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November 20, 2004
Column #1,212

                     Abstinence Can Be Taught To Teenagers
                        
      CHARLESTON, S.C.   For 15 years I've written columns about how teenagers can be taught to abstain from sexual activity, but I have never seen a program as effective as what Heritage Community Services offers to 25,000 students a year in South Carolina and elsewhere.

     Dr. Stan Weed, President of the Institute for Research and Evaluation, studied the sex initiation rates for a large sample of 8,346 S.C. students in Grades 7-9 from 1999-2001.  He found that on average, 15.6 percent began sexual activity over a year's period. 

     However, if the students were exposed to 450 minutes of the Heritage Keepers Abstinence Program, or ten 45 minute classes in the 7th grade, only 9.1% initiated sexual activity, a remarkable 42 percent reduction. And if the students attended another 450 minutes in the 8th grade, only 4.3 percent became sexually active.

     That is a stunning 72 percent reduction in the initiation of sexual activity.

     "Abstinence education, when thoughtfully designed, carefully developed and rigorously implemented, changes the sexual behavior of adolescents," Weed asserted in a recent speech.

     "The process by which these changes occur is becoming better understood. We know some of the key factors which affect that behavior, many of which are amenable to influence, and that programmatic intervention can effectively address them," he added.

     What are those factors?  There are five:

     1. Self Efficacy, "the degree to which you can do what you have set out to do," says Anne Badgley, Heritage President. It is more than self-worth - a self confidence about their ability to accomplish something important, such as remaining chaste.

     2. Future Orientation is "the degree to which they see their future so clearly that it influences what they do today."  Most adolescents have only a present orientation, doing what gives them immediate satisfaction.  Heritage helps them "to get a vision for the long-term, by developing an expectation that if they can delay gratification, the rewards are deeper and longer lasting," asserted Mrs. Badgley.

     Most of the kids in South Carolina public schools have never seen or had explained what a healthy marriage is. Its building blocks are what is emotionally familiar, socially and intellectually satisfying.  "We say that sex is like fire, which means it is important to have it surrounded by a fireplace, which makes it a safe place - a lifelong relationship, a commitment that they are worth that kind of love and are built for a vision that all long for, which a genital relationship would destroy. They must avoid the risk of sexual activity if they are to have hope for the future," she explained.

     3.  Sexual Values affirm the value of abstinence and reject permissiveness.

     4. Peer Independence is the degree to which a student can resist pressure from peers that would put him or her at risk.  Like the other qualities, "refusal skills" are measured with a series of five to seven questions that are predictors of the degree to which they can take a stand with their peers: "Even when my friends want to do something I believe is wrong, I can stand up to them even if they get mad with me."

     5. Behavior Intentions is one of the strongest predictors of whether they will remain chaste. Those who intend to abstain are more likely to abstain than those who are not sure what they want to do.

     These five important predictors of future sexual activity were first identified by Dr. Stan Weed more than a decade ago. What Mrs. Badgley and her associates have done is to construct a course that builds upon them, creating a life skills program that incorporates a future orientation and peer independence into lessons that young people can understand.

     After the core curriculum is delivered in Grades 6 and 7, there is a Heritage Keepers Life Skills Education offered at five levels, a dozen 90 minute lessons for Grades 8, 9, 10,11 and 12 that helps students maintain their commitment as they get older, and the temptations grow.

     Finally, Heritage developed courses for churches and even parents on how to help their children achieve the benefits of sexual abstinence and avoid consequences of sex outside of marriage, which many of them know all too well. Parents love the course and are grateful.

     "When you think that the children are bombarded with sexual messages, just two interventions can make a huge difference," Mrs. Badgley concluded. "Every child should have the opportunity to hear this message, delivered by people who really believe in them and the message."

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