No Trespassing

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

While sidestepping the masturbation issue, True Love Waits eagerly joins the oral-sex debate. In February, the original pledge, which asked participants to "be sexually abstinent," was reworded to request "a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence." Ross says the change was necessitated partly by program participants' reactions to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

"As the former president began to raise questions about what really is sex, we began to hear from young people who are asking the very same kinds of questions, who were beginning to wonder, 'Is intercourse the only way two people can be immoral?'" Ross says. "And obviously, from a biblical perspective, the answer to that question is no."

Newlywed Sherry Davidson agrees. As she tells other girls in her Grand Prairie church youth group, when she was growing up, the church often seemed too unwilling to draw these sorts of boundaries. "Nobody wanted to talk about it," she says. "Nobody wanted to tell me about what oral sex was, and nobody wanted to tell me what improper touching was. I was very, very curious about it."

The virgin diaries: In 1994, top, more than 200,000 True Love Waits commitment cards were displayed at the national mall in Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of the burgeoning teen abstinence movement. Since then, TLW estimates more than a million teens have signed such pledge cards; left, pledge drives like this one two years later at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta are still used today to increase TLW commitment numbers (at this display, more than 340,000 cards were stacked from the dome's floor to its roof); students at a high school in Tennessee, right, sign pledges. A TLW spokesman says teens are so willing to commit to abstinence because "teenagers today are standing up to adults."
top:Jim Veneman
The virgin diaries: In 1994, top, more than 200,000 True Love Waits commitment cards were displayed at the national mall in Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of the burgeoning teen abstinence movement. Since then, TLW estimates more than a million teens have signed such pledge cards; left, pledge drives like this one two years later at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta are still used today to increase TLW commitment numbers (at this display, more than 340,000 cards were stacked from the dome's floor to its roof); students at a high school in Tennessee, right, sign pledges. A TLW spokesman says teens are so willing to commit to abstinence because "teenagers today are standing up to adults."
Dr. Richard Ross, a seminary professor in Fort Worth, helped launch True Love Waits a decade ago. "These young people have a warmth toward God that is much more intimate and much more real than would be true for many adults," he says.
Mark Graham
Dr. Richard Ross, a seminary professor in Fort Worth, helped launch True Love Waits a decade ago. "These young people have a warmth toward God that is much more intimate and much more real than would be true for many adults," he says.

Now the most common question she hears isn't "Does masturbation count?" but "What's it like to wait?"

"It's kind of scary, honestly," Davidson says. "I always wondered what it would feel like: Would it hurt, or would I be scared? I normally tell my girls that...it's definitely worth it."

Keeling, meanwhile, holds tight to his vow to remain abstinent until marriage. The thought that he may never marry is "kinda dismal," he says, but if he ends up a lifelong single, he will die a virgin.

"I believe that sex is a thing that is one and the same with marriage," he says. "That's how it's meant to be."

I Want a New Drug

Whenever new True Love Waits groups spring up, whether in the United States or across the globe in Zambia and Uganda, teenagers and young adults are the driving force behind the program, according to Ross. He suggests that young people's less hesitant, more trusting faith in Christian tenets makes a total commitment to the precepts of True Love Waits easier.

"These young people have a warmth toward God that is much more intimate and much more real than would be true for many adults. For them, God is not a concept, God is not a doctrine, God is a living person."

But that faith still can be tested by day-to-day setbacks in the high-drama world of teenagers. And as with adults, teens often can turn to sex to cope with feelings of inadequacy.

Stacy (not her real name), like most high school seniors, desires to be popular. As she bustles into Starbucks after a day of school, lugging a huge anatomy textbook, you can see how she would most likely be just that. A petite brunette, Stacy is friendly and intelligent. She is active in her church and school: She's been a student council officer and a cheerleader, and she has been a full-time volunteer, serving meals to kids at summer camp. But she doesn't hide behind her A-list aura; she's sincere and honest about how her personal failures have made her falter in her 4-year-old abstinence commitment.

Stacy's problems began with cheerleading. She had been captain of the junior varsity cheerleaders at her North Dallas high school when she tried out for the varsity squad at the end of her sophomore year. Despite her status, it wasn't guaranteed that she would make it.

"Basically, the odds came down to, of the girls trying out that were sophomores, half of us were going to make it; half of us weren't," Stacy says. "I wasn't the best one, I didn't think, but I thought I was in the top half. I thought it was a pretty sure thing, actually."

When the list of varsity cheerleaders was posted, however, Stacy's name was absent. She didn't cry that night. But the next afternoon, as she sat in the empty sanctuary of a nearby church, she broke down, in front of the church janitor. "I was feeling kind of rejected, I guess," Stacy says. "High school kids let themselves be defined by their activity. So, I was a cheerleader. I let that become too important to me, too much of an idol. It was like a little mini-identity crisis."

Stacy began doubting herself. She made "a whole lot of decisions motivated out of pain"--drinking, sneaking out of the house and experimenting sexually.

The night after the cheerleading auditions, Stacy's boyfriend phoned and convinced her to let him sneak into her house. He did so, and although nothing sexual occurred, Stacy discovered that overstepping her "good girl" boundaries gave her a thrill. She decided to sneak him in again, saying to herself: "I'm going to do this--I'm going to sneak my boyfriend in. I'm going to be a bad kid. And that's when everything happened."

Though they had been dating for two weeks, they hadn't even kissed yet. But that night they were sexually intimate--everything but intercourse, she says. During the next three weeks, they continued experimenting, but as the initial thrill dwindled, Stacy once again felt a void. "It was just like, on the inside I knew that if this was all just an attempt to make me happy, it wasn't working," she says.

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