Sun, May 16, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Saving hymens or souls?

American hucksters for virginity are on their way to the UK, ignoring the uniform failure of sexual abstinence programs aimed at youth

By George Monbiot  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

The flame of sexual liberation may soon have to be kept alive by us geriatric delinquents. A US evangelical group has announced that next month it will be recruiting British teenagers to its campaign against sex before marriage.

More than a million US youths have taken the pledge. "Great Britain," the organizer insists, "is fascinated with the idea of sexual abstinence."

In my day such a fellow would have been horsewhipped. Yet young people are flocking to him. Is there no end to the depravity of today's youth?

Not if the US government can help it. The abstinence campaign that hopes to corrupt the morals of our once proud nation -- a group called the Silver Ring Thing -- has so far received US$700,000 in US government funds as part of President George W. Bush's personal crusade to replace sex education with Victorian values. This year he doubled the federal funding for virginity training to US$270 million.

In terms of participation, his program is working. In every other respect it's a catastrophe.

No one could dispute that thousands of teenagers in Britain and the United States are suffering as a result of sex before marriage. Teenage pregnancies are overwhelmingly concentrated at the bottom of the social scale: the teenage daughters of unskilled manual laborers are 10 times as likely to become pregnant as middle-class girls.

According to the United Nations agency UNICEF, girls born into poverty are twice as likely to stay that way if they have children too soon. They are more likely to be unemployed, to suffer from depression and to become dependent on alcohol or drugs.

Teenage pregnancy and venereal diseases are often blamed on lax morals and a permissive welfare state, both in the UK and the US. Teenagers are in trouble today, the conservatives who dominate this debate insist, because of the sexual liberation of the 60s and 70s and the willingness of the state to support single mothers. Last weekend, one British Conservative grandee maintained that sex education has "failed": those who promote it should now "shut up" and leave the welfare of our teenagers to the virginity campaigners.

Denny Pattyn, the founder of the Silver Ring Thing, calls this "the cesspool generation -- suffering the catastrophic effects of the sexual revolution."

These people have some explaining to do.

Were we to accept the conservatives' version, we would expect the nations in which sex education and access to contraception are most widespread to be those that suffer most from teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease. The truth is the other way around.

The two Western countries at the top of the disaster league, the United States and the United Kingdom, are those in which conservative campaigns are among the strongest and sex education and access to contraception are among the weakest.

The US, the UN Population Fund's figures show, is the only rich nation stuck in the middle of the third world block, with 53 births per 1,000 teenagers -- a record worse than those of India, the Philippines and Rwanda. The UK comes next with 20.

The nations the conservatives would place at the top of the list of corrosively permissive states are clumped at the other end of the teenage pregnancy list. Germany and Norway produce 11 babies per 1,000 teenagers, Finland eight, Sweden and Denmark seven and the Netherlands five -- less than one-tenth of the US rate.

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