The balls are an outgrowth of the purity movement, which began in the 1980s when American teens, mostly girls, began taking abstinence pledges in their local churches and community groups. The campaign was largely a grassroots Christian response to the AIDS epidemic, high teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease (STD) rates, and the cultural mores of the sexual revolution. Pledging spread by word of mouth and went national in the 1990s, with programs such as True Love Waits, which encourages teenagers and college students to sign commitment cards that obligate them to remain pure and sexually abstinent by saying no to "sexual intercourse, oral sex...sexual touching...and pictures that feed sexual thoughts" until they enter "a biblical marriage relationship," and Silver Ring Thing, which encourages middle and high school boys and girls to think of their sexuality as a car engine that is safest not to "turn on."
Today Peter Bearman, PhD, the Columbia University sociologist who codesigned the largest, most comprehensive survey of adolescent health ever taken, estimates that one in six Americans between the ages of 12 and 28 has taken a purity pledge.
The growing emphasis on abstinence is no doubt fueled by the increasing support the government has provided the abstinence movement. In 1981 conservative Republican senators Jeremiah Denton and Orrin Hatch sponsored the first legislation "to promote chastity and self-discipline." President Ronald Reagan signed their bill into law, and Congress put $11 million behind it. In 1996 congressional social conservatives attached language to the welfare reform bill that required newly federally funded abstinence education classes to teach that "sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."
In President Bush's first six years in office, annual funding for abstinence-until-marriage initiatives more than doubled to $176 million. This money is earmarked despite a 2004 congressional investigation that found that 11 of 13 federally supported abstinence programs contain misleading or flat-out-incorrect information—for example, that 5 to 10 percent of legal abortions lead to sterility, that 50 percent of homosexual male U.S. teens have HIV, and that touching another person's genitals can result in pregnancy.
The comprehensive sex education some of us remember from public health classes—covering various methods of birth control and how sexually active people can reduce their risk of getting STDs—receives no federal money. (If a school wants to teach beyond abstinence, administrators must use local or state funds; poor schools often can't afford to offer additional classes.)
Supporters of abstinence-only initiatives claim their programs are largely responsible for the fact that between 1990 and 2002, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate declined by more than 30 percent and the number of abortions went from about 1.6 million to just under 1.3 million. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, further bolstered the abstinence movement when it reported in 2005 that teens who are virgins when they graduate high school are nearly twice as likely to graduate from college than their sexually active classmates. "Obviously, teaching kids to be proud virgins works," says Leslee Unruh, the president of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse.
But social scientists who've researched these numbers don't agree that abstinence programs are the driving force behind either those declines or the academic successes. For instance, Peter Bearman says that virginity has no effect on school achievement, explaining that the Heritage Foundation analysts are "confusing causality."
We Hear You!