The Course of True Love

Words by Clare Howdle

Lessons in love have taken on a whole new meaning...

Youth culture. It’s all about trends. iPods, Ugg boots, wristbands, pledges. That’s right folks, the latest trend to sweep the teenage nation seems to be abstinence. The idea of not copulating has proved a fascination for the UK in 2005 as organisations like The Silver Ring Thing flaunt their wares, a series profiling young people giving up sex sends ratings sky high, and famous celebrities (in the smallest of tee shirts and tightest of jeans) cheerfully pronounce their celibacy. Abstinence is cool. It must be – the websites say so. But is it just about not having sex or are there deeper-lying agendas behind the trendy façade?

One thing’s for sure – the trend for saying “No” could benefit British society. For nearly 40,000 young girls in the UK, the latest accessory isn’t a fake YSL handbag – it’s a McClaren pram. One in every ten babies in England is born to a teenage mother. It’s a shocking qualification of the increasing sexual activity of young people nationwide. About one third of under-16s are sexually active, and of those, one third use no contraception the first time they have sex. Cue another hard-hitting statistic: cases of syphilis rose by 870% between 1992-2002 in England and Wales and chlamydia rose by 139%. For the people behind the abstinence movement it’s about so much more than fashion – they want to get teenagers to think about the repercussions of promiscious sexual activity and denounce it.

“It was nagging away at me that so many young people I spoke to really regretted their sexual experiences,” explains Rachel Gardener, youth worker and one of the founders of the Romance Academy, a project set up as part of the recent television series No Sex Please We’re Teenagers, which mentors 12 young people as they “challenge themselves and their community cultures with an exploration of the sexual abstinence lifestyle”. For Rachel and her co-founder Dan Burke abstinence is about more than tackling sexually transmitted diseases or lowering teenage pregnancy rates, although those are significant motivating factors. “As the leaders we say cut out anything that puts you at risk of an STI, but the rest is up to them,” she explains about setting the rules for the vows made at the Academy. “So they get into a big debate; ‘is oral sex sex? Is mutual masturbation sex?’ – it’s the first time that they get to talk about what they consider sexual activity and what makes them uncomfortable amongst their peers and that can be quite liberating for them. Why don’t we want young people having sex?” Rachel asks, “Because actually we feel that they will like themselves more and feel more positive and be able to be in a relationship where they want to exercise more respect as a result.”

The concept of abstinence, however, is more often associated with conservative religious attitudes than youth empowerment, an association that Rachel is keen to dispel. “Both Dan and I are Christians but our work has always been with people of all faiths; we’re not going to be pushing our agenda,” she says. “Our beliefs don’t make anything taboo – we don’t judge and will talk about drinking and drugs and prostitution and faith and pop music and masturbation and anything that the young people want to in order for them to feel more informed about their culture and make better decisions about their lifestyle.”

But as just one group in the much bigger abstinence picture, Rachel and Dan’s decision not to push a Christian agenda through their work seems to be an anomaly. In 2004 one of America’s most successful pledge groups, The Silver Ring Thing, came to the UK to try to replicate the success that they had had in the USA, where thousands of young people have pledged their virginity until marriage in front of their peers. And God. Ordained minister and founder of The Silver Ring Thing Denny Pattyn has no qualms about vocalising the role of God in what they are doing. Abstinence, he argues, is the brainchild of God; it’s just now he has medical motivations to add to his Christian arsenal. Paula Jacobs, a Surrey-based mum who was involved in bringing The Silver Ring Thing to the UK in 2004 was spurred into action by rising levels of sexually transmitted infections, but her underlying reasons are purely religious. Talking to The Times last year she said: “abstinence has been written about for as long as the Bible has existed: you shouldn’t have sex before marriage. People are choosing to do it their own way, this is not by God’s design. And so we are in the middle of a sexual epidemic caused by our own choices.”

But on The Silver Ring Thing website there is no immediate mention of religion. Just happy-looking kids and descriptions of the ‘show’: “high-tech club style lighting, videos, and of course a sweet sound system” and proclamations like “you’ve got to be there!” They explain that by emphasising these elements of the scheme they want to attract the attention of the typical 21st century teenager, to offer them protection from the destructive effects of America’s sex-obsessed culture. And it works. To date, over 40,000 American teens have made the pledge to remain abstinent and the number is growing by the day. Kids are all too eager to pledge their virginity, wear the $10 ring and make their statement, and yet you can’t help but wonder how much of it is eagerness to stay chaste in the face of God, and how much of it is about the “thumping music, lights, comedy and drama” they are promised. A US study found that almost nine in 10 of those who signed pledges broke them, indicating that perhaps the $10 ring is more of a teenage accessory than a vow of chastity.

Despite soaking up new trends like sponges, British teenagers found the no sex message mixed with a hefty dose of religious ideologies (no matter how cool they tried to make it), a little hard to swallow, and The Silver Ring Thing failed to make the impact it desired on the youth of the nation. “I don’t think it is a very good way of doing it,” says one young person in Camborne, Cornwall, about The Silver Ring Thing’s approach to tackling sex and relationship issues. “It seems a bit like brainwashing, you get caught up in the atmosphere and buzz and that clouds what you are signing up to.”

And yet where The Silver Ring Thing failed, Romance Academy has succeeded in capturing teenagers’ imaginations and getting them to think about sex, relationships, love and values, whether they are in the Academy or affected by watching the series itself. “Before I watched the programme I thought ‘oh its just sex’”, she continues, “but after watching it I realised sex isn’t a game, it’s about love and respect, it was good to see it from a real person’s point of view rather than just teachers saying ‘oh don’t have sex – you’ll get Chlamydia’ or something.”

Despite Romance Academy’s motivations being muddled with the undoubtedly more mercenary aims of a ratings hungry TV network, the series seems to have got a positive message across to young people everywhere, “working on building self esteem and providing support, advice and information on reducing STIs and risk taking, much like we are,” explains Soozie Tinn from the Cornwall Youth Service. However she, along with many others, has concerns about abstinence vows as vehicles for sex and relationships education. “A vow is very public. I worry that young people might feel coerced into something like that, and why does it have to be a public statement? You shouldn’t have to withdraw yourself from your daily reality to make important decisions about your attitude towards sex and relationships.”

One thing is for sure, whether it’s the heavily religious or the well intending, youth orientated pledging groups are making their mark on British culture – The Silver Ring Thing still has designs on the British market, Rachel and Dan are creating packs to enable youth workers to set up Academies across the country, and of course, rumours of a new series of No Sex Please... abound. Although abstinence vows might not be everyone’s cup of tea it can’t be ignored that they are, by causing debate, making people consider the problem of underage sex in Britain. And those people include the teenage girl declining a fumble behind the bikeshed, decision makers in government addressing sex education issues, oh and TV execs rubbing their hands and watching their ratings soar sky high...