If God talks against pre-marital sex, says Jillian Farabee, "he has to have a reason."
Farabee, 17, is a junior at McGuffey High School in Claysville, Washington County. As a 15-year-old in the youth group of Covenant Life Fellowship Church near her home, she attended her first Silver Ring Thing event. Silver Ring Thing, founded in 1995, is a sex-education program for middle- and high-schoolers run from Sewickley's Christ Church at Grove Farm. Silver Ring also bills itself as a Christian ministry.
Using a three-hour high-tech show full of skits and teen testimony, the group promotes abstaining from sex until marriage. The message: Teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are epidemics, but contraception isn't the answer. Skimpy clothes, media influence, peer pressure -- don't listen to them. Purity is the key.
"I was just hooked," says Farabee. "I kept going to see if it was slightly different. I just felt it was something I needed to support because it was something I believed in. I still love it. It's such a wonderful program." The skits demonstrating why protected sex is still sex -- and thus undesirable -- impressed her even more than the talk of faith, which she already had strongly at home.
"I'm not going to drink coffee until I get married," she recalls one character saying on stage. "That's crazy," a second character responds, mimicking the response to abstinence a teen might encounter. "What if I drank coffee but I used a plastic lid?" comes the reply.
The ring helps too. "With Silver Ring Thing I buckled down and made a commitment. It's not like drawing a line and saying that's my boundary, or trying to see how far I can put my toes over the line until I fall off, but how far I can keep from the line."
If one friend's recent experience in college is any indication, keeping the pledge will be tougher as she gets older, Farabee says. But four years of school sex-ed, which has included lessons on contraception, hasn't interfered with her resolve. "I just kind of laugh at what everybody else is saying," she says, "because I know I don't need it."
Farabee is just one of more than 23,000 young people Silver Ring says it has inspired to take a virginity pledge: roughly half the kids who attend a show, by the group's tally. From now until June, there are 22 Silver Ring shows scheduled across the country, including half a dozen in the Pittsburgh area. In 2005, the group is bringing its program to Africa.
Sex still sells in America, but abstinence is now big business too. Although abstinence programs have been receiving taxpayer money since 1981, faith-based groups like Silver Ring Thing have only been eligible to receive such funds under President George W. Bush. Since 2003, Silver Ring has gotten more than $1 million in federal tax dollars. A recent Congressional report says U.S. abstinence groups got $170 million this year.
Kids who pledge virginity at a Silver Ring Thing show are supposed to stop on their way out to buy their silver ring and "abstinence study Bible" for $12. Other merchandise is available there and on the Silver Ring Web site (www.silverringthing.com), from T-shirts and hoodies with their logo and slogans ("I'm waiting") to stickers ("Warning: Sex changes everything") and "accessories" -- key chains, lanyards and even a water bottle.
"Our program features high-tech club-style lighting, videos and, of course, a sweet sound system," the Web site boasts. Last year, Christina Aguilera brought an MTV crew to visit with program participants. Using the same flashy media methods it says influence teens too rapidly toward sex, Silver Ring employs the language and trappings of 21st-century culture to promote what it feels is a counter-cultural message: Not having sex is way cool.
For all its political and media savvy, Silver Ring Thing has yet to answer one question: Is it keeping kids safe by keeping them sex-free, or promoting religion in the name of public health?
"What the Silver Ring Thing does with their own private dollars is up to them," says Julie Sternberg, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project. "But they cannot use government funds for what is in effect a pulpit. It is hard to know exactly what is going on at each of these places the Silver Ring Thing is putting on its show."
Late in January, the ACLU filed a contempt of court order in Louisiana to stop a state-sponsored abstinence-only program from hiring groups that promote religion in the guise of sex-ed. Both sides two years ago had settled a lawsuit brought by the ACLU on the very same matter, and the state had agreed not to fund religious activity. But just two weeks ago, when examining state progress reports from funded groups, the ACLU found entries like this one:
"December was an excellen[t] month for our program, we were able to focus on the virgin birth and make it apparent that God desire[s] sexual purity as a way of life."
The founder of Silver Ring Thing, 50-ish minister Denny Pattyn, has acknowledged the new strictures federal money has placed on his program. "Anybody who received federal funding basically [is] not permitted to proselytize their faith issues with those dollars," he says in the hour-long BBC documentary American Virgins, filmed in 2003 and broadcast in England last year. "So, all the shows we started since we received the government funding will include an alternate seminar, which is designed for kids who would want to ... have an opportunity to hear about abstinence without any faith mentioned whatsoever."
No Silver Ring pledger City Paper interviewed had ever attended the secular seminar, but Joy Ike says the group is very conscious of the need to serve all of its potential audience, "so they know we're not trying to push our faith on them, which we're not trying to do."
Ike, a 21-year-old University of Pittsburgh senior who lives in Murrysville, came to Silver Ring Thing after taking her own personal sexual-abstinence pledge in eighth grade. In 2004, she was an unpaid Silver Ring intern, testifying on stage as the show toured Pittsburgh and Great Britain.
She spoke, she says, "about how I made a personal decision to abstain from sex. ... Once you give yourself up to a person you can't take it back." She has watched friends face the pressure of sex, and sexual relationships end badly. "There's no sacredness to [sex] anymore. It's not honored -- and people really get hurt emotionally in the end." She also spoke about kids' misconceptions in taking the pledge -- that "My friends will leave me" or "People will think I'm a nun or a monk. And how the media today is really trying to screw us over and tell us what's right and what's wrong.
"It's really important to surround yourself with people who believe as you do and encourage you in what you believe in," she concludes.
Would the program work without the faith component? "That's a good question," says Ike. "I think it will work. You want for people to believe in what you believe in. You just have to present it to people and see what they believe in. It's one of those things that's a hurdle. I think they're trying to figure it out."
Pattyn did not respond to multiple requests for an interview, nor did he answer e-mailed questions. According to Jenna Anderson, who handles the group's local shows from its Moon Township office, he would not allow other Silver Ring Thing staffers to be interviewed either.
But Pattyn and other Silver Ring officials have repeatedly insisted that their program cannot work without faith.
Says Silver Ring's April 2004 newsletter: "The Silver Ring Thing ... mission can only be achieved by offering a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the best way to live a sexually pure life." And its Web site boasts that 4,407 kids "have made commitments to Jesus Christ" following a show.
Pattyn explained to the American Family Association in March 2003, in an article printed on the Agape Press Web site: "We don't ever want to take the gospel [out] of our message because we believe the power for abstinence is a changed heart, not a ring on a finger."
The rings themselves, of course, are the ultimate symbol of kids' dedication to the Silver Ring Thing ideal. And they are embossed with "1Thes 4:3-4," a reference to two verses in Paul's first epistle to the Thessalonians, from the New Testament: "For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication. That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour."
On its Web site, Pattyn's Sewickley church describes Silver Ring Thing as "a faith-based sexual-abstinence program ... appealing to unchurched youth." The church's parish secretary, Liz Rankin, explains that Silver Ring is "just another name" for the John Guest Evangelical Team, the ministry of the church's pastor John Guest, who hired Pattyn.
"Maybe tonight you just need to make your peace with God," Pattyn says to an audience at one Silver Ring Thing show the BBC filmed. Elsewhere in the documentary, he seems ready to make his own peace with the deity. "I think about the fact that I might be living in the last days," Pattyn says. "I'm not freaked out ... but I actually believe that we are approaching the return of Christ, which is a huge event."
"If the end of the world is so close, is abstinence where you should be putting your energy?" asks the BBC interviewer.
"We're not really putting our energy into abstinence as much as we're putting it into faith," Pattyn responds. "Abstinence is the tool that we're using to reach children."
"Without Jesus ... this thing is a failure," Silver Ring consultant Reid Carpenter tells a fund-raising luncheon near the end of the BBC documentary. (Carpenter, president of the religious Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation, with an office Downtown, did not respond to a request for comment.) "We've got to keep on attacking it, we've got to go into schools and we've got to be cool and we've got to be careful but at the end of the day the Christian church has got to get radical about the fact that Jesus Christ can make it in the world of herpes."
Vic Walczak, legal director for the Pittsburgh and state ACLU, says ACLU members have been attending Silver Ring shows. Alone among Pennsylvania abstinence programs, Silver Ring has drawn the ACLU's attention because of "complaints that they are using federal monies to proselytize." Complaints from whom, Walczak isn't saying. "We're reviewing Silver Ring and have some concerns but have not reached a conclusion as to what if any legal action to take," he adds. "I don't think there's any credible way they can deny the program is religious."
But does abstinence work any better than the sex-ed approach it's trying to replace?
"People from [age] 15 to 24, year in and year out, account for two-thirds of the most common of the STDs, which are gonorrhea and chlamydia," says Guillermo Cole, spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department. "This has been true for decades." Teens and young adults are the most sexually active age group, he explains, and are most likely to have multiple partners.
While STD rates are always lower in the county than in the U.S. as a whole, they follow national trends, moving up and down across the decades without obvious cause, Cole says.
Gonorrhea, which last peaked in Allegheny County in 1990, has been creeping up since 1997, but county AIDS cases have been declining since 1994. Cases of chlamydia are up since 1991 (the first year the state ordered data collection by county), though Cole points to increased testing during routine gynecological exams as the cause. As for teen birth rates in Allegheny County: "That is the lowest, wow, the lowest rate we've had in at least the last 30 years," Cole marvels: 27 per 1,000 teens. Teen pregnancy rates were 75 percent higher for the nation as a whole, but national trends waxed and waned like those in the county.
Can any of that be blamed on, or credited to, American sex-ed methods? A pile of studies has accumulated (see sidebar, "Dueling Data"), but the answer is hardly clear.
Pointing to the number of Silver Ring pledgers as proof of the program's success is worthless, says Brenda Green, vice president for education with the Western Pennsylvania chapter of Planned Parenthood. That's like judging the worth of a particular diet by counting the people who vow to follow it, she says. You'd be more accurate doing a weigh-in months down the road -- checking whether kids have actually stuck to their virginity pledges.
Green's group, of course, is a long-time promoter of comprehensive sex-ed, including lessons on abstinence but also on contraception and relationship skills. But the truth is, says Green, STD and teen birth rates can't be pinned on comprehensive sex-ed because it isn't being taught in very many places. The mere mention of condoms doesn't make a program "comprehensive."
Comprehensive sex ed should be a K-12 affair, Green contends. "Only 10 percent of their programming should be what I call plumbing," she says; the rest should concentrate on issues, values, relationships. There are "huge gaps in the curriculum" of programs claiming to be comprehensive: very little teaching about gender roles, gender identity, relationship skills and safety in relationships. She doesn't know anyone in Allegheny County who does it right.
"If you ask me whether teens should be having sex, my answer is no," says Green. "Not because I believe they're going to get AIDS and die ... and not because I think they're going to Hell. It's because I don't think that they're emotionally mature. I just really don't think they're ready for it. But the reality is, many kids are having sex. I just think they need the information to protect them."
She also doesn't believe Silver Ring Thing teaches abstinence in the most useful way -- as an option that may be helpful at different times in a person's life. (Perhaps aware of that possibility, Silver Ring also offers kids a "Second Virginity" -- the chance to pledge abstinence-from-now-on. As Silver Ring show director Deb Ott told the Sunday Times of Scotland in June 2004: "They can put on their silver ring and start over that night if they want to.")
But abstinence is still favored by the U.S. government. In the BBC documentary, cameras follow Pattyn to the Washington, D.C. office of Sen. Rick Santorum -- responsible, with Sen. Arlen Specter, for all that taxpayer largesse -- as Pattyn lobbies successfully for 2003's $700,000 handout (a quarter to a third of their annual budget, he says). Pattyn tells Santorum about an upcoming sex-ed debate the group will be having with Planned Parenthood.
"And Planned Parenthood's approach is, have as much sex as you want and just be, you know, just protect yourself, is that it?" Santorum says.
Pattyn doesn't exactly disabuse the senator of that notion. Santorum presses on,
suggesting public-school sex-ed programs have caused more teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases than they have prevented.
Pattyn doesn't offer actual stats, but his answer ("Yeah, there was just an article that went out on that ...") is apparently good enough.
"The message is pretty clear to me," says Santorum. "If I'm a 13- or 14-year-old, say, we have morning-after pills, now do whatever you think is right but here are these pills and what the expectation is, is really obvious."
"Exactly," Pattyn says. Sitting next to the pair, Silver Ring Thing lobbyist Paul Marconi concludes: "It's as if you have anti-drug programs saying don't do drugs, but if you do [drugs], here's a manual on how to safely shoot yourself up with heroin or how to safely cut up cocaine. It's a horrible message."
By contrast, Pattyn told the BBC, Silver Ring Thing "is the most effective abstinence program out there."
But what he means by "effective," not even the federal government knows. Steve Barbour, spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services (which administers abstinence-education funding), says the government is still working on "reporting mechanisms" for federally funded programs, while studying programs supported by individual states.
The federal government is paying the Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based Abstinence Clearinghouse to come up with national standards for evaluating abstinence-only educational curricula, and to seek scientific data to prove their effectiveness. Kimberly Martinez, executive director of the privately funded nonprofit Clearinghouse, says she isn't allowed to say much about the three-year government grant her group received two years ago to study the effectiveness of abstinence education. Although the Clearinghouse isn't faith-based, it's not exactly a non-partisan think tank: The tape on their phone system promotes an "Abstinence Leadership Conference" Aug. 4-6 in Southern California. Participants are invited to "Watch abstinence take on Hollywood." "Lights. Camera. No action," assures conference advertising.
"The statistics on abstinence are being completed now," Martinez says. But there are no studies she can think of that look at whether religion helps the abstinence-only message.
Steve Barbour of Health and Human Services is no more reassuring: "We are also interested in looking at a study of community-based abstinence-education programs like SRT in the future," he says.
After years of teaching and supervising sex-ed programs in local public schools, Damion Wilson believes the question has already been answered. Wilson manages the Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention of the Family Health Council, headquartered Downtown. Council staff teaches peer-led sex-ed in seven western Pennsylvania counties, everywhere from schools and churches to youth detention centers.
Most comprehensive sex-ed proponents point to their own bible, Douglas Kirby's Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy, published by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy in 2001. It describes 10 criteria for sex-ed programs that best help kids avoid pregnancy and STDs, such as "Provide basic, accurate information." None of them is an abstinence-only program.
"There is a segment of the population for whom abstinence is not a reality right now," Wilson says. "It's important that you give them information they need to help them make healthy decisions."
The Council's program has modules on about 16 different topics. Not every school or agency requests the whole program. "We have an abstinence module," Wilson says. (The instructor's page cautions, Do not discuss different religious groups and their teachings.) "But if we can talk about everything, that's the best thing to do."
Some teens get sex-ed nowhere else, Wilson stresses. And it never seems to hurt them:
"My experience in going out to these schools and giving them information -- I cannot think of one person who did not appreciate this information. This information is not given to young people to make them want to have sex." Nor does he believe it hurts those who want to be abstinent.
"I think their choice is strengthened when you give them the correct information about condoms and birth control methods -- whatever choice they make. When does giving factual information weaken your resolve to do something?"
Wilson objects, however, to abstinence programs giving out inaccurate information. In December, Democrats on the House Government Reform Committee, led by California Rep. Henry Waxman, released a report charging that 11 abstinence-only programs receiving federal dollars offered "false, misleading or distorted information" about STDs, contraceptives and related topics. Bush administration figures and conservative foundations charged Waxman with trying to stop the flow of money to these programs.
Silver Ring Thing was not mentioned in the Waxman report. But Wilson picks up something he has printed from the Silver Ring Thing Web site. It is an entry from the "Deb's Diary" feature. Usually, these are pieces by show director Deb Ott, but sometimes she has guest writers. (Joy Ike, for instance, has done a few.)
Wilson reads from the diary entry titled "You tell me, 'Is Safe Sex Safe?'" by James W. Stand, M.D.:
"According to the CDC and NIH in a year-long study released in July 2001, the male latex condom could not be proven to prevent pregnancy or any sexually transmitted disease."
Stand is referring to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. It's really a study of previous studies, examining "the published evidence establishing the effectiveness of latex male condoms in preventing STDs ..."
The study doesn't actually look at condom use in pregnancies. But it's safe to say that, given the more than 6,400 references to "condom" on the CDC Web site, there's at least some acknowledgment that properly used condoms block sperm and egg from meeting.
And the study does conclude that the condom helped prevent gonorrhea in men, and that evidence about the "effectiveness of the male condom [was] strongest for HIV." There simply isn't enough data to conclude anything about gonorrhea in women, chlamydia or trichomoniasis, it adds. And there's no evidence that condoms helped in genital ulcer diseases: genital herpes, syphilis and chancroid.
The study Stand references then ends with, essentially, Please disregard our entire exercise: "The Panel stressed that the absence of definitive conclusions reflected inadequacies of the evidence available and should not be interpreted as proof of the adequacy or inadequacy of the condom to reduce the risk of STDs other than HIV transmission in men and women and gonorrhea in men."
Stands' contribution to Deb's Diary contains no such subtleties. Reached at his ob-gyn practice in Columbia, S.C., he still insists his Diary statement is "basically true."
To say "the male latex condom could not be proven" to do anything -- isn't that the same as saying any baseball player who bats less than 1.000 "could not be proven" to hit the ball at all? Stand relents. "We need to use 'reduce the chances'" instead of "prevent" disease and pregnancies when talking about condoms, he says.
"Any time you have an M.D. giving out information like that, I don't think that's fair," says Damion Wilson, "when the research shows that if you use condoms correctly, they are effective in preventing pregnancy and STDs."
"I feel bad for my patients," says Melanie Gold, M.D., "when they are sitting in the classroom of an abstinence-until-marriage program, when they think, 'What must these people think of my family?' What's being represented to them isn't anything like the environment and the reality they live in."
Gold is director of adolescent medicine and of family planning services for Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. She sees teens in her practice and studies sex-ed methods through an NIH grant.
Silver Ring Thing, she says, "makes an assumption that people are going to get married -- that all relationships are heterosexual. ... It makes the assumption that everyone should get married, which leaves [out] a large, large portion of the population of my patients" whose parents never married, she says.
Plus, Gold says, "It's hard to imagine that three hours of anything can make such a big behavior change" as a years-long abstinence pledge. Silver Ring pledgers are supposed to choose a peer "accountability partner" to help them stay vigilant; they can also consult the Silver Ring's Web site for devotionals, answers to "How far is too far?" or other reinforcements. But there's no telling how many pledgers treat it as a kind of virginity vaccination, supposedly good for a lifetime.
Gold is in the middle of a five-year NIH study of computer-assisted "behavioral change counseling," which helps kids assess their personal risk for STDs and pregnancy and make a plan to reduce it. Her study has enrolled 314 of the hoped-for 660 kids, aged 13-21.
Pledge or no pledge, 31 percent of those enrolled in her study are abstinent, she says -- a little more than half of them by choice, the others due to age or lack of opportunity. Based on satisfaction surveys from hospital programs, Gold says abstinent girls feel "empowered" by having the information offered by comprehensive sex ed.
"They don't seem to see that there's a conflict" between information and abstinence, she says. "They don't see having knowledge as making their commitment to abstinence any less." Girls tell her "My decision to be abstinent is my decision" and that "giving me options isn't making my decision less.'"
Several of her patients have gone to Silver Ring Thing shows, she says. One, a Christian, felt reinforced by the message. Another, a Jew, felt alienated and left before it was over. The third wasn't certain the religious aspect appealed to her, "but getting a silver ring was kind of cool." Still, the girl informed Gold, "She wasn't sure if it would help her be abstinent."
However, Gold cautions, "Just as many of the abstinence-only programs have no evidence they work, there isn't fabulous evidence showing that comprehensive sex-education programs work. ... What we really ought to do is comprehensive sex-ed with parents. If parents were well educated and taught how to communicate with kids, we wouldn't have to rely so much on schools."
Denny Pattyn and the Silver Ring Thing certainly don't think America can rely on its schools either.
"Our business plan, our roll-out plan," Pattyn says in the BBC documentary, "is to be in 75 U.S. cities in the next seven years and to put two million rings on kids' fingers to create a reverse peer pressure effect in the communities where they live and maybe, God willing, create a movement."
Whether or not their program works -- whether it violates the First Amendment of the Constitution -- there's one fact Silver Ring Thing can count on: They've already gotten paid.
A handy click-and-dispute guide to oft-cited research on sex and sex-ed methods.
~"Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance -- United States 2003" (www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/SS/SS5302.pdf)
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that 46.7 percent of high schoolers (and 7.4 percent of 13-year-olds) have had intercourse at least once (14.4 percent with four or more partners). More than a third of those sexually active used condoms during their most recent intercourse. More than 4 percent had been pregnant or had gotten someone pregnant.
~"Births to 10-to-14-Year-Old Mothers, 1990-2002: Trends and Health Outcomes"
Population of this youngest group of potential mothers is up 16 percent in the last decade, yet their birth rate declined 38 percent.
~ "Teen-agers in The United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, And Childbearing, 2002"
Teens are waiting longer to have sex and using contraceptives more often. Top reasons for staying abstinent: "against religion or morals," followed by "don't want to get (a female) pregnant."
~"Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges as they Affect Transition to First Intercourse" (www.siecus.org/media/pdf/Bearman2001.pdf)
This 2000 study by two academics is a favorite of both sides in the sex-ed debate. It analyzes data from "Add Health," which surveyed 14,000 seventh-12th graders in nearly 150 schools. It found that "Adolescents who pledge ... are much less likely than adolescents who do not pledge, to have intercourse. The delay effect is substantial and almost impossible to erase." But it doesn't work at all ages, the study notes. And, curiously, the "pledge effect" is related to the number of pledgers: Pledgers keep the faith only if they are a minority group: an "identity movement." Plus, there is this caveat: "If pledgers do have sex, they are less likely to be contraceptively prepared than non-pledgers."
~"Teens Who Make Virginity Pledges Have Substantially Improved Life Outcomes" (new.heritage.org/Research/Family/cda04-07.cfm)
The conservative Heritage Foundation in 2004 looks at the very same Add Health study to find that teens who take a virginity pledge are less likely to have unprotected sex, give birth at a young age or outside marriage, or be sexually active as teens or young adults.
~"Trends in Sexual Risk Behaviors among High School Students -- United States, 1991 to 1997 and 1999 to 2003" (www.advocatesforyouth.org/publications/factsheet/fstrends.htm):
Advocates for Youth, which promotes comprehensive sex ed, uses data from the CDC to contend that teens were better off before abstinence programs got federal funding: They had less sex with fewer people and used condoms more often.
"Five Years of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Education: Assessing the Impact"
The Advocates group looks at 10 state programs; Pennsylvania's "Abstinence Education and Related Services Initiative" fares the best, but none do well in changing attitudes or behavior; some programs even saw negative impact, claims the study.
~The Abstinence Clearinghouse's "Resource Library" of abstinence stats and studies (www.abstinence.net/library/index.php?cat=Abstinence+Statistics+%26+Studies) provides arguments for abstinence. But be forewarned: some of the best-sounding clickable items, like "Abstinence Works! Here's How to Prove It!" ask for a credit card.