28 November 2008

The virgin army

Young girls sign pledges promising their fathers to remain chaste until marriage. But how realistic an ideal is this and would it not be better to promote safe sex over no sex?

Sex before marriage has always been a bit taboo for nice girls (at least, as far as their parents are concerned). Falling pregnant is the age-old worry; but STIs and HIV/Aids add their own particular threat.

These are some of the reasons so-called purity pledges arose and have found a significant following. Notable among them is the growing phenomenon known as The Purity Movement, in which young girls make a pledge to their fathers to abstain from sex before marriage, and their fathers in turn vow to protect their daughter's chastity.

While not new, this continues to cause a lot of controversy. Though few dismiss the idea that there's some value in abstaining from sex before marriage, it is the fact that young girls are being asked to sign pledges to their fathers that has some worried.

So far it appears to be fairly innocent, with even popular teenage boy-band The Jonas Brothers swearing to abstain until they are betrothed.

Virgins rule: Is abstinence the new black?
Elvis Mvulane, national director of Walk Thru the Bible and the Silver Ring Thing in South Africa, says the popularity of abstinence programmes has grown because of changing trends in society. He argues that society is now structured to actually encourage teenagers and young people to have sex.

But, he says, peer pressure can be enlisted in positive ways. "Peer pressure is powerful... if young people spread the message [that abstinence is cool], there is no way it is not going to be a popular concept.

"Abstinence is gaining momentum is because young people are not stupid, they can see that the spread of HIV and Aids is not going down, and the message of safe sex is not turning the tide against the HIV infection rate."

Mvulane is a firm believer that abstinence is God's will. Also, he says: "The body of a teenager is not fully developed to protect itself fully from possible early sexually transmitted diseases, so it only makes sense to wait. Sex is also not something you want to be casual with it as a young person, it's a precious act and it is meant to be shared between husband and wife in marriage." It is this that the Silver Ring Thing has been promoting for the past three years.

"We have seen over 100 000 teenagers committing to stay abstinent. Of those, 20 000 are wearing a ring with an inscription from 1 Thessalonians 4:3- 4 which says: For this is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from sexual immorality. That each one of you know how to control his body in holiness and honour.”

What the research says
There's no evidence that abstinence-only programmes reduce risky sexual behaviour, the number of STIs or pregnancy, according to a meta-analysis, reviewed in the British Medical Journal, and which focused on whether abstinence-only programmes could stop, delay, or decrease sexual activity and prevent HIV infection.

The meta-analysis included studies with a total of more than 15 900 participants, and the conclusions were remarkably consistent. The review states that "abstinence-only programmes did not increase primary abstinence (prevention) or secondary abstinence (decreased incidence and frequency of recent sex)."

When compared to abstinence-only programmes, programmes that promoted the use of condoms greatly reduced the risk of acquiring HIV, especially when such programmes were culturally tailored behavioural interventions targeting people at highest risk of HIV infection.

The authors concluded that priority should therefore be given to culturally sensitive, sex-specific, behavioural interventions. Most at risk of acquiring HIV were patients in clinics for sexually transmitted infections, men who have sex with men, and adolescents being treated for drug abuse.

They also found that in the developing world (especially African countries), the overwhelming lack of resources initially made abstinence-only programmes popular, but the increasing availability of condoms meant that condom use became a feasible alternative.

Banning teen sex won't help
Doctor Claire Rockliffe-Fidler, a Cape Town psychologist and sexologist, says that while abstinence is admirable, there is a concern that 'banning' sex from a teenager without the proper education or procedure will eventually cause more problems than it will solve.

"I think that it is a romantic ideal to guide one’s behaviour, but I have several concerns with it:

  • "Banning sex with such a principle doesn’t take the feeling away, and as people are marrying later these days, this leaves a whole load of adults with strong sexual feelings and guilt. This is not always healthy as such beliefs can create strong feelings of guilt and shame if the individual ‘breaks the rule’, and this can have a significant impact on their mental/sexual wellbeing.
  • "I have heard of cases where people adhering to such principles struggle to deny their sexual urges and so marry prematurely.
  • "Also, a principle such as this sets a rule for the youth and, if not accompanied by an understanding that sexual feelings are intoxicating and powerful drives, young adults could be left feeling guilty/ashamed/weak if they break the rule. This may mean that the youth are more secretive, and as such are unable to keep themselves safe by accessing methods to protect themselves from pregnancy/STI. Such pressure to wait can result in a build-up of expectations and disappointment/problems developing when the time comes.

"Therefore, I think it would be more realistic to aim to abstain from sex unless in a long-term and committed relationship; but I also know that ‘good’, moral/principled and intelligent people would disagree and see no harm in casual sexual activity," she says.

So much pressure, so little time
As for young girls pledging to their fathers they will remain virgins until marriage, Rockliffe-Fidler firmly believes that it's "weird and unrealistic" and points out that yet again, all the pressure is being put on the young girl.

"It puts unfair pressure on girls to be the mediators of whether sex happens or not – why not boys? It also seems to imply that fathers ‘own’ their daughters’ sexuality, and this feels uncomfortable to me as I think that girls own their own sexuality and should be assisted/educated to make appropriate choices for themselves when they reach the age of consent."

Another concern many people have is that generally teenagers have enough going on without adding extra pressure to such a big decision.

"I think this adds a different and confusing dynamic to the mix of the battles they are already experiencing. If the child’s family values premarital abstinence, then that child/teen is going to be struggling with their own feelings about that belief as it contrasts with what their body is telling them; I can’t see how feelings of possibly disappointing a parent on top of this can assist at this time.

What's a parent to do?
You want to keep your child safe, but you don't want them making unrealistic promises? Rockliffe-Fidler says that parents should have occasions over many years, starting when their child is young, to begin to convey their values/thoughts about what they see for their future.

"Ideally the parents should give their child a realistic and positive view of sexuality and sexual feelings and be willing to discuss how to manage such divergent currents (the sexual drive and the wish to meet standards) rather than simply apply a rule with restrictive/inhibited discussion," says Rockliffe-Fidler.

Mvulane agrees that parents should keep the channels of communication open, but insists parents must talk about "God’s will for all humanity".

"We must not see ‘waiting’ as something inhuman, but as part of our lives - we wait for everything in life. Parents should start by discussing personal health with their children, the importance of good health and all kind of incurable diseases such as HPV and other sexually transmitted diseases and how they can be avoided, including HIV/Aids.

He is also a very strong advocate of hands-on parenting and says that parents cannot delegate this responsibility.

"I think it is fair to give the teenager enough information so that they can make a decision early in life and manage those decisions the rest of their lives. What is not fair is expose our teenagers to this sex-infested world and not give them the solution to respond to the media that is bombarding them with sex scenes, not telling them what to do. That is not fair. What is not fair is taking prevention clinics to the schools so that teenagers can have what is called ‘safe sex.’ No, tell them to abstain, that is fair," he states.

How realistic is no sex vs safe sex?
According to Rockliffe-Fidler, both principles should be promoted during adolescence and early adulthood, although she stresses that she believes it's more important for the child to learn about more than just the facts of sex.

"The feelings of sexual desire and how those things can be intoxicating or can impair judgement (especially when mixed with alcohol), how to decide about sex and to think carefully about the reasons for wanting sex are very important issues, too," she says.

Mvulane on the other hand, is adamant that abstinence is the only way to go and says, "There is no need to promote safe sex. It is already being promoted and has thus far proven to fail our youth. The proof lies in the statistics on teenage pregnancy - the numbers are not declining.

"Also, according to the health department, HIV infection rates according to gender and age statistics show that the infection rates are still rising. So what is safe about the so called ‘safe sex?’ Even when you claim 99% safety on the so-called safe sex, the one percent gives 100% infections.

"We have over 5 million people living with HIV in our country and seven years ago this was not the case. So by far, there is enough proof that the ‘safe sex’ message has cost the nation dearly," he concludes.

Sources: Elvis Mvulane (national director of Walk Thru the Bible and the Silver Ring Thing in SA); Dr Claire Rockliffe-Fidler, DClinPsy (UWales) PGDipPsychosexual Therapy (UCentLancs), member of the South African Sexual Health Association, clinical psychologist and psychosexual therapist in the Cape; The British Medical Journal.

(Amy Henderson, Health24, November 2008)

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