Over sex and over here: US virgins to preach restraint to British teens

Young Americans pledged to sexual purity are bringing their Silver Ring Thing road show to the UK. Nicholas Pyke and Andy McSmith get a preview
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The Independent Online

America's moral right, backed with massive funding from George Bush, is to target British teenagers in a mission to protect their virginity.

America's moral right, backed with massive funding from George Bush, is to target British teenagers in a mission to protect their virginity.

The Silver Ring Thing movement, which preaches a gospel of sexual purity before marriage, will this week launch a seven-city tour of the UK and Ireland. A young crew of virgins will be flown over to spread the word.

The moral message from across the Atlantic will co-incide with the launch of a campaign by British politicians and religious leaders to tone down sex education in schools, because they say it is encouraging young people to experiment with sex too soon.

Up to 20,000 young Americans are said to have bought the Silver Ring Thing's $12 silver-coloured rings, which pledge the wearers to a life of pre-marital chastity, supported with programmes of Bible classes and the endorsement of Erika Harold, Miss America 2003.

Now the group is focusing on this side of the Atlantic. With the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Western Europe and rising levels of sexually transmitted infection, Britain might seem a natural target for its marketing.

The group's road show features lights, music, stand-up comedy and a rap track titled, "Oh no, don't give it away ..." It will target audiences in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow, Belfast and Dublin at the end of June.

There was little surprise last year when Britney Spears, the one-time pin-up girl for teenage virginity, came crashing down from her pedestal, admitting to something more than chastity with boyfriend Justin Timberlake.

Despite that very public fall from grace, the US abstinence movement is thriving. Last year it received $120m from the federal government and, of that, the Silver Ring Thing received $700,000 - by far the largest single grant.

Some have accused it of scaremongering about the scale and risk of sexual infection. "There is no such thing as safe sex," said the evangelical pastor who heads the group, Denny Pattyn, as he prepared to fly to Britain last week. Prominent on the movement's website is a book called Epidemic: How Teen Sex Is Killing Our Kids.

"The basic bottom line is that we have got problems. Who wants their child to have a sexually transmitted disease? Yet there's 30 of them out there. If you put oral sex in there, it's even worse," Mr Pattyn said.

"It means there are people not going to be able to have children. We have young ladies who are having hysterectomies at 18, 20 and 21. It's a real, real problem."

He described the group's silver ring as a reminder for "when you're in the back seat of the car and you're tempted, and you need that extra inspiration".

The Silver Ring Thing, based in Pittsburgh, is prominent among a range of US abstinence programmes, which include True Love Waits, once associated with Ms Spears. The Silver Ring Thing also wants a piece of the $1.5bn allocated by the Bush government to combat Aids in Africa.

In Britain, teen pregnancy and infection are major concerns for campaigners, churches and the Government, which launched a sex education strategy in 1999. Pregnancy rates have fallen, but sexually transmitted infection rates are rising sharply.

The deputy director of the conservative think-tank Civitas , Robert Whelan said it was "scandalous" abstinence approaches did not form part of government strategy. The few groups that do exist in the UK, such as Love For Life, receive no official funding.

A meeting, to be hosted by Catholic Labour MP Geraldine Smith, has been set up next month to promote an overhaul of sex education. Publicity for the meeting, to be held on 15 June, praised the work of campaigns such as the Silver Ring Thing. Behind the meeting is Dr Hans Christian Raabe, a GP who who believes the young should abstain from sex before marriage . He is a member of the Manchester-based Maranatha Community, a Christian congregation which has also campaigned vigorously against cannabis.

But whether such an openly evangelical approach will work is a different matter. British sex educators warn that the "just say no" method is at best ineffective, and at worst dangerous.

A 2001 study from Columbia University, published in the American Journal of Sociology, suggested that abstinence pledges do prolong virginity for a year or two, but that nine out of 10 pledgers end up breaking the promise. Worse still, when they do, they are less likely to use contraception.

Teen celibacy

Why three British youngsters have chosen to refrain from sex until they are married

I've seen my friends and their relationships, and many do have serious regrets. There's no closeness to their relationships. That's not shown by the media.

Alex Smyth, 17

When I marry, I won't be comparing one person with two or three others before. You get the chance to learn a lot about the other person without all the added pressure of sex.

Dave Barr, 17

My mum bought me a ring two years ago and I promised to wear it until I'm married. It's my decision too. It's the only way you can be without the risk of STIs and pregnancy.

Dannii Moffett, 17