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UAHS students explain their different reasons for choosing abstinence.

by Aly Gordon ’13, Olivia Milter ’13 and Cassie Lowery ’13

C hocolate or vanilla, Spanish or French, Captain Crunch or CoCo Puffs. Decisions—from simple scheduling choices to the ever-important breakfast debate— are an unavoidable part of life. Though some may surpass others in importance, decisions made in high school often affect students for the remainder of their lives. One such choice is abstinence— whether to engage in premarital sex, or to simply wait until marriage.

Though ultimately up to the individual, multiple factors—including religion, gender, peer and societal pressure—are undeniably present. These influences surround students at UAHS, and while many become sexually active, others, such as senior Ben Armstrong, decide to wait.

A Faithful Choice

Though not necessarily true for all abstinent teens, many find that religious background shapes their decisions concerning sex. According to a Marquette University publication titled “Religiosity and Sexual Activity Among Older Adolescents”,“those for whom religion was important were less likely to have had intercourse.” In fact, in a 2004 study by the National Center for Health Statistics, most abstinent teens deemed premarital sex as “against their religion or morals.” Like these teenagers, Armstrong’s faith plays an active role in his abstinence.

“It’s been a conscious decision all my life, because it’s [part of my] Christian morals. I’ve grown up Christian … so the decision was just kind of implemented in that,” Armstrong said.

While Christianity is one of the more prominent abstinence-promoting faiths, it is not alone in its discussion of sex. Most religions address sex and its accordance with their individual ideals. According to an 1981 article by Humboldt University of Berlin, entitled “The Sex Atlas,” eastern religions tend to permit more sexual freedom than those of the West; however, some eastern faiths, such as Islam, are equally as strict in condemning premarital sex.

“The Bible talks a lot about how you’re supposed to abstain from sexual immorality,” Armstrong said. “You’re not supposed to commit adultery, and so sex before marriage would be committing adultery.”

Senior Carly Allen, another ardent believer in abstinence, also accounts a large portion of her decision to religion, though she likewise noted the many other reasons to abstain, such as avoiding the emotional complications that accompany sex. Even so, she believes that without strong beliefs, students are more susceptible to peer pressure and, in turn, more likely to have sex.

“For me, [abstinence] is a personal conviction with my faith,” Allen said. “I think if [people] don’t have any particular conviction, [they] feel a lot of pressure because that’s just what their friends are doing.”

Junior Abby Smith, whose name has been changed after an anonymity request, is a sexually active student at UAHS and also believes that the pressure a student may feel depends on his or her friend group.

“I think [students feel peer pressure], especially if they’re in a friend group where some people have had [sex] and others haven’t, so they want to fit in,” Smith said.

Though it may seem that “everyone is doing it,” this mentality is statistically untrue. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2002, 51 percent of girls and 60 percent of boys had engaged in sexual activity before they were 19 years old. However, in 2009, those numbers dropped, with only 46 percent of all U.S. high school students surveyed having engaged in sexual activity.

“I know a lot of people who don’t [believe in abstinence], so I think it’s just up to the individual. But I think there [are] definitely a lot of people who are abstinent,” Armstrong said. “My core group of friends—all… Christian guys—… are in the same boat that I am.”

Allen also finds support in a solid group of friends, noting that various Christian-based youth organizations, such as Young Life and Student Venture, are likewise very supportive. With that in mind, Allen’s choice remains firm, resting not only on this support and her religious convictions, but on her belief that abstinence fosters better relationships.

“I think being abstinent makes relationships a lot closer,” Allen said. “People say that sex can be the ‘glue’ to horrible relationships and the breaker to good ones. And so, I think that if you’re able to have a relationship not based on [the] physical, it can be…a lot more intimate emotionally.”

Social Influences

Although the decision to remain abstinent is made by individuals, gender-determinant social pressures often come into play. Perhaps it is for this reason that sexually-active males and females are viewed in two different lights.

“It’s way more [socially] acceptable for guys to be sexually active,” Allen said. “I think that girls are more quiet or more embarrassed about it. But for guys it’s like a feat, like whichever guy ‘gets more.’”

Like Allen, Armstrong said that these stereotypes exist; however, he also noted that abstinence is generally more accepted among girls than boys. Nevertheless, he personally feels little pressure and is comfortable with his decision.

Although Armstrong and Allen are unaffected by peer pressure, it is still prominent. According to a Psychology Today study, about 33 percent of boys ages 15-17 have felt pressured to have sex, as opposed to 23 percent of females. The study also reveals that, unlike females, males are often influenced by close friends.

Though certainly prevalent, UAHS health teacher Stacey Hoover believes that these conceptions of sex— that everyone is engaging in it and, for males, that it is something they should be doing—are unrealistic and can cloud a student’s judgement.

“If a girl’s sexually active, she’s a whore, a hoochie mama, a tramp, slut, you name it. Now I’m not saying this is right, I’m just saying there is kind of a double [standard],” Hoover said. “[There is a perception] in the guy realm—that [having sex is just] another hook in the belt, until they really start understanding sex and what it can do emotionally and physically, and some of these other things that go along with it.”

Many psychologists, including adult and adolescent clinician Dan Davis, agree, claim that sexually-active teens are more susceptible to psychological issues, including depression, anxiety, poor self image, anger and even thoughts of suicide or self-harm. In a study conducted by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative organization based in Washington D.C., it was found that 14 percent of sexually active girls and six percent of sexually active boys had attempted suicide. In contrast, only five per cent of sexually inactive girls and less than one per cent of sexually inactive boys had attempted suicide.

“Kids will often later feel guilt [and] a sense of being violated,” Davis said. “Girls especially may feel demeaned and that they are appreciated not so much for who they are, but for what they will or won’t do. But, this applies as well to boys and the pressures that they face to act in certain ways that may not be actually who they really are.”

Smith agrees that sex can have a negative affect on relationships, but adds that it also depends on the couple.

“It can go both ways. I think it depends on your relationship. Especially for teens it’s an emotional thing. Especially for girls, you get that attachment. So I think it just depends on you and your other person.”

Teaching Abstinence

Although all sex-ed programs share one common goal—to educate and guide teens—they often differ in their approaches. According to a 2012 study by Guttmacher Institute, sex education is divided into various categories, including abstinence, contraception, sexually-transmitted diseases and more. However, it is up to individual states to determine what is covered and, likewise, what is no, thus facilitating great variety across the nation.

For example, California schools are required to discuss both condoms and contraception, but to simply touch on abstinence. According to a 2008 story by ABC, the California “high school…curriculum includes information about condoms and the morning after pill.” It also states that abstinence-only based education is prohibited within the state. This contrasts with Ohio’s program, which is required by law to “stress” abstinence.

As stated in the section 3313.6011 of the Ohio Revised Code, instruction in sexual education must “emphasize that abstinence from sexual activity is the only protection that is one hundred percent effective against unwanted pregnancy [and] sexually-transmitted disease.” With that in mind, the state provides $500,000 to schools, UAHS included, to educate students on the matter.

Though Hoover firmly believes in this abstinence-based program, she also stresses that the school’s program addresses both sides of the issue.

“There is slight discussion on birth control, [and] we have a major portion of our program that’s dedicated to STDs … how you can pick one up, [and] how to prevent that,” Hoover said. “We talk about the importance of birth control, why it was developed, [and] what it’s major purpose is… Sitting in on [the] program, you will see that we teach both sides. ”

After finally taking health as a senior, Armstrong believes the school’s sex education program is both informational and appropriate. He noted that the guest speaker was especially helpful in explaining abstinence’s role in preventing STDs. Others, like junior Nina Wehner, believe that even an abstinence-based program is ineffective, because, in reality, teens do not always choose abstinence.

“I personally think that promoting abstinence in school is unrealistic, because there are so many people who are having sex,” Wehner said. “The school should make some effort to educate the students on how to be safe about it rather than just [saying] don’t do it.”

Because Hoover is aware that some students will choose to become or already are sexually active, she, as well as the school’s other health teachers, make it a point to give students all the necessary information to make an informed decision.

“I know there are a lot of kids in my health classes that are sexually active. I know that,” Hoover said. “So [in] our sex classes here, we do a lot of things to make kids really think about everything they do when it comes to a sexual encounter…We want it to be safe, we want it to be right, and we want it to be when that person is emotionally ready for it. It’s a huge step.”

By teaching its students about birth control, UA’s sex education program is less conservative than some, like those in Utah, where state lawmakers, according to an article by the Chicago Tribune, passed a bill on March 6 that would eliminate contraception from the sex ed programs state wide. With that in mind, Hoover believes contraception is a family issue rather than one of which a teacher should get involved.

“I don’t believe that is my job as an educator, to make that decision for mom and dad and for a student,” Hoover said. “My job is to give information to students that will keep them [safe].”

Since having sex puts teens at risk of contracting a sexually-transmitted disease, Hoover is not willing to put her students in a potentially-dangerous position.

“[If] I had a child that was sitting in a sex ed class, and that teacher thought that they had [the] freedom to tell…my son or daughter, ‘Do what feels good. We’re going to go ahead and pass condoms out,’ and my daughter or son listens to that and picks up an STD that could possibly turn into future cancer, I would be very angry, because I don’t think the school has the right to do that,” Hoover said. “I will not give a condom to a kid, or say, ‘Do what feels good…’ They’re playing Russian roulette with their life.”

Hoover cited not only the health concerns of providing contraception, but also the potential legal implications. By handing out birth control, Hoover noted that the school is potentially liable if a student gets pregnant or contracts an STD. However, Smith said that in the past, the school provided contraception. The school nurse, Laurie Long, verified this, but maintains that the school stands by abstinence.

“We occasionally receive[d] donations of tampons, toothbrushes and condoms, which we [left] on the counter for people to take,” said Long. “[But] abstinence is the best way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.”

The availability of condoms was not school funded, and principal Kip Greenhill did not know of the practice.

“I did put an end to condoms being available to students,” said Greenhill. “But I take full responsability because I did not addequately comunicate that that’s something the schools should not be involved with.”

Armstrong maintains that the school’s main responsibility is not to provide contraception, but rather to educate students. He believes that school-supplied contraception may give students the notion that their actions are supported by the school. This potential misconception is one that Hoover must consider while teaching about the uses of contraception.

“Young minds sometimes get in their heads, ‘I want to do this, I want to do this, I want to do this’ and [they hear] something about a condom and [they] instantly think that’s the ticket out, and that’s not the ticket out. So we have to be very careful how we portray the information,” Hoover said.

Smith adds that the effectiveness of the sex ed program also depends on how large of an impact it has on the student.

“[Sex education is sometimes effective] because it teaches you the dangers of it. But teenagers— they have to listen to it to understand it,” Smith said.

Despite the different approaches to sex education, the goal of all teachers is the same: to help students live the healthiest, most fulfilling life possible, both during their high school years and into adulthood.

“My first and foremost thing as a teacher is to keep you guys safe,” Hoover said. “I want you to make good decisions so that you can have a healthy and safe future.”

A Conscious Choice

In the long run, four years is nothing— simply a blip on life’s ever-changing radar, over in the blink of an eye. In high school, though, this time seems anything but short, filled with decision after decision after decision. As bright-eyed freshman enter the high school, sex may not be on the forefront of their minds; however, as these four short years progress, many will need to make a choice.

When considering the countless pressures teens face, it may seem that this choice is anything but individual. But as freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors grow and discover themselves, they must decide: will I stay abstinent?