Beware the virgin soldier roadshow

The celibate teenagers are not only miseducated into ignorance; they are usually miserable

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The Sliver Ring Thing is on its way to Britain. More than 3.5 million teenagers from the United States have taken a public pledge before a cheering audience to remain virgins until their wedding night. The Silver Ring roadshow is one of the groups that stages these virginity carnivals - and it's opening a UK branch. It even offers teenagers a nice silver ring so they can send out the message that they are - in the words of one of their stickers - "Virgin Territory. Hands off."

The Sliver Ring Thing is on its way to Britain. More than 3.5 million teenagers from the United States have taken a public pledge before a cheering audience to remain virgins until their wedding night. The Silver Ring roadshow is one of the groups that stages these virginity carnivals - and it's opening a UK branch. It even offers teenagers a nice silver ring so they can send out the message that they are - in the words of one of their stickers - "Virgin Territory. Hands off."

Many British people will automatically dismiss these evangelists as American cranks - but their attitudes might be closer to the British mainstream than many people would like to admit. Teenage sex is always presented in Britain as a problem that must be tackled, dealt with, shut down, punished. In this climate, the Silver Ring Thing is not so insane. If all teenage sex is seen as a problem, abstinence looks like a solution.

British people should start to understand that, for most teenagers, sex is a pleasure and a joy, one of the few consolations in the protracted confusion and misery of adolescence. We should start from a different premise: that teenage sex is a natural and often good thing, with occasional negative consequences.

Teenage pregnancy and escalating rates of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) are real problems. But once we admit that there is a healthy side to teenage sex as well, we can begin to see why promoting chastity is both psychologically unhealthy and - crucially - so ineffective that, wherever it is tried, STDs and pregnancy rates rise.

Don't be deceived by the lazy thought that evangelists about to arrive here are just gormless hicks. The abstinence movement is very clever. The religious right learned in the 1980s that ranting against "sluts" and Aids victims - and saying that the West is now a latter-day Soddom and Gomorrah - is a certain route to extinction. The evangelists made a tactical shift, and began to couch their agenda in the Oprah-Ricki-Jerry language of self help and empowerment. So now they talk about giving teenagers a "choice" about sex, "empowering women to say no", and having compassion for the victims of sexually transmitted diseases.

All this masks their real project: to rehabilitate the notion of sexual shame. Scrape away the honey and sweetness, and shame is their defining, driving concept. When they exalt teenage girls to stay "pure", they are implicitly damning sexually active girls as "impure", dirty, fallen.

When they preach about the "dangers" of sex - "not just to your health but to your reputation" - they revive and endorse social stigmas against sexual freedom. If you wade through enough of their material, you can see their teeth flash.

One video used in Texas schools says, "Will this condom protect your reputation? Go ahead and use a condom. You'll still be known as a slut."

They want to take one of the great pleasures of life, coat it in a thick layer of shame and confine it within marriage. They want all teenagers, whose bodies are programmed to seek out mates, to suppress their sexual desire completely through "prayer, friendship and God's guidance".

For some parents who lived through the Sixties bonfire of taboos - and are now anxious when they hear horror stories about 12-year old mothers - this attempt to rehabilitate sexual shame might even seem a deal worth brokering. The perception of an Absolutely Fabulous generation - liberal parents confronted with conservative teenagers - don't seem to be matched by reality. The polls - and the reality of any city centre on a Saturday night - show that most young people reject sexual conservatism.

So it's almost impossible to imagine this shame-based agenda being popular with British teenagers, who are more likely to pray towards Ibiza than the Vatican. Yet some readers - especially concerned parents - might reckon that, since there are so many cultural pressures on teenagers to jump into bed, one little countervailing force might be a welcome corrective, whatever its wacky excesses.

But that ignores a key fact. In order to terrify young people into shunning all sex, the abstinence evangelicals batter them with one message: condoms don't work. They wildly exaggerate the small margin of error and accidents that can result from condom use. "'Protection' doesn't protect!" their websites declare.

The Silver Ring Thing followers often cite the "research" of a scientist called Joe McIlhaney, who runs an outfit called The Medical Institute in Texas. He declares that "condoms are not a reliable defence against today's epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases", and he says "the only way to prevent STDs" is "a monogamous marriage." Contraception is worthless; sex is death.

In case you think I'm exaggerating, you should watch the popular Sex Respect video, distributed to more than one million US teens. A sassy, defiant 16 year-old girl asks an instructor, "So what if I want to have sex before I get married?" He furrows his brow and replies, "Well, I guess you'll just have to be prepared to die."

This message has tragic effects. Social scientists at Columbia University conducted a two-year study of 12,000 adolescents to see if abstinence programmes worked. The results were unequivocal. The "pledges" fail - 88 per cent of the abstinence brigade do have sex before marriage.

Yet the evangelists did have a clear impact: teens who promised to stay 'pure' were 20 per cent less likely to use condoms when they finally did have sex than normal teens. They were more likely to get the very diseases they have been drilled to fear. But when you try to engage these evangelists in a dialogue about evidence, you suddenly realise you are missing the point. They have a superstitious objection to pre-marital sex that precedes and disregards reason and facts. The Silver Ring Thing website declares that "by sleeping with someone, you are putting up a wall between you and God." That's the core of their argument. STDs are simply a whip to lash against lustful teens.

And they don't only want to resurrect shame for consenting straight teens. They want to make homosexuality - and abortion - taboo.

And there's another part of the picture, rarely glimpsed. The celibate teenagers themselves are not only miseducated into ignorance; they are usually miserable.

Last year, I did an undercover investigation for The Independent into the Christian Coalition, accompanying their Solidarity Tour to Israel. Many of them were active in abstinence campaigns. I discovered that these crusades are another form of chronic obsession with sex. They spent as much time raving and drooling about sex - and seeing it everywhere - as any internet porn addict.

However messy, disease-carrying or strange sex can sometimes be, militantly suppressing it in the name of God is worse. Sexual shame has ruined countless lives. Now we are moving beyond it, almost everyone agrees that it doesn't deserve an army of virgins bearing silver rings. But have we really accepted that teenagers need and deserve shame-free sex as much as anyone else? The constant public angst about how to stop teenagers having sex suggests not.

j.hari@independent.co.uk j.hari@independent.co.uk

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