Advocating abstinence-only

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LEWISTON – A group of about 30 teens met in the Holy Family Church Parish Hall on Saturday to talk about sex.

The focus of the conversation: abstinence only until marriage.

Jenelle Fecteau, 15, of Mechanic Falls, already had decided to practice abstinence, but she was curious about the program being put on by Heritage of Maine. With the aid of federal grant money, the nonprofit organization has been promoting abstinence from York to Bangor.

She also “wanted to see how other teenagers responded to the statement of saying no.'”

It turned out many of the day’s participants were perfectly comfortable with the word.

Like Liz Sabine, 16, of Greene. She had wanted to spend the day getting ready for the Leavitt High School prom, but members of a youth group she’s involved with convinced her to attend the abstinence program. While talking about why some teens feel pressured to have sex, one person mentioned expectations around prom night.

Sabine, a sophomore, said this really wasn’t an issue for her: “I wasn’t going to do it anyway.” But, she added, it was nice to hear that other teens are making the same choice.

In school, she said, everyone talks like they’re having sex, and outside of school she’s surrounded by sex on television and in movies.

Heritage educator Jason O’Meara, 32, said the purpose of the abstinence program is to give teens a framework for building relationships. The organization conducts both short programs like Saturday’s and a full, 450-hour curriculum.

“While the message we do use is marriage, it’s focused on abstinence,” he said, acknowledging that not all teens will wait until their wedding day to experiment.

“Secondary virgins” – those who have sex before marriage, then think twice and stop any sexual activity – were discussed.

The risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease also were covered, along with emotional risks.

Program Coordinator Meg Yates said the use of birth control and “barrier methods” such as condoms are discussed in Heritage programs, but only in the context of the ineffectiveness of such “safe sex” tools. She pointed out that teaching students how to have “safe sex” would conflict with the abstinence message and possibly promote sexual activity.

It’s this thinking that turns off many people from abstinence-only education.

In 2005, Maine became the third state to reject federal sex education funds because of a requirement that the money be used to teach abstinence while telling students sex outside of marriage was wrong and likely harmful.

“The federal monies were in conflict with Maine standards,” said state Public Health Director Dora Anne Mills on Friday.

Maine law requires that “comprehensive” sex education be taught in schools, she said, meaning everything from abstinence to safe sex.

While it has been shown that abstinence education can delay sexual activity among teens, Mills said she does not know of any credible studies that show abstinence really works. About 50 percent of Maine teens are abstinent, she continued. “Those who aren’t, more than the majority of them, are using condoms.”

She credits the state’s comprehensive approach to sex education as being responsible for one of the steepest declines in teen pregnancy rates in the country. In 1986, the state had the sixth-highest teen pregnancy rate. By 2005, it had the third-lowest.

Students at Saturday’s program seemed to be able to sort out all the messages for themselves.

“I already learned this in school,” said Mathieu Poulin, 15, of Lewiston. “I already decided to wait until marriage.”

Kelly Larochelle, 15, of Hartford, also had made up her mind previously, but she was enjoying the day, anyway.

“I’m having a lot of fun,” she said before she got up to grab a slice of lunchtime pizza.

O’Meara and Yates said they see abstinence-only programs like theirs as a complement to other sex education.

“The bottom line is just to get (the students) to know that there’s another choice,” O’Meara said. “And that abstinence is the best thing for their future.”

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