For years, churches have used abstinence programs to promote chastity among youth.
With catchy names like True Love Waits and the Silver Ring Thing, the efforts are designed to promote open discussion about teen sex and make remaining chaste a shared goal among teens, their peers and their parents.
Now, in the face of recent evidence that the programs don't work, religious leaders in the bay area and beyond are fighting back. They say many studies on abstinence education, including a new report out this week, are flawed. Others don't take issue with the findings but say the data will not influence how they approach abstinence education.
"I'm not going to change what I'm doing in terms of holding up a high standard of abstinence," said Victor Flores, 53, the pastor of student ministries at Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon. "The only difference that I see myself making is just pushing the family. If the parents see it as an important thing, they're going to help their kids do it."
Virginity pledge programs took off in the 1990s after the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board launched True Love Waits. Participants signed pledge cards, and some donned purity rings.
Often, as Bell Shoals does every October, churches make abstinence the focus of Sunday worship services. Pastors preach sermons to parents. The children get the message in Sunday school, in midweek Bible study and in a multiweek curriculum at youth group meetings.
As word of the Baptist program spread, the virginity pledge concept caught on in several Christian denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church, and in public schools. Some abstinence programs receive government funding, which is one reason their effectiveness is being closely scrutinized by policymakers who would rather put money toward other kinds of sex education efforts.
In the most recent study that examined abstinence programs, a Johns Hopkins University researcher found that virginity pledgers had sex at the same rate as students who did not take the pledge. The study focused on students who said they made the pledge in 1996. Five years later, 82 percent of those students denied having ever taken a chastity oath.
Virginity pledgers also were less likely to use birth control. The study did not indicate why pledgers were unable to keep their commitments.
Denny Pattyn leads the Silver Ring Thing, which bills itself as the fastest-growing teen abstinence program in the United States, with 100,000 pledges.
Pattyn says the Johns Hopkins study was unfair. He said it looked at the programs when they were in their infancy and lumped all of the efforts together, failing to differentiate between programs that have extensive followup with pledges — like the Silver Ring Thing — and those that require little more than a signed commitment.
Janet Rosenbaum, the Johns Hopkins postdoctoral fellow who conducted the research, has so far written two articles on virginity pledgers. In both cases, she used data collected by the federal government's National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. That data set represents the most recent survey of its kind for middle and high school students.
Controversy surrounding researchers' ability to question youth about sex have hampered further data collection, Rosenbaum said.
"I acknowledge that is it from pledges taken in 1996," she said. "Until we get more open about collecting more data, we can't do any better."
Still, she stands by her study and notes that the results are clear: All teens need birth control information, especially virginity pledgers.
Pattyn also maintains that if studies focused on safe sex-education programs, the results would be similarly dispiriting given the high rates of people who have contracted sexually transmitted diseases since those programs began.
"We do abstinence because it's the truth," said Pattyn, whose organization is based in Moon Township, Pa. "Whether we've studied it or not doesn't matter. People in Christianity don't give their lives to Christ because it works. You become a Christian because it's the truth. You choose abstinence because it's the truth. Whether it works or not is irrelevant."
In the bay area, Blake Clark is contemplating bringing True Love Waits to the 90-person youth ministry at First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg. Clark has taught the program to students at churches in Arizona and North Carolina.
He said he was not shocked to learn that virginity pledgers made "wrong" choices, including premarital sex. But he was surprised to learn that teens had strayed in such large numbers. The next time he implements the program, he may survey his charges. "I may do it to see if the teens would be honest," said Clark, 32.
Several bay area youth leaders said they support abstinence training but look askance at conferences and one-day rallies that promote it. They fear the crowds at such events prompt students to make emotional decisions.
"In that moment, when everybody is talking about it, when everybody is kind of making the same decision, it's kind of like a peer pressure deal," said Ben DeWitt, 30, student pastor at Skycrest Baptist Church in Clearwater. "I kind of safeguard my students from those types of events. … I'm not looking for an emotional decision."
Mick Silvers, a Skycrest member, is not part of an abstinence pledge program. But he has made a promise to remain a virgin until he marries.
"I don't worry that I'm not going to be able to do it," said Silvers, 15, a ninth-grader at Lakeside Christian School. "Once you say no the first time, each time you say it, it gets easier and easier."
Still, he has had to learn to handle queries from friends who wonder whether he has become sexually active.
At Calvary Chapel in Pinellas Park, youth leader Ryan Marr also eschews traditional abstinence programs. Instead, he encourages his 150 teenage charges not to fall in love and to save dating for later on in life. He tells them to focus on the Bible and Jesus. Later on, when they are open to marriage, they can think about love, Marr said.
"I know I'm kind of the minority at this point," said Marr, 28. "I have found enormous success with the rate at which kids are sexually active in my youth ministry. I think 90 percent of the students that have followed through with that logic, they've not even come close to having sex at all."
Sherri Day can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3405.