No Trespassing

When teens vow not to have sex, the moral to their story isn't always clear

"I think teenagers today are standing up to adults," Ross says. "[They're] saying, 'You don't think we're capable of controlling ourselves. You think we are all going to live like barnyard animals...The only thing you can say to us is, "Here, take a condom. Protect yourself if you can."'

"I think there is a spirit within teenagers that causes some to say, 'We're not going to do what you think we're going to do. We are perfectly capable of making promises. We are perfectly capable of keeping those promises. So we're going to be different from you.'"

That choice, though, doesn't guarantee an adolescence free from emotional scarring and sexual temptation. Four of the teens who spoke to the Observer illustrate the varied reactions to the issues abstinence pledges bring about: the seemingly easy-to-answer question, What is sex?; what happens when sex becomes your self-help drug; when sexual frustration leads to emotional frustration; and the psychological trauma that can occur with those who break the pledge.

Hal Werner took the pledge as a freshman in high school. Now 19, he has remained abstinent, although "there have been a couple of times where I've had a little extra fun."
John Anderson
Hal Werner took the pledge as a freshman in high school. Now 19, he has remained abstinent, although "there have been a couple of times where I've had a little extra fun."

What is Sex?

Josh Keeling, 20, is lanky, with a wide smile and wire-framed glasses. The Richardson native attends a small college in Tennessee where he majors in classical music composition (he has already written an orchestral piece) and plays the saxophone and piano. He is smart, polite and has a gentle sense of humor. He doesn't drink, smoke or take drugs--but he does dance.

"Baptists are all just really bad dancers," he says. "We're ashamed of it. It's not that we don't; it's just we don't look good doing it."

For all of his charms, Keeling has not been so much as kissed. He made his True Love Waits pledge in seventh grade while attending his Baptist church in Richardson. Since then he has been in a few short relationships that never reached physical intimacy--although he admits that it wasn't entirely by his choice. "It's not like I've said I'm never going to kiss a girl," he explains. "It just hasn't come up yet."

Remaining sexually pure is important to Keeling, who says that it's an unspoken law within his household that he does so. "I've thought, if there wasn't the True Love Waits campaign, would my life be completely different?" he says. "If I had never heard before that it was really a good idea to stay pure and to choose abstinence, then, yeah, a big part of the way I think and the way I live my life would be trying to find some way to get in bed with someone."

Keeling, though inexperienced, is not without a sexual history...of sorts. Around his sophomore year in high school, Keeling discovered Internet pornography. He tried to hide his growing curiosity by surfing "fine art" photography sites in search of erotic pictures. Eventually, he was visiting any sites he could find, rationalizing his obsession. "You can come up with an excuse for everything," he says.

He hid his "dirty secret" from friends and family. In college, Keeling's decision to remain sexually pure became even more difficult. "I have to keep reminding myself that the mind-set that I need to be in is that those are not the things I'm really after. Some temporary physical stimulation is not what I really want." He pauses and adds, "Sometimes it's really hard to convince myself that that's really what I believe and what I'm going to stick to."

But his beliefs compel him to stick to it--he considers masturbation a sin. "Whenever masturbation is involved, lust is involved, and that's impure," he says.

The problem, he says, is that even within supportive prayer groups and among abstinence-friendly friends, it isn't easy to broach the topic. "Like, you just don't want to even say it in the presence of other church people. I think it's just kind of collectively an issue of shame."

Indeed, the True Love Waits curriculum is euphemistic when discussing masturbation. In the text of four TLW workbooks--Until You Say I Do, True Love Waits Takes a Look at Courting, Dating, & Hanging Out, Pure Joy and Living Pure Inside Out--the term is mentioned rarely. References to viewing pornography abound, however, and they hammer that shameful theme: "Although the end result is different from person to person," one entry says, "it has to be noted that almost every serial murderer and sex offender began their journey to the depths of their depraved behavior with pornography."

Steven Bailey, a volunteer youth ministry assistant at First Baptist of Richardson, says he tries to steer kids away from the question of whether masturbation is right or wrong. "I try to teach them why we don't do those things," he says. "I ask them the simple question, 'When you masturbate, are your thoughts pure? Are your thoughts holy? Do you feel like you're glorifying God at those times?'"

Even TLW spokesman Ross, who speaks unequivocally about the wrongs of premarital sex, hesitates to commit to a hard line on solo sex.

"On that particular issue," Ross says, "because families tend to have such varied perspectives, we just respect the privilege of parents and their kids coming to an understanding about that part of human experience. We're just fine with families working that out however they choose to."

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