Paul Abner, whose Oklahoma City-based ministry Worth The Wait focuses on "sexual purity until marriage," said he could immediately see the issue with a recent Johns Hopkins University study about so-called "virginity pledges."
That study, which was released by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, showed virtually no difference between religious teens who pledged to remain virgins and those who didn't take such a pledge.
Except for one thing: Teens who take the pledge are less likely to use condoms or other birth control when the do have sex.
"Five years after the pledge, 82 percent of pledgers denied having ever pledged," states the study, published in the journal Pediatrics in December 2008. It concludes: "The sexual behavior of virginity pledgers does not differ from that of closely matched nonpledgers, and pledgers are less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease before marriage. Virginity pledges may not affect sexual behavior but may decrease the likelihood of taking precautions during sex."
Abner argued that many abstinence studies are beside the point. He said the one factor most important in a teen's behavior is rarely present in such studies: the parents.
"This whole thing, whether you be an abstinence-only advocate, or what they call comprehensive advocate "¦ the key is parents," Abner said. "I'm honest enough to say that. A lot of these (are) people looking for funding who say they are the end and the answer and all that. "¦ We can only have limited success outside of the family."
CLOUDING THE VISION
Even more statistics are clouding the vision, however. The latest figures released Jan. 8 by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention show an overall nationwide increase in the teen birth rate, but especially so in Oklahoma.
According to those figures, Oklahoma rose from eighth in the nation in teen birth rates to sixth. Oklahoma's teen mothers, aged 15-19, gave birth at a rate of 59.6 per 1,000 " 17.7 points higher than the national average. Oklahoma's rate is up for the second year in a row, a 10 percent increase since 2005.
What is causing this? State health officials are puzzled. Marilyn Lanphier, abstinence education coordinator for the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said one or two years " the number of years Oklahoma's teen birth rate so far has gone up " could be a statistical blip, but that, "We are watching it." Lanphier said a figure must rise three years in a row before it is considered a trend.
In any case, she said, the rising teen birth rate in Oklahoma is something that can't be solved by one approach.
"We had better stop fighting with each other," she said. "It isn't an either/or. There are some teenagers that really need abstinence education because that's what they want in terms of looking at that issue. There are other teens that are in need of birth control. I think what we need to understand is there are different types of teens. So we need to say it is not all or nothing."
Lanphier acknowledged that virginity pledges alone don't do the job. She compared it to dieting. Just saying one won't eat chocolate is easy, perhaps for a week or so, but without a system of support, the dieter is likely to fall off the wagon.
"If you think I'd be able to maintain losing weight from one pledge, that isn't working. I have to provide a support system and reinforcement for myself that it's OK to lose weight, that it's a positive reinforcement. I have to have peers around me to encourage me to say 'no' to the chocolate food. That's what we do with teenagers," she said. "The idea of the virginity pledge, that's not something you can maintain over a period of time. "¦ You can't expect teens to do it with a one-shot pledge. I can't do it as an adult even with food."
Lanphier agreed with Abner in that parental involvement is likely the strongest influence on a teen's sexual behavior.
"Parents are a real influence in our program. We want parents to have that influence with our kids. Believe it or not, particularly among those age 15 and under, those teenagers listen to their parents," she said. "Ben Fenwick