud of. “To carry a baby on your hip is seen as a status symbol, especially in the African-American community,” says Moore, who is African-American. “I think for (the moms) it is a sense of accomplishment.”

Taylor grew up in a single-mom household. Her mom told her that even though she had sex outside of marriage, Taylor should wait–for a husband who has been ordained by God. Taylor was introduced to abstinence values at a very young age, and she’s been traveling the country in support of abstinence since she was 13 and met Libby Gray Macke, executive director of Project Reality, whom she now calls her God-Aunt. She’s even recorded a single, “I’m Worth Waiting For.”

Abstinence may or may not be for everyone, but virginity is no longer taboo. Seventy-five percent of teens do not think it is embarrassing to admit that they are virgins, according to “With One Voice 2007,” (PDF) a survey released in February by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

“I don’t need to get caught up with a boyfriend,” says Taylor. “I need to stay focused on positive things like academics and spreading this message. When I find a husband, it will be a beautiful thing.”

A recent report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (PDF) shows that youth enrolled in the four abstinence-only programs studied were no more likely than those not in the programs to delay sexual initiation, have fewer partners, or abstain from sex entirely. This report validates what comprehensive sex advocates have been saying all along: Abstinence programs do not prevent teen pregnancy. But still, there are teens for whom abstinence is the only option.

“I do think that abstinence is a viable, realistic goal,” 18-year-old Gaurav Dubey wrote in an email. “It’s not that people aren’t able to be abstinent, it’s that people simply do not care for a meaningful relationship when they can have sex instead.”

For Gaurav, abstinence is a no-brainer. All the reasons why teens might have sex–pleasure, curiosity, peer pressure, to prove their love–are not worth it to Gaurav. Values in his household were not typically American, he says. His parents, who emigrated from India, had an arranged marriage and never had premarital partners. Gaurav will attend college in Florida next fall as a premed student. Then he plans to engage in relationships–but not sex.

Mixed up by the message

The danger of the mixed message is one of the pillars of the abstinence-only argument against comprehensive sex education. Abstinence advocates argue that for the same reason we wouldn’t tell kids not to smoke, but if they do, to just have one cigarette a day, we shouldn’t tell kids not to have sex and then tell them how to protect themselves if they do.

Comprehensive sex education advocates say the message isn’t mixed; It’s realistic, like telling kids not to drink, but if they do, to call someone responsible for a ride.

Taylor feels that the abstinence-plus education she received at her school was confusing to her classmates who hadn’t chosen abstinence. “It’s like lowering the bar, lowering standards. It’s a copout.”

Sharanya Durvasula doesn’t agree. “I think teens are going to have sex whether or not they take an abstinence pledge. When they do have sex they need to know how to protect themselves or they end up getting pregnant,” says the 17-year-old junior from Princeton Junction, N.J. Sharanya, who is a Sex, Etc. editor, attends a public high school of 1,500 where comprehensive sex education is taught.

“We’re educating kids for life,” says Monica Rodriguez, vice president of education and training at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. “In K-12 we have one shot to educate people, and we have to take advantage of that.

We teach kids why it is important to vote even though it is not something you can do in school. Young people get that it is not necessarily information for now, but information for later.”

Americans want more information–on both sides of the issue, according to the recent “With One Voice 2007” survey (PDF). Seventy three percent of adults and 56 percent of teens believe that young people need more information about both abstinence and contraception, rather than an either/or approach.

Reliable sources

Sharanya estimates that more than half of her friends have had sex–safe sex. “I don’t think I’ve heard one story about unsafe sex,” she says.

She has friends who are on the pill or the ring, and most of them “double up” with a condom. “I think the reason that we’re better at protecting than past generations really has to do with fact that we’re more educated.”

Unlike Sharanya, Karen Choucrallah says that most of the people she knows have no clue what they are doing, like a friend who recently lost her virginity and spent 20 minutes fumbling with a condom. Karen is 16-year-old junior at a Catholic high school in New Jersey and a Sex Etc. editor. At her school, a quarter semester of anatomy (mixed in with drug prevention education) during freshman year qualifies as sex education. If students have questions about sex, she says, they don’t ask.

When Karen heard the term “fingering” for the first time, she had no idea what it meant and wasn’t about to face ridicule by asking. So she looked it up online at She says it’s better than going to friends who get their information from MTV. Sometimes Karen goes to her mom, who is very open, with questions about sex. But she says that because her Lebanese family is socially conservative, Karen, who is first generation, ends up educating her mom about a lot–like what a blow job is.

Teens continue to say that parents–much more than friends, sex educators, or the media–most influence their decisions about sex. However, parents of teens continue to underestimate their influence on their child’s choices regarding sex, according to “With One Voice” survey.

“Teens can’t make educated decisions if they aren’t educated,” Karen says. “They need sources they can turn to. My generation is growing up really quickly. Sex is out there and you can’t be sheltered from it.”

Jennifer Liss is a contributing writer for WireTap and a freelance writer living in San Francisco.