True Love vs. the culture

It was two or three years ago that some of the teen-sex statistics began to dip, followed by telltale ripples in mass media.

Suddenly, people didn't laugh so hard when youth minister Richard Ross and other True Love Waits leaders told kids they could find romance and intimacy through lifelong fidelity. A few people began using words like "chastity" without smirking. And the telephone calls picked up, from the likes of CNN and "Nightline," USA Today and The New York Times, Vogue and Playboy. A few virgins showed up in prime time.

The good news was that there were signs of change. The bad news was that things didn't change very much. The result was usually a more nuanced version of the gospel of sexual freedom. Maybe true love waits for a year or two or true love waits until a guy whispers the magic word "commitment."

"What the culture is saying these days is that abstinence is an option teen-agers should pay attention to," said Ross, one of the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention's True Love Waits program. "Young people are no longer being told, outright, that they're strange and weird if they choose abstinence. ... You may even see some signs that the media and politicians are willing to affirm kids who make that choice."

Saving sex until marriage is now an option. But there are, of course, many other options. The message written between the lines of most sex education texts is this: wait until after high school. Meanwhile, Hollywood has offered a few cautionary sermons on promiscuity. But sex and romance -- divorced from marriage -- remain at the heart of most scripts.

"Young people today are hearing many messages from our culture," said Ross. "But here is what they WILL NOT hear. They will not hear anyone clearly say that it is morally wrong for them to have sex before they are married. And they won't hear anyone explain the painful emotional and spiritual consequences of that decision to become sexually active. ... No one is telling kids about the cost of forming that kind of bond and then ripping it apart."

Nevertheless, pro-chastity leaders believe they are making progress. This past weekend, 300 gathered in Washington, D.C., for a summit meeting sponsored by the Medical Institute for Sexual Health in Austin, Texas. One topic of discussion was a new set of government statistics showing that, in 1995, 50 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 said they'd had sex. That was down from 55 percent in 1990 - the first drop since 1970. At the same time, birth rates fell 8 percent and abortions declined among teens.

There is no way to prove this had anything to do with programs such as True Love Waits, which is known for its media-friendly events such as the 1994 posting of 211,000 pledge cards in Washington, D.C., or a 1995 rally with 350,000 cards stacked in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. Last year, 400,000 students took part in Valentine's Day activities and the 1998 goal is student-led programs in 56,000 secondary schools. The project's most symbolic work takes place in churches, where teens often sign pledge cards in rites that include gold rings -- signs of a commitment to remain chaste until marriage.

It's crucial, said Ross, that congregations become more involved in complex issues linked to sexuality -- such as crisis pregnancies and the fact that signing a pledge card often isn't the end of the story. But some clergy continue to duck sexual issues because they're afraid to offend grown-up sinners who happen to be married, divorced or single. Truth is, churches that can't talk about sin and repentance can't talk about healing and forgiveness.

"Jesus was as clear-cut as he could be about this," said Ross. "Whenever he dealt with people who had failed sexually, his goal was always forgiveness and restoration. ...We have to be able to tell young people that God still has a plan for their lives of teenagers, even though they have messed up. If we can offer forgiveness, we can help them get back on track."