A lot of kids are putting off sex, and not because they can't get a date. They've decided to wait, and they're proud of their chastity, not embarrassed by it. Suddenly, virgin geek is giving way to virgin chic.
FREDDA CHALFIN'S STUdents drag their chairs into a circle, joking and jostling until, finally, 81 pairs of baggy-jeaned legs are sitting knee to knee. Their style is haute teen: flannel shirts, fist-size earrings, baseball caps and bandannas tied Aunt Jemima style. Standard, too, is the, pose of adolescent ennui. But it dissolves the moment Chalfin closes the door. Here, in a basement classroom at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Chalfin leads a daily encounter group, and the box of Kleenex on the floor is just the most visible sign that, for the next 45 minutes, there will be no routine academics. Chalfin, casual in jeans and ankle hoots, grew tip in the age of peace and love, and her rules are gentle but firm: no lateness, no gum, no breaking confidences. No one needs a reminder. Three weeks into the term. her 14-to 18-year-olds are already each other's protectors, offering enough security to reveal an early-childhood sexual abuse. to applaud a schoolyard refusal to smoke some weed--and to support a choice to forgo sex in a teenager's sex-crazy world.
With a note of innocence--or maybe it's shyness--they recite the affirmation scrawled on the board: I LOVE MY SEXUALITY I AM AT PEACE I AM FREE TO MAKE MY OWN DECISIONS REGARDING SEX. Chalfin jumps in, challenging the students to defend their resolve. "look at that statement. Do you call the shots regarding sex? Or do you feel pressure? Do you feel you're going to lose that person if you don't have sex? How free are you really?"
Even here, in a corner of the Bronx that runs the economic and social gamut, it's obvious that abstinence is looking good to a lot more kids. "If you don't want to give it up, you don't have to," says Myra. "If that's what he wants, tell him to forget about it."
"What's a guy supposed to do when he wants to do it and she doesn't?" Phil chides.
What happens when he get hot and horny and you're a virgin?" Chalfin asks. "How are you gonna work it out? It's like you're a vegetarian and he loves steak--where are you going to eat?"
"If your relationship is based on sex, you don't have a relationship," says Sweeney. "You can't do it 24-7."
"I want to be different from other girls," says Betsy. "I want a guy to look at me in another way. I want to have respect for myself. I see girls getting into trouble, and I don't want to get hurt. I want to be a virgin."
Just a year ago, teenagers and abstinence would have seemed as unlikely a pair as Lisa Marie Presley and Michael Jackson. But after a decades-long explosion in births among unmarried teens and a growing number of AIDS cases among young adults, forgoing sex--or at least delaying it--is finding new respect. Some of the impetus comes from parents, many of them baby boomers who charged, buck naked, into the sexual revolution. Teachers who've offered up the abstinence message with a wink and a yawn are also starting to treat it as seriously as they do safe sex. Even the most liberal president in 30 years is talking the talk: Bill Clinton has made abstinence a cornerstone of his proposed $400 million campaign against teen pregnancy, turning virginity into a matter of public health. not just private morality.
But when you're a teenager, even the president is just another droning voice. What counts is what flits by on the tube and pulses through the headphones of your Discman. And out there. in the supersexed world of pop culture, the image of abstinence is shifting from the pimply dweeb who can't get a date: virgin geek is giving way to virgin chic. Winsome rocker Juliana Hatfield, 26, announced her virginity a few years back, in Interview magazine, no less. MTV veejay Kennedy declared her virginity with a whatcha'-gonna-make-of-it air. NBA star A. C. Green has his own athletes-for-abstinence campaign. And up and down the TV channels, writers who once rushed characters into bed are hot to keep them out. Witness virgin goddess Tori Spelling. whose "Beverly Hills 90210" character clings to her virtue even when she feels like the last virgin on Rodeo Drive. And though the fictional Sarah Owens gave up her chastity on "Models, Inc.," Cassidy Rae, the 18-year-old actress who plays her, has become virginity's most visible standard-bearer. "I want to stay as pure as I can for my [future] husband." Cassidy says.
Of course. this isn't a return to the '50s. when the moral code was as rigid as the cone-shaped bras. Today three quarters of boys and half of girls have had sex by the time they graduate high school. A century ago girls reached puberty at about 15 and married at 22; today, the age of puberty has dropped to 12.5, the marrying age has jumped to 24.3--and no one expects teens to ignore the call of their hormones for a dozen years. "Once you're 12, the pressure starts," Sweeney, 15, says after class as she and some friends sprawl on the linoleum floor in a guidance office. "To hold on three years until you're 15, you may not think it's a long time, but it is."
Still, teachers, counselors and social scientists say more kids are waiting, though these changes in attitudes and behavior won't show up in statistics for years. The question is, why now? Eugene Genovese, scholar-in-residence at the University Center in Georgia and an observer of campus life for 25 years, calls abstinence "a broad-based counterattack against the counterculture that developed since the 1960s." In Thousand Oaks, Calif., a diverse bedroom community where the streets are wide, the air unpolluted and many of the families intact, Wayne Tanaka, 47, takes a more personal view. He explains what 12 used to be like. "We were riding bicycles and going to the corner drugstore and getting a soda and reading a comic book." Sounds very Stone Age, he concedes. "Now, by the time a child has reached 16 or 18, they've seen so much that they're missing out o childhood," says Tanaka, who has a 12-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son. "A 12-year-old should be enjoying 12-year-old things."
But 12-year-old things aren't the same. Teen bibles like Seventeen, Sassy and YM serve up all sorts of sexual frankness. Sexual positions, sexual satisfaction are all part of a startling adolescent discourse--so are whirlpooling, the Spur Posse, sexual harassment, domestic violence and regular reports of high-school boys sexually assaulting junior-high-school girls. Not surprising, in less than a generation, some kids have come to view sex as a sadistic sideshow. Instead of an act meant to bring two people together, it can drive them apart. This is fun?
In hindsight, the sexual revolution seems terribly quaint. Back when do-I-love-him was their biggest worry, girls actually said things like "If I sleep with him tonight, will I be able to look at myself in the mirror tomorrow?" That was before AIDS. Now kids sound like Damien Ritter. a 15-year-old from Missoula, Mont., who wears his virginity as defiantly as the pony-tail that sticks straight up from his head. "A person can have sex once and be dead six months later." Damien says with a dose of adolescent theatrics. AIDS among teens is still relatively rare--partly because it can take a decade for the virus to develop into full-blown AIDS. But that doesn't make AIDS less frightening.
"My uncle died of AIDS this year. He was 32," a 14-year-old named Ruth says quietly, sitting in the DeWitt Clinton guidance office. She's staring down at her snub-nosed sneakers, her wavy black hair covering her cream), olive cheeks. As her friends nod in recognition. Ruth explains that. when she hit high school last year. she was sure she was the last virgin alive. She decided that she didn't care. "My uncle made me think about it so much." says Ruth. whose mother is an AIDS educator and . whose father is a minister. "Try to imagine his emotional thing. Seeing him go through so much pain. I realized I don't ever want to look at my little sister--she's my whole world--or my cousin and have to say. 'Please. help me'."
Even if they're not scared of AIDS. kids are worried about diseases that could leave them infertile or babies that could weigh them down with adult responsibilities. By the age of 21, according to the Centers for Disease Control. one in four young people is already infected with a sexually transmitted disease like chlamydia, syphilis or gonorrhea. And though teen-pregnancy rates are higher among the poor, it burdens all kids. Between 1960 and 1989, the percentage of teens who were unmarried when they had their first child rose from 33 percent to 81 percent, according to the Alan Guttmacher institute. the research arm of Planned Parenthood. And a new Guttmacher study shows that nearly one third of girls who had a first baby by 16 had a second within two years. Jamal Richardson. a Brooklyn 15-year-old. needs only to look at his brother to know why he doesn't want to have sex yet. Just 17, Jamal's brother has a 2-year-old daughter, and most of what he earns in his after-school job goes to supporting the baby. "I don't know much about growing up, but I know he isn't having any fun doing it," Jamal says. "He always tells me when I'm talking about the honeys to just keep my pants on."
Every kid who's sat through even one sex ed class knows that condoms can make a difference, but teenagers are notoriously lax about using contraception, even when they can walk into a school health office and pick up a handful of Trojans. Abortion, never an easy alternative for anyone, is even more daunting when you're young. Back in the '70s--and even the '80s--any woman worth her Ms. subscription knew she could pass around the hat in her dorm and collect a few hundred bucks for an abortion. Access was rarely a problem: every big city and most college towns had a clinic or at least an abortion doctor, and if he wasn't Marcus Welby, well, at.least he had an office. Now 25 states require parental consent or notification before a teenager can have an abortion. and 84 percent of all U.S. counties don't even have a provider. Before Roe v. Wade, women feared they could die if they had an abortion: now, doctors fear being killed if they perform one. The climate has chilled; even ardent pro-choicers don't treat "choice" so lightly.
Tapping into kids' fears, parents' natural protectiveness and the country's conservative moral sway, Richard Ross, a Baptist youth minister from Nashville, helped launch the virginity movement. Ross says he decided to act last year, when two 14-year-olds told him, "We're the only virgins left in our school." The result: an organization called True Love Waits. With unabashed boosterism, TLW offers a motto ("True love waits"), a theme song ("True Love Waits") and a pledge card for virgins to promise abstinence until marriage. Though critics dismiss it as the sexual equivalent of the "Just Say No" drug campaign, TLW struck a chord. This summer 22,000 "sexually pure" young people converged on Washington, D.C., in a show of strength that included the planting of 200,000 pledge cards on the Washington Mall. Not exactly Woodstock South. but the sea of rainbow-colored pledge cards and telegenic faces drove home the point.
Even Christian virgins will tell you it's not always easy being chaste. Walking hand in hand with her boyfriend during the Washington rally, Jill Clayton explained that abstinence would be nearly impossible ff they didn't set strict limits. "We kiss. we French-kiss. we embrace," said Jill, 20, a junior at Carson Newman College in Jefferson City, Tenn., "and that's it." She cast a guilty look at her boyfriend of two years, Scott Dender. Well, once, after a romantic movie. they went further than they wanted to--though not all the way. Afterward, they talked about boundaries. "We just said we can't go that far again," said Scott, who proposed to Jill this summer.
The Christian right's real impact has been in bringing abstinence front-and-center in sex ed. Now most teachers embrace it. The reason: kids say they're looking for help--and support--in how not to have sex. "When you say a guy is coming up against you in the back of a car or in the hallway or in someone's house and what are you going to do about it, they need their sisters saying, 'Don't do it,' and understanding that, God, it's so scary," says consultant Le-note Boseman, who taught sex ed in New York City for 24 years and helped rewrite the city's curriculum. But not all kids are hearing the same message. Conservatives, fueled by tens of millions of dollars in funding for "family centered" programs during the Reagan-Bush years, demanded a universal chastity theme and got it: 90 percent of sex ed courses now include abstinence (although some teachers still approach it with the enthusiasm of a cop reading a suspect his Miranda rights).
Nationwide, about 1 per cent of sex ed courses preach abstinence--and nothing else. The best-known, and most controversial, is Sex Respect, an 11-year-old program that warns against all manner of sex, including necking. ("Petting [before] marriage can sometimes harm our sex life within marriage") In fact, Sex Respect's student workbook is, in many ways, a throwback to sexual attitudes of the '50s. Every chapter offers catchy aphorisms ("Control your urgin', be a virgin." "Pet your dog; not your date"). And, for kids who've lapsed, there's the promise of "secondary" virginity ("Any person who wants it can have it by deciding to change").
The problem is, abstinence-only programs rarely work. In a new review of sex ed courses, the CDC found that kids tune out one-note messages--abstinence only as well as contraception-only. What does work? Courses that talk abstinence, teach safe sex and refuse to send kids out into a cold, cruel, sexually charged world on their own. "The only programs that have any impact teach kids how to say 'no' to someone you really like, someone you might want to say 'yes' to down the road." says Peter Scales of the Center for Early Adolescence at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "That's not an easy skill for a 14-or 15-year-old. Frankly, it's not an easy lesson for some 35-year-olds."
Actually, it's easy to underestimate how much teen-agers struggle with sex. Beth lost her virginity during the first week of May. "It was a Thursday, I think," says the feisty 13-year-old from working-class Manchester, N.H., who asked that her real name not be used. She was at a friend's house, and one thing led to another and, before you knew it ... "It was something I got pressured into," Beth says with a sigh.
She recalls the afternoon with disjointed stream-of-consciousness. It was just like in the movies, Beth insists. "It felt good being with him." Physically, though, it hurt. A lot. It wasn't too safe, either--they didn't use birth control. But the worst part came when Beth and her boyfriend broke up--six weeks after they started going out, four days after they slept together.
Now, Beth's angry. Like many teenagers, she doesn't want to plumb the lofty issues of sex and social responsibility, or prosaic matters like pregnancy and AIDS. What she wants to talk about is more direct: the fear of getting hurt. After they'd had sex, Beth says, her boyfriend blabbed--to everyone. "Girls afterwards have all the pain, all the rumors. I couldn't take it." she says, chewing on a stick of Big Red.
No one has to explain Beth's fury to another girl. By the time she's bought her first bra. every female child knows that there's a double standard--and that she's doomed to be on the losing end. A steely edge cuts the air as some DeWitt Clinton girls explain how the boys view them:
"Guys have preconceived notions of what you are by what you look like," says Miesha, a 15-year-old woman-child who wears her long hair '70s-straight and studs her French manicure with tiny rhinestones.
"If you dress a little preppy, they think you're a virgin," adds Sweeney, shrouded, safely, in work shirt and jeans.
"And on the day you put on something nice, they call you a 'ho," says Meisha, wearing a tiny T shirt that does little to hide her curves. "They say, 'She's oversexed--she's no virgin'."
Virginity isn't just about fear. Many teenagers say that they've actually weighed the demands of school with the demands of a sexual relationship and have decided, for now, to wait. The phone in the Basoukas house in suburban Manchester, N.H., rings a lot these days, and it's usually for 16-year-old Lindsay, who, according to her sister, has actually burned up several phones. Though the callers are often boys wanting to date the petite Molly Ringwald look-alike, Lindsay tells most of them. "Let's just stick to being friends." This summer Lindsay started seeing Matt, and though the subject of sex hasn't come up, she isn't worried. "I know what I want, and I know that"s just not one of the things I want to do now," says Lindsay. "I'm having a great time being 16 and having tons of my friends around."
That's the kind of talk parents love to hear. David Leeman, the music director of a nondenominational church in Winnetka. Ill., has been open with his sons, Michael, 16, Philip, 17, and Jonathan, 21, about sex. To underscore how he feels about abstinence, Leeman will give each son a signet ring on his 18th birthday to remind him not to go all the way until he's married. Though the family's beliefs are rooted in religion, Barbara Leeman says "you could do away with all the religious reasons" and they'd still feel the same. "They don't force stuff on us," says Michael, who plays soccer and basketball at New Trier High School. "It's not like, 'If you have sex and we find out, you're grounded to the rest of your life'."
Especially for baby boomers, teenage sexuality stirs wildly conflicting emotions. Theirs, after all, was the first generation to experience sexual freedom in an exuberant way. "The thrill of going to a party and thinking, Who do I want to sleep with? Who do I want to go home with? ... It was exciting," says Pam Rogers, 44, of Brookline, Mass. But those were college students marching into the sexual revolution, not high-schoolers or prepubescent kids. For any parent who came of age in the '60s, it's not easy knowing what to say without sounding like a hypocrite.
Maybe, suggests Judy Rosensweig, a little fear is good. Rosensweig, 45, grew up well-to-do in West Hartford, Conn., with parents who were politically liberal and generally permissive--except when it came to Judy and sex. So she did what any child of the '60s would do: she rebelled. At 14, she tried pot; at 16, she dropped acid, and at college at the University of New Mexico she was interviewed for a Playboy article on sex on campus. Last year, when Rosensweig's 12-year-old daughter, Brooke, confided that some of her friends were having sex, all the dangers--AIDS, pregnancy, STDs--raced through Rosensweig's mind. "Now, I don't regret anything I did, but I doubt I would do it again," says Rosensweig, a decorative house painter in Delray Beach, Fla. She tried to convey that to Brooke, using herself as an example. "When I was 14, I was going out with guys who were 20, 26," she says. "Now, I always say. 'Wait till you're older.' She asks. 'How old?' I say, '35'."
After 30 years of sexual exploration--and exploitation--it was inevitable that some sort of upheaval would happen. Don't think of it as another revolution; it's more like. a midcourse correction, somewhere between free love and take-back-the-night marches. Virginity even offers its own post-postfeminist twist: the girls everyone is rushing to protect may actually turn out tougher and more self-reliant than their mothers. This, after all, is the first generation to really understand you-don't-have-to-be-touched-any-where/ you-don't-want-to-be-touched, and it already colors their lives.
Back when More was a fledgling feminist, it was hip to declare, '"It's my body and I'll sleep with as many guys as I want to." Now, even high-schoolers insist, "It's my body and I don't have to sleep with anyone if I don't want to." Of course, it's always hard to lose a boyfriend--especially if it's because you didn't sleep with him--but life doesn't end. Sitting in her dorm room at tiny Rivier College in New Hampshire, Ebony Doran, a freshman and a virgin, admits that sex is a big part of life "Yes, I think about it," says Ebony, 17. "But I know that I control my body and my mind." For many teenagers, that makes virginity even more liberating than sex.
The median age for first intercourse is 16.6 years for boys and 17.4 for girls, according to the latest available data. But nearly 20 percent (of both sexes) remain virgins throughout their teenage years. Percent of teenagers who have not had intercourse:
Age 12 91% Age 13 84 Age 14 77 Age 15 70 Age 16 58 Age 17 41 Age 18 29 Age 19 15
Eight in 10 abstinent teens cite fear of sexually transmitted diseases as one of the reasons they remain virgins. Less than half as many cite religion.
Want to wait until I'm in a committed relationship 87% Worry about sexually transmitted diseases 85% Worry about pregnancy 84% Want to wait until I'm older 84% Worry about AIDS 83% Haven't met the right person yet 80% Just not ready for sex yet 79% Want to wait until I'm married 71% Against my religion 40%
Sexual experimenting soars in high school, especially between sophomore and junior years.
ASKED OF STUDENTS GRADES 9-12 What sexual activities have you engaged in? Kissing 90% Deep kissing 79% Touching above the waist 72% Touching below the waist 54% Sexual Intercourse 36% Oral sex 26% Mutual masturbation 15% SOURCE: ROPER STARCH WORLDWIDE, 1994
When asked the best age for first intercourse, teens say hold out until your 20s--or at least 18. Surprisingly, they have the same standards for girls as they do for boys.
ASKED OF STUDENTS GRADES 9-12 At what age is it reasonable to first have sexual intercourse? FOR MALES FOR FEMALES 14 years or younger 2% 1% 15 years 5% 4% 16 years 15% 16% 17 years 14% 14% 18 years 20% 20% 19 years 5% 5% 20 years or older 22% 23%
SOURCE: ROLONDA/SEICUS SURVEY CONDUCTED BY ROPER STARCH WORLDWIDE, 1994: A NATIONAL SURVEY OF 252 MALES AND 251 FEMALES