US teenagers get their kicks from chastity: In the classrooms and teenage hang-outs, 'virgin' is the new buzzword among America's young, writes David Usborne in Washington

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THERE is a new buzzword beginning to travel the classrooms and recreation yards of America and it has nothing to do with records or airliners. It is 'virgin', as in 'I'm gonna stay a . . .'. The movement is still small, but its momentum is evidently growing.

'Virgin clubs' are being formed in schools around the country and purity before marriage has become the topic of magazine and television features. Twenty five years after Woodstock, it is the new counter-culture.

Its strength was on display in Washington two weekends ago when followers of 'True Love Waits', a church-based campaign dedicated to promoting sexual abstinence, descended on the Mall in front of Congress and staked into the turf more than 200,000 white pledge-cards, each one signed by a young person swearing off intercourse until marriage. The few words on the cards are bland enough, but radical. 'Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, those I date, my future mate, and my future children to be sexually pure until the day I enter a covenant marriage relationship'.

The Rev Richard Ross, a Baptist minister from Nashville, Tennessee, founded True Love Waits early last year. He is not suprised by its success. 'All many teenagers wanted was a clear, postive call to abstinence,' he said in an interview. 'We have become so wrapped up in condoms and pregnancy that the only message teenagers were getting was that adults had given up on them and even expected them to be sexually active.'

Chad Jackson, 18, of Fairfax, Virginia, joined the campaign at a 'True Love Waits Banquet' at his local Baptist church last October. Good looking and popular, he has made no secret of his pledge. 'Some people get on my case and there is a bit of stuff behind my back. But mostly they respect it and it even opens the opportunity to talk about it,' he says. And he displays a rock-like certainty about his choice. 'If you think about it, although I haven't met her yet, I am already showing my wife how much I love her.'

Rhianna Ayers, 17, plays in the girls' soccer team in her school, where, she admits, sex and boys still dominate locker-room chat. But she feels no discomfort as a devotee of chastity. 'The majority of my school do have sex, but in my group of friends it's the cool thing to do the opposite.'

The trend has found strong resonance in political discussion. For the Christian Right, which is exerting an ever-increasing influence on the Republican Party, purity is at the heart of the 'family values' doctrine. Even President Bill Clinton is taking note. Plans to overhaul the US welfare system, unveiled last month, include a proposal to spend dollars 400m ( pounds 261m) on teaching abstinence in schools.

'It seems to be an idea whose moment has come,' suggests Dr Marion Howard, who 10 years ago pioneered an abstinence project for the mostly black state school system in Atlanta. She was inspired after conducting a sex education survey among teenage girls and discovering that 82 per cent complained that what they wanted to know above all was how to say 'No' when pressurised. Called 'Postpone Sexual Involvement', her course is now a model for the President's programme.

Dr Howard claims impressive results. According to her own data, children aged 13-14 who take the PSI course at school are four times less likely to engage in sexual activity than those who do not. The differential narrows but remains significant as the children get older. Nonetheless, Dr Howard believes still that the pressure on children to try sex remains overwhelming even among 9- and 10- year-olds. 'It has become the societal norm. They think sex is just part of growing up and dating.'

On the front line of Dr Howard's programme are the 'teen- leaders' who are paid by Atlanta to teach the course in the hope that they will make a greater impression than adults. One is Jade Rutland, 16. 'We do become role models for some of these kids and a very important influence,' she said. 'We teach them about friendship and also why it's important not always to run with the crowd. When you know that you're making your own decisions, it's easier to say 'No' .' Jade sees, if not a tide, then certainly a new current of chastity. 'I don't think it's a fad, but I do think that more people are deciding to abstain. I think it's a change in society.'

Recent statistics from the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (Siecus) suggest that changing attitudes are indeed leading to new practices. In a 1994 study recently released, the Council found that teen sexual activity is declining - 36 per cent of high school students reported having had sexual intercourse compared to 54 per cent in a comparable 1990 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.