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No sex please, we're American!

It has been tried with alcohol and with drugs. Now, America's prohibitionist tendency wants to apply the same technique to teenage sex. The motto is: "Just say no!" and some 500 people, the majority of them female and white, descended on Washington yesterday to further their cause at the first ever national Abstinence Summit.

Dressed in print frocks and sensible suits, these pillars of their respective communities were preparing to sit through two days of information and instruction about teenage depravity. They bore badges with wholesome American names like Amy and Abigail, Mary-Beth and Peggy, and they were desperate to learn how to get their message across. At 9am yesterday morning, armed with coffee mugs and sheaves of literature, they sat sedately in semi- darkness as a doctor introduced a series of slides that showed in gruesome anatomical detail the symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases, ectopic pregnancies and herpes-infected newborns.

Their second session was a lecture on the inadequacies of condoms: how many break or slip, the incompetence of many users, the unwillingness of others.

To obtain 100 per cent effectiveness in using a condom, you need experience, argued the speaker. Not surprisingly, he said, the best survey results in condom-efficacy turned out to have been obtained from a group of Nevada prostitutes. The ladies erupted in scornful laughter. That confirmed what everyone knew: that clumsy, inexperienced adolescents were the last people to be trusted with condoms.

Behind the platform was projected their keynote message in giant letters: "Say No because ... " In smaller letters were projected the reasons: "It's 100 per cent safe"; "it's effective"; "it's romantic"; "good things come to those who wait", and so on.

At the back of the hall were T-shirt stands and bookstalls run by organisations like "Best Friends", "kNOw", "True Love Waits" and "Free Teens".

The sexual abstinence movement is part of the currently influential pro- family, largely Christian and predominantly Southern, tendency in today's America, and its adherents sense that the political wind is blowing in their direction. They have just lobbied successfully for federal money - $250m (pounds 145m) of it over five years - to be earmarked for state-sponsored abstinence campaigns targeted at teenagers.

The condition attached to acceptance of the money is that it should not be used as part of an overall sex education campaign or presented alongside instruction in birth control. Only two states stood out against this condition, and now they too have agreed. Their reasoning is that not much has worked so far, so they might as well try this.

Certainly, the United States has a problem. Its teenage pregnancy rate, while dipping slightly in 1995 to 56 per 1,000 girls between 15 and 19, is almost twice as high as that of Britain (32 per 1,000), and many times higher than in the Scandinavian countries (fewer than 10 per 1,000). The instance of venereal disease is also high.

Many reasons are offered for the persistently high rates in the US, including the abject state of many urban areas, where a child offers a rare glimmer of hope to a young girl who sees no other future. Another factor cited by US liberals is the prevailing moralism that stigmatises sex education and birth control and treats abortion as tantamount to a capital offence.

But that is definitely not the view of the abstentionists. Yesterday, they were steering the curious away from a table of books by a certain Dr James Kirby, who argues that dissuasion is no more effective than anything else.