Abstinence Has a Ring to It, But Is It the Answer? A Critique of the Silver Ring Thing Campaign– Christine Vanderheiden
Let's talk about sex for now to the people at home or in the crowd
It keeps coming up anyhow
Don't decoy, avoid, or make void the topic
Cuz that ain't gonna stop it
-Salt ‘n’ Pepa (1)
Let’s talk about sex. As lyrically stated in the early 90’s song, “Let’s Talk About Sex”, Salt ‘n’ Pepa revealed the taboo subject of sex to the media. Acknowledging that teenagers have, and will, have sex is realistic. Providing said teenagers with information regarding sexual safety is smart. With nearly half of fifteen to nineteen year olds sexually active in the U.S., it would be irresponsible not to teach teenagers about safe sex (2). As it turns out, that is exactly what abstinence campaigns, such as the Silver Ring Thing, are promoting.
The Silver Ring Thing is a movement toward abstinence. This movement is aimed at Christian teens across the country and in England to encourage chastity by using Christian teachings and morals to avoid sex until marriage (3). This campaign does not promote the teachings of safe sex; in fact, it asserts that teaching safe sex is wrong, as it encourages teenagers to have sex before marriage (3). The Silver Ring Thing uses youth oriented methods to deliver their message to teen audiences. They travel to a number of different cities where they have seminars and shows including talks, lessons, sketches, and music. Teenagers follow these shows, take an abstinence pledge, and pay $12 for an abstinence pack, which includes a Bible, Abstinence Bible, and a silver ring. The ring, contains a verse from the Bible, “God wants you to be holy, so you should keep clear of all sexual sin. Then each of you will control your body and live in holiness and honour.” –Thessalonians 4:3-4 (3). This is a religious-based program with only one goal in mind; to stop all individuals from having sex before marriage.
A 2002 study done by the National Survey of Family Growth, asked 40,000 people ages 15-44 about their sexual behavior. Of those interviewed, 95% reported that they had had premarital sex. That leaves 5% of people who had abstained from sex until marriage (4). Also, studies have shown that adolescents who take virginity pledges are no less sexually active than those who do not take pledges (5). In fact, one study done by Columba University showed that of 12,000 teens aged 12-18, 88% of pledgers had sex before marriage (6). It is obvious that either the abstinence program is not as effective as it is meant to be or that it is unrealistic to believe that people will choose to abstain from sex until marriage.
Abstinence is the only sure protection against STDs and unwanted pregnancy, but with so many sexually active individuals, is it realistic? The above-mentioned study showed that while 88% of the pledgers had sex within two years of making the pledge, they also had similar rates of STDs and were less likely to use contraception (6). With the abstinence-only teachings, the use of contraceptives is not encouraged or taught. How does that make sense knowing that about 95% of people will engage in sexual activity before sex? Is depriving information regarding sexual safety really part of the plan to ultimately prevent STDs and unwanted pregnancy? Is this not the goal of abstinence teaching?
These questions may be addressed directly to the government, whose spending for abstinence-only programs has increased significantly over the past decade. Funding increased from $73 million a year in 2001 to $204 million in 2008. That is a total of $1.5 billion in federal money (7). These programs teach abstinence only methods and completely disregard actual safety information concerning contraceptives. Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood stated that abstinence-only education was "an experiment gone awry. We spent $1.5 billion and can't point to a single study that says this helps. If it doesn't help, why fund it?" (7).
Critique 1: Societal Influence
Denny Pattyn, president and founder of Silver Ring Thing, discusses the main goal in his campaign in video highlighting entitled, “Get It On.” Pattyn explains that what they are trying to do is create a culture shift in America where abstinence becomes the norm again, instead of the exception (8). He asks two important questions to pastors; “Do you have an abstinence program that you use in your church and is it working?” He notes that if there is a current program, “it does not seem to be working all that well because teenagers continue to get hammered by a culture that is dead set on getting them to be sexually active” (8).
It is socially acceptable for people to have sex before marriage. It is a personal choice that takes into account individual’s morals and perceptions of social norms. Both are important and influential in making decisions, as social norms are a primary determinant of behavior. A big part in what causes attitudes and behavior and how they are spread is the social network theory. A social network is any social relationship that one may have, such as a friendship, a kinship, common beliefs, sexual relationships, etc (9). These networks play a critical role in determining values of society and actions taken as a result of those values. As you will see later, the United States shows to have different values and, as a result, different sexual outcomes as compared to other countries used in the study.
One study found that adolescents considered abstinence to be “not so much a health choice, or even a moral choice, as a stage of life that was naturally followed by a sexually active life stage.” Also found in the study, “’Readiness’ for sex also appeared to play a role in a survey that investigated young women’s reasons for having or not having sexual intercourse; beliefs and values were cited as reasons for not only abstaining from sex, but also engaging in sexual activity.” (10). Teens have certain values about sex and do not view it as a negative choice. Not only teens, but Gloucester Superintendent, Christopher Farmer, was forced to take a hard look at the problem of teen pregnancy, and even he realized that, “abstinence is one course of action, [but] we recognize that in the real world that doesn’t always happen.” (11). Society understands the reality of sex before marriage, so why should we follow a campaign that fights that?
In fact, creating a negative connotation about sex may actually be more harmful than helpful. In the article titled, “Can More Progress Be Made? Teenage Sexual and Reproductive Behavior in Developed Countries,” five countries, Sweden, France, Great Britain, Canada, and the U.S., were studied regarding sexual behavior. Out of the five countries, the U.S. showed higher levels of adolescent pregnancy, less contraceptive use, and higher prevalence of infection and STDs than the other countries. This article showed how positive attitudes about sexuality and clear expectations for behavior in sexual relationships contribute to responsible sexual behavior (12). In countries such as France and Sweden, sexuality is seen as normal and positive, and the expectation is that sex will take place in a committed relationship (not necessarily marriage), and those involved will use protection (12). In the U.S., adults are more concerned about whether young people are having sex and close relationships are viewed as worrisome because they may lead to intercourse. Talk about contraception is avoided for fear that such discussion may lead to sexual activity (12). This negative attitude reflects poorly on the country and is most likely to blame for such high pregnancy and STD rates.
Having positive values and intentions regarding sexual activity is important. This critique is not merely putting down the value of abstinence, but it is pointing out reality. It is easy to flip through your Abstinence Bible, slip on a ring and pledge not to have sex before marriage. But is it easy to ignore the human instinct of sexual desire? What about a night alone with your boyfriend/girlfriend, when the atmosphere is just perfect to get a little closer to each other? What about the hot state?
The Silver Ring Thing completely disregards the Illusion of Control Theory and Restraint Bias. The Illusion of Control theory illustrates that people believe that they have more control than they actually have once they decide to do something. Similarly, restraint Bias is the tendency to overestimate one's ability to show restraint in the face of temptation (13). People tend to believe that if they choose something, they have more control over it. If a teenager chooses to be abstinent, they do so in a cold state, where people most likely overestimate their sense of control. However, in a hot state, you have a much more realistic idea of control, and you may have less than you think. Self-restraint may not be enough to fight the influence of society and sexual instinct, and that is something this campaign needs to tackle.
Critique 2: Promoting to a Small Target Market
One clear criticism is that this campaign has pigeonholed itself to appeal to a small population of unwed individuals. What about those who are not religious? What about the population of gay/lesbian teens? What about those who are already sexually active?
According to statistics of 15-44 year old sexually active, unmarried individuals, this campaign only applies to about 5% of the population. This is also assuming that those 5% are Christian following the teachings of God. This religious aspect of the campaign is also stated in the Mission of the Silver Ring Thing, “How can a student give their life to God if they are giving their body to someone else? Think about it… They can’t. You can’t move in two directions at once, yet every week our students are falling into the traps of a sex-obsessed culture.” (14). In this program, teens are taught to understand that abstinence until marriage is God’s plan. What about teens who do not believe in God? What about teens who do not live the lifestyle of God’s teachings?
Approximately 2-5% of adolescents around the country describe themselves has being homosexual. Another 4% are unsure in high school. A national survey of approximately 1,700 college students found that 48% of self-identified gay and bisexual college students became aware of their sexual preference in high school, while 26% found their true sexuality in college. Of these gay, lesbian, bisexual individuals, about 44% of the sexually experienced reported using no use of contraception and about 12% used ineffective methods (15). It is understandable that the Silver Ring Thing wants to avoid sexual behavior by delaying sex until marriage, but how are gays, lesbians, and bisexuals going to follow a program that frowns upon their sexual orientation?
The goal of this campaign is to create a culture shift where abstinence becomes the norm again and not the exception (14). How can you change an entire culture by using such a rigid foundation that is geared toward only a portion of the population? Janet Rosenbaum, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, noted that, “somebody who decides to take a virginity pledge tends to be different from the average American teenager. The pledgers tend to be more religious. They tend to be more conservative. They tend to be less positive about sex.” (16). Also, Rosenbaum noted that pledgers do not seem to be internalizing the pledge because it does not seem to be motivating them to change their behavior.
In studies, she conducted comparing teens that made a purity pledge and teens that had not. Results showed that 82% of pledgers not only retracted their promises, but denied ever having made them (5). This study shows that some teens are giving the purity ring a shot, but most of them are not following through. What is the next step for those who retracted their pledge? What about the teens who do not feel like a purity ring is meant for them at all? This program risks alienating youth by promoting a “one size fits all” image of adolescence that really only matches the true experience of a minority of youth (17 page ii).
This campaign disregards the Marketing Theory and the importance of creating a realistic target market. This theory stresses the importance of identifying and understanding the needs and wants of the target audience, then designing a product to benefit the target audience (18). Research is necessary in finding out what people want, and then market that product to fill the void. In this case, the campaign was designed before assessing the realistic needs and wants of the target audience. If more research had been done, the Silver Ring Thing would have taken into account 95% of unwed people that are already sexually active, or the percentage of gay, lesbian, bisexual individuals, or those who are not religious. These groups would have been factored into the target audience and the product would have been designed for them, as well. With such a small target audience, it is nearly impossible for this campaign to be a success.
Critique 3: Limited Information with Abstinence Only Education
The Silver Ring Thing was created in 1996 as a response to the escalating numbers of teen pregnancies (14). The founders of this program saw the only solution to this problem was abstinence. They saw abstinence as the only way to avoid the “harmful physical and emotional effects of premarital sex.” (14). They recognized that teaching the practices of safe sex and distributing condoms will not ensure the protection from the problems arising from sexual activity (14). So, they do not teach it. Many people see this as a negative approach to solving this issue. Medical professional organizations criticize abstinence for leaving out potentially lifesaving information (19). Abstinence-only programs “are inherently coercive by withholding information needed to make informed choices,” the American Public Health Association said in a statement (19).
In a study comparing the sexual activity of pledgers and non-pledgers, findings showed that both groups are just as likely to engage in premarital sex, but the pledgers are less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease (5). This is because their abstinence-only education does not acknowledge that teens will become sexually active, so they are not taught about contraception or condom use. Discussions of abortion are avoided completely. Information about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV is given strictly as a reason to remain abstinent, instead of to inform teens of the dangers of these diseases and how to use protection against them (17).
Even adults agree that students should be informed as to how to protect themselves. In a survey asking whether or not people who are sexually active should be given information to protect themselves, 84% agreed that they should and 10% thought that telling young people about birth control and sexually transmitted diseases would only encourage them to have sex (17 page 3). Most parents believe that their children need to learn about sex and how to protect themselves. They need to learn about HIV/AIDS and other STDs. They need to learn how to use condoms. They need to learn about how to obtain and use birth control. They need to have homosexuality addressed in sexuality education. (17, page3).
This campaign failed to take into account the Psychological Reactance Theory. This theory suggests that when people feel that their perceived freedom is being threatened, they experience reactance. Reactance is a motivational state that restores the threatened freedom, usually by rebelling (20). Rebellion is expected during teenage years, but this campaign may push teens to rebel even more. To have, or not to have, sex is ultimately the individual’s decision. When a teenager is following a program that is focusing so much on the “Do Not’s” and the “No’s” it is more likely that the individual will feel that their freedom is threatened. Social influence is more successful when it does not threaten freedom (20). This message needs to be delivered in a way that does not seem like teens are being told what to do.
“Like it or not, sexual activity is a reality for teens in America, and it is hard to imagine a school-based intervention which will magically undo the media pressures and natural hormonal urges that young people experience. Facing up to this reality means implementing responsible programming that truly meets the test of science and the real world needs of the youth. “ (17 page 19).
Intervention 1: Create a Value Neutral Approach
One of the biggest problems with abstinence-only education is that it raises concerns for gay and lesbian teens. Not only does abstinence-only education disregard the homosexual population, but it goes so far as creating hostile environment for gay and lesbian teens. Many of these programs stigmatize homosexuality and discriminate against gay and lesbian students (21). In a society that does not allow gays and lesbians to get married, efforts to educate teens about protecting their health are undermined. Some people do not even view same sex relationships an “adequate means of achieving a genuine physical relationship with another human being because this type of ‘union’ is contrary to the laws of nature.” (21). With such hostility toward homosexual relationships, it is obvious that sexual health programs need to address homosexuality in a positive light to have an impact.
An obvious approach to creating a more positive image for sexuality is to create a curriculum in schools that addresses a broader base beliefs and values. SIECUS is an example of a comprehensive school-based sexuality education that respects the diversity of students and understands that students have different values and beliefs (17 p. 14). When dealing with a school wide initiative to end unwanted pregnancy and the spread of STDs, it is important to acknowledge and address all values and beliefs, so that there is not an adverse effect. Effective sexual education should not only address a range of topics, but should be appropriate for all students, regardless of their sexual orientation. It should also encourage health attitudes concerning not only sex, but adolescent growth and development to encourage positive attitudes about gender roles, sexual orientation, dating, marriage, and family. Any religious connotation should be left out of the curriculum, so not to offend anyone or create bias of any information being taught in the school (22).
Intervention 2: Make Contraceptives More Attainable for Teens
The Silver Ring Thing blatantly ignores the use of contraception. The program believes that offering contraception will only encourage sexual behavior. Studies have actually shown that pregnancy and STD rates are lower in countries where contraceptive services are part of an integrated medical plan and easier to obtain. In the U.S., clinic visits and prescriptions are usually costly and difficult to obtain (12). The most important thing for teenagers is to have easy access to information and services, to receive confidential, non judgmental care, and to be able to afford it. While most government funding is going straight to abstinence only education, it should be directed toward encouraging contraceptive use to those teens that are sexually active and unprotected.
The reason why it is so important to provide easily accessible contraception is partly because of the tendency of teens to have optimistic bias (17). Interviews have shown that although young people are concerned about AIDS, they do not perceive themselves to be personally at risk (17). This is mostly due to the fact that they are simply not informed about contraception. Some 21% of teens mistakenly believe that birth control pills are effective in HIV protection (17). There may not be a way around the optimistic bias, but at least teens can protect themselves even though they believe they will not be affected by their behavior.
Statistics show that the majority of sexually experienced teens (74% of females and 82% of males) used contraceptives the first time they had sex (23). At most recent sex, 83% of teen females and 91% of males used contraceptives. These 2002 numbers showed a vast improvement since 1995 when only 71% of teen females and 82% of males had used contraceptives at last sex (23). With emphasis on teaching the use of contraception and making it easily attainable, these statistics should rise, and in effect, the STD and pregnancy statistics should decrease.
Intervention 3: Use Education, not Scare Tactic
There seems to be a concerning disconnect between politicians, teachers, parents, and students regarding their thoughts on sexual education. Politicians are eager to promote abstinence-only education, while teachers, parents and students believe that more information should be taught. An overwhelming 90% of teachers believe that students should be taught more in their sexual education. They believe sexual education should include how to obtain birth control, information about abortion, the correct way to use a condom, and sexual orientation. But, few teachers actually teach what they believe should be taught. One in four teachers are told not to teach grades 7-12 about contraception (24). This is mainly due to state and local policy mandating sexual education and using funding on abstinence only education, rather than comprehensive sexual education. Even if teachers were allowed to cover these topics, about one-third may avoid them due to fear of adverse community reaction (24).
The Silver Ring Thing campaign is promoting a healthy objective, but it is simply not realistic. Abstinence based programs should still be taught in school, but in conjunction with a more comprehensive education. According to a study from the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, abstinence programs were proven to be more effective in lower grades, such as sixth and seventh (19). It makes sense to focus on abstinence education geared toward younger teens, as they are not as sexually active as older teens. Asking teens to delay sex until they are ready, rather than until they are married, is a more realistic approach and it portrays sex in a more positive light.
Studies have shown that there are lower pregnancy rates in countries that emphasize comprehensive sexuality education. In countries such as Canada, France, Sweden, and Great Britain, comprehensive sexuality education is mandated in schools. These school programs teach the importance of prevention of disease and pregnancy, contraception use, and respect and responsibility with relationships. Programs like this are not funded in the U.S. State and federal funding is directed toward abstinence-only education, but not comprehensive sexual education (12). Teens need to be informed and need to feel like they own their decisions. When they are not given the opportunity to make informed decisions, they will not make informed decisions. Sex should be framed as something they can own and something they can protect, rather than make it a forbidden subject.
The Silver Ring Thing was created to stop unwanted teen pregnancy. Instead, it has stopped the teaching of safe sex to sexually active teens. The purity pledge to God deprives teens of crucial sexual education and knowledge they need to protect themselves. One positive aspect of the campaign was that it may have delayed teens’ first sexual experience by a year or two. But, overall, teens that were taught the importance of abstinence were not told the importance of protection.
It seemed to be that the founder, Mr. Pattyn, was missing the point entirely on preventing unwanted pregnancy and disease. In a world where teenagers share the same religious based values and they are not influenced by society, this program may have been a success. However, they did not take into account their target audience and did not realize the illusion of control that people think they have. People may not make rational decisions all the time, but at least if they are provided with information, they can make informed decisions.
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