They're young. They have healthy relationships. The last thing they want is sex

Why? Because for career, spiritual and health reasons, young Britons are being seduced by the abstinence movement. And now they are to have their own reality TV show. By Steve Bloomfield
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The Independent Online

The BBC is to screen a controversial reality television show this summer in which, far from being encouraged to flirt, participants will need to keep their hands to themselves. Turning convention on its head, the 12 teenagers taking part will have to abstain from having sex for the entire six months of filming.

The BBC is to screen a controversial reality television show this summer in which, far from being encouraged to flirt, participants will need to keep their hands to themselves. Turning convention on its head, the 12 teenagers taking part will have to abstain from having sex for the entire six months of filming.

The series, with a working title ofThe Romance Academy, will attempt to uncover the hidden phenomenon of young British people who remain celibate before marriage. According to sex and relationship experts, the number of people who decide not to have sex is far higher than surveys suggest. "We are not as sexually active as we seem to be," said Dr Gary Wood, a social psychologist at Birmingham University. "It is very brave to say 'I don't have sex', so there is a tendency not to broadcast the fact. We assume that everyone is sexually rampant, but that is not the case."

One of the reasons for the attraction of celibacy is the growth in influence of the evangelical churches and the rise of Islam. And some professional people don't want unsuitable entanglements distracting from their careers.

The BBC's prime-time, three-part series will follow 12 teenagers as they struggle with their hormones to keep their chastity vows. Most of the teenagers involved have sexual pasts and know precisely what it is they have agreed to give up.

Each programme will explore a different way of remaining celibate. In the first show, the students were flown to Florida for an event organised by the Silver Ring Thing, the controversial evangelical abstinence movement that teaches youngsters that contraception doesn't always work. Teenagers attending a Silver Ring Thing event are asked to buy a silver ring to wear which reminds them of their vow to save themselves for their future spouse.

The series will investigate ways that young people can be intimate without having sex. The students are allowed to hug each other and even lie in bed together. But hugs and massages aside they are forbidden from touching people at any point on the body between the neck and the thighs.

According to the producers, it has not been easy for all the teenagers involved to keep themselves to themselves. Two months into the experiment one student has already had a "slight slip-up" and the producers say they have "grave doubts" about another.

This summer will also see the British relaunch of the Silver Ring Thing. The group arrived in Britain last year to bring abstinence education to the country's youth. But Denny Pattyn, the group's founder, admitted it was harder to encourage abstinence in Britain than in the US. "In America we have organised abstinence with federal funding, but in the UK the infrastructure isn't there," he said.

At first glance, Britain is a prime target for abstinence campaigners. Teenage pregnancy has dropped by 10 per cent over five years following the introduction of the Government's teenage pregnancy strategy, but this has been offset by a rising abortion rate and an explosion in sexually transmitted infections.

But sexual health campaigners are concerned that "abstinence only" education can worsen teenagers' sexual health. A recent study by Columbia University showed that more than 80 per cent of teenagers who had vowed not to have sex before marriage break the pledge within a few years. Those teenagers were a third less likely to use contraception.

Tony Kerridge, spokesman for Marie Stopes International, said: "Young people are having sex - it's a fact of life. You can stick your head in the sand or you can tackle it by equipping them with the facts. The problem with abstinence-only education is they peddle misinformation, for example saying that condoms don't work. When teenagers do have sex the chances are they won't use contraception."

'It's the ultimate way to say that you love someone'

Graham Shaw, 23, and Liz Light, 22, have been going out with each other for four months. Both are committed Christians and met at Cambridge University. Graham now volunteers for a charity in London. Liz is studying medicine at Oxford.

"If we were to break up after having sex it would be quite painful," says Graham. "Sex is something that is special. If you have had partners in the past it's not so special. You would be forever comparing - it would take something special out of it.

"I have been out with people who have had sex in the past. I always talked about it with them before we went out. Lots of my friends at university had sex. Lots of them actually agree in principle but in practice it's difficult.

"It is not particularly easy to carry out this decision. We have certain boundaries so we do not become tempted to have sex."

"Sex is such an ace thing," says Lucy. "If it is kept within marriage then it stays the ultimate way you can say you love someone. It must lose something if people have sex before marriage, particularly with different people. I have never felt under any pressure to have sex - and I don't feel like I'm missing out."

'People get picked on for being abstinent'

Katy Jones, 25, from Manchester, had boyfriends from the age of 16 to 20, before deciding that she wanted to wait to have sex until she was married.

"I was bullied at school and had low self-esteem. They were belittling me - I was made to feel unimportant. But then I started getting interest from boys and thought, 'maybe I'm not so ugly'. The guys I was getting interest from were not the guys you would take home to see your mum.

"I was surprised that a guy fancied me so I wanted to hang on to him and make him happy. I felt I needed a man to validate me. I was pushing the boundaries - they pushed me further than I wanted to go. We would be getting physical, staying over, that sort of thing. I did almost everything but...

"It got to breaking point. I was doing stuff I didn't want to do. I thought 'I'm worth more than this'. I just wish that I had saved myself for my husband.

"Young people get picked on for being abstinent. They are made to think that there is something wrong if you are not sleeping with someone. The media just pushes sex as normality. You should be out there doing it with whoever, whenever."

Interviews by Steve Bloomfield

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