The throng of teens mills around "the loft," a youth-group meeting area sparsely furnished with plastic chairs. They're preparing for an icebreaker game, a prelude to their Wednesday-night Bible class. Some kids watch dismissively from the sidelines as their classmates grip lollipop sticks between their teeth and race to pass a LifeSaver from person to person--no hands allowed. As they slide the tiny candy onto the next person's stick, the kids giggle as bodies and lips brush.
The teens gathered for the midweek service at First Baptist Church of Richardson are a microcosmic high school, right off the set of any teen drama on the WB: girls with straight teeth, glossy hair and very short shorts; boys in starched Polo shirts; one rebel in black with bright pink hair. Like most high school students, they flirt, leaning on each other, limbs intertwined, whispering and trading back rubs.
But many of these teenagers are distinctive in one unseen way: They are card-carrying pledgers of True Love Waits, a Christian-based abstinence program. To join, teens must sign a card reading, "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship."
In fact, these kids are not that unusual. According to True Love Waits, some 1.2 million teens have made the pledge since the group's beginning in 1993. Programs like TLW, abstinence advocates say, are at least partly responsible for a drop in the number of high school students having intercourse: down to 46 percent in 2001 from 54 percent a decade earlier, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Richard Ross, the professor of student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, spearheaded the True Love Waits program a decade ago and is now a TLW spokesman. He dislikes the term "founder," saying that God is the founder and the True Love Waits team merely God's instrument "for protecting the hearts of kids." He says True Love Waits is still a grassroots movement, although more than 90 Christian and secular organizations are listed as cooperating ministries, including Protestant and Catholic groups.
Many students commit to True Love Waits while they're in middle school or early high school and are urged to recommit every year. Ross says most of them do so because TLW articulates a goal to which many teens desperately aspire. "What many of them say on this issue is, 'I love God so much, I am choosing to obey what he has asked of me.'"
The Dallas Observer interviewed some 15 TLW teens and young adults, and indeed most of them speak highly of the program. Some, like Kenneth Sewell, have even married other TLW members. "I don't think kids even understand, until they get into a marriage relationship, the kind of trust that's needed in a marriage," Sewell says. "And when that is hanging over your head, you know, those past girlfriends, those past boyfriends, that really makes trusting in a marriage difficult. I guess I didn't understand the real importance of True Love Waits until I got married."
Others with whom the Observer spoke say what sounded like a simple commitment in their younger years became harder to stick with once they hit high school or college. Matthew (who asked that his last name not be used) signed the card as a junior in high school, before he'd had any sexual experiences.
"I got to college, and I realized there's a lot more out in the world than Killeen, Texas," Matthew says. "I started to realize that this whole 'waiting till marriage' thing wasn't necessarily the be-all, end-all of the way relationships should go." The woman to whom he lost his virginity is now his wife. "In a sense, you could say I fulfilled the promise of the pledge," he says. "Maybe not the wording, but certainly the spirit of it, since she's the only woman I ever had sex with and she's now my wife."
Jill--who, like many of those interviewed, asked that her real name not be used--is a 26-year-old mother who was asked to sign the True Love Waits pledge in her teens (she declined). She agrees that the organizers of such programs gloss over the complications that usually arise when a few hundred thousand years of genetically encoded urges bloom as the kids get older. "I think it's a great idea, and if humans are capable of doing that, I don't believe the program would be there," she says. "I think that kids are going to be kids, and the ones that are, are gonna, and the ones that aren't, aren't gonna...All of those people I know that signed it, maybe two of them weren't already sexually active."
TLW's Ross says that detractors and "adults who are just consumed with sexual expression" don't dissuade teenagers from abstinence--quite the opposite, he says. In the current "tsunami wave of sexuality" in America, he says, True Love Waits becomes a countercultural movement that naturally attracts young followers.
"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.
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."
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."
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.
Stacy was 13 when she signed the True Love Waits pledge at her church, a large suburban Baptist congregation. She says that even though she hasn't fully lived up to the pledge, it hasn't changed her feelings about what is right and what is wrong. "When [the Bible] says, 'flee from sexual immorality,' that doesn't mean push it as far as you can but don't cross the line. That means go as far as you can in the opposite direction. I'm saying all of this because this is what I believe. This is not necessarily what I've done and am doing."
Emotional neediness has often led Stacy to go further than she knows she should. "It becomes almost like a drug--not in that it's addictive, but the emotional attachment will make you do things you don't want to do," she explains. Or, at least, things that she regrets later. Knowing her weaknesses, though, hasn't kept her from falling into the same traps over and over again. Her experience following the cheerleading tryouts was repeated, with less intensity, a year later when she didn't win the student council presidency.
Often, the young men she turns to for comfort are members of her church youth group. The close, spiritual atmosphere of the group sometimes fosters physical relationships, and confessional sharing among the teens can be exploited. "If I have this friend, and we've shared our sexual histories with each other and pledged to pray for each other and I know that that's his weakness, of course the devil is going to tempt me to call him up when I'm feeling lonely on a Friday night, because I know that that's something he struggles with," Stacy says. "I know that he's an easy target and, as a guy, not likely to say no." Yet from her past experiences, she knows that if she fools around with a guy from the youth group, within a week, they will call each other to apologize.
TLW's Ross says this is typical with the teens he's counseled. He says teens seek sexual expression because of parental abandonment or emotional emptiness. "They come to believe that if they give their body to another lonely teenager, maybe somewhere in that relationship they'll find something that resembles authentic love," he states. But in the end, he says, "there's just sadness with the loss of innocence. There is sadness among young people that trusted a partner to protect their heart, and now they have discovered that partner was not interested in their heart at all, but only some organs."
But even though the True Love Waits pledge offers a goal and a focus, Stacy recognizes that controlling her sexual nature will be an everyday battle. Her faith has given her confidence that the battle is not in vain. "I don't think I ever would have gotten how sublime a relationship with Christ is unless I'd seen, by comparison, that other things don't work," she says. "I know it's not a pretty testimony, but it's mine."
Hal Werner's always been different. In blue jeans, purple sport coat and matching violet sunglasses, Werner, 19, stands apart from the crowd at First Baptist Church of Richardson. Before he began attending church, the University of Texas sophomore dressed in baggy black pants with chains and ripped-up black T-shirts and listened to music by Rob Zombie, Pantera and Marilyn Manson. "Not just that it was 'heavy rock,'" he says. "It was the death metal, 'I'm-going-to-feel-up-dead-people' and really weird stuff like that, talking about flying limbs and all kinds of general mayhem."
In junior high, he saw his grades slip. Werner's father, a strict, retired U.S. Army major, intervened. "My dad would lecture me anytime I got anything below a 97 on an assignment," Werner says. So he transferred to Trinity Christian School in Cedar Hill, which required that all students and their families attend a Protestant church at least once a week.
Werner took the True Love Waits pledge his freshman year, two years after his parents divorced. "My main reason, at the time, was just religious conviction. I didn't think it was right," he states. "I've still got the religious backing; I still think it's a wrong thing to do morally--which helps if you're trying to abstain, but also, since then, I've come to realize a lot of the practical consequences of getting yourself involved before you're married, because I've seen people getting pregnant; I've seen people's lives screwed up, people getting STDs."
Despite his personal commitment to the program, Werner doubted that his peers took the pledge as seriously. "A lot of people sign the cards because their parents are going to ask them about it. They've grown up in church their entire lives, and that's just what's done. You go to church, True Love Waits, you listen to the thing, you sign the card, you go on home and have dinner."
Six years later Werner has continued to hold to the pledge. He says he hopes that he'll make it to the altar a virgin. For Werner, oral sex is OK. It's a gray area, but not a pledge-breaker.
"There have been a couple of times where I've had a little extra fun than maybe I should have," he admits. "I would say, 'That was horribly wrong,' but I don't really feel guilty about it. And like I said, I've never actually had sex, so I think I'm good."
Relationships have been confusing for Werner from the beginning. Hal was brought up with the idea that women were for nothing more than cooking, kids and sex. "I found out, very harshly, this was not the truth," he says, grimacing. "They did not appreciate being treated like that." He also tried a goal-focused approach to dating, with little success. "For a long time, I had a big 'dating with intent to marry' thing--I was looking for that serious relationship, and I was looking for it now, which kind of doesn't work," he says.
While he appreciates the need for guys to control their own sexual thoughts, he wishes the girls in his youth group had offered more help. Through high school, Werner participated in most of the activities his church offered: classes, camps, retreats. He says at each an annoying hypocrisy is on display: group leaders admonishing the guys for lasciviously eyeing their female classmates while those same girls flaunted and teased.
"At church camp, these girls would be running around in the tiniest shorts you have ever seen, with the smile of a butt cheek hanging out the back, even when they're standing up, with writing across the tush, and you know, we'll be playing a water game, and they'll be wearing white T-shirts!" he says. "They'd turn around, after wearing almost nothing, and say, 'You need to stop looking at me. You guys are so bad; you're sinning. You need to stop looking at us lustfully.' And I'm thinking, 'You need to stop dressing like a whore!'"
He thinks women as well as men should recognize the power of visual stimulation and that both genders should share the responsibility of guarding against lust. "I'm like, 'OK, stop rubbing each other down with oil in little bitty bikinis and then flaunting yourself for the whole camp to see. This is what causes lusting,'" Werner says. "If you don't want us to stumble, don't try to make us stumble. You're not making it any easier. Everybody should be looking out for everybody."
Werner is uncertain whether his vow to remain abstinent will last.
"Sex is a good thing," he says, smiling. "I don't want to completely miss out on that just because I didn't end up getting married. Like I said, I would most definitely do my absolute best to try to keep it within the confines of marriage, but if I'm 40 years old and I'm still not married, then I'm gonna have to do something."
The Scarlet "S"
Abstinence, according to True Love Waits, is not only a physical health issue, but a mental one also. Ross says that in the past few decades, as sexual mores shifted and premarital sex became more accepted, teen depression and suicide grew at a comparable rate. "Now, you can't really draw a cause-and-effect relationship between two graphs that are ascending together," he says, "but it does raise the question of, Was sexual license a source of joy and peace of mind during those decades? If so, why were those kids increasingly killing themselves?"
Detractors argue that abstinence-only programs like True Love Waits foster shame and ignorance about what should be a natural and positive aspect of life. Advocates for Youth, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, maintains that abstinence programs' emphasis on negative psychological effects of premarital sex is medically unfounded. According to the group, when premarital sexual intercourse is satisfying, it positively affects the relationship for both males and females. It cites what it calls "the largest study ever undertaken of adult sexual behavior" in reporting that more than 90 percent of men and more than 70 percent of women recall wanting their first sexual intercourse to happen when it did.
A look at True Love Waits' literature suggests why detractors often call TLW a "fear-based" program. Until You Say I Do presents several "accounts based on true stories" of teens who have suffered the consequences of premarital sex. In the first tale, John makes an abstinence vow that can't hold up under peer pressure. He accepts a date from Heidi, a girl with a "reputation for sleeping around." She plies him with beer and convinces him to return to his empty house.
"The alcohol won out," it reads. "John was unprepared for what happened next." John loses his virginity, his Christian reputation and his parents' respect. As well, "a subsequent trip to the doctor confirmed John's fear--Heidi had passed on genital herpes, which could never be fully cured."
However convolutedly, the TLW literature and behavioral studies support the view that one can't simultaneously prevent and prepare for sexual contact. A look at virginity pledges conducted by Peter Bearman and Hannah Brueckner in the American Journal of Sociology found that although taking an abstinence vow may delay intercourse under specific conditions in certain groups of teens, pledgers who broke their vow were also less likely to use contraceptives during their first intercourse.
One tale even suggests that teens who become even mildly physically intimate expose themselves more so to sexual assault. In the chapter "Flirting With Temptation" of Until You Say I Do, Sarah, a 14-year-old, repeatedly sneaks out of the house to meet Gary, a 23-year-old who eventually date-rapes her, saying, "It's time for you to follow through on your teasing and really grow up." The booklet implies that Sarah could have protected herself from the rape by not romanticizing the relationship and by not letting "self-assurance blind [her] to the possibility of an attack. Sarah mistakenly believed she was above the temptation and could remain in control regardless of the circumstances around her."
Following stories of such weighty warnings and dire consequences, it's easy to see how teens who break their pledge can become traumatized by guilt.
Mallory (who asked that her last name not be used) is 17, brunet and freckled. She first signed her TLW pledge about four years ago. And Mallory has spent almost a year regretting one day of playing hooky--and dealing with the crushing guilt that has followed.
While the rest of her private school classmates visited a Bible museum, Mallory and a male friend ditched the field trip to hang out and play video games at another friend's house. Video games turned into making out, and making out turned into sex. As she was losing her virginity, Mallory says, she could hear the sounds of the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City theme music playing in the next room.
Though it occurred months ago, Mallory agonizes over the incident almost every day.
"When it happened, I was like, 'Oh, my gosh'--I was just in shock. I just kind of sat there. I didn't know what to do. I kept saying, 'I'm supposed to be a virgin until I'm married. What am I doing?' It felt like it took forever...I was crying. I didn't know what to think. I thought I was a horrible person."
Before she joined an abstinence program in middle school, Mallory had already made a personal decision to save sex for marriage. By ninth grade, when her church had a Valentine's Day presentation of the True Love Waits program, she was prepared to sign the pledge. "You have a bond with somebody you have sex with, whether you want to or not. You take a part of them, and they take a part of you," she says. "So it's better to just be 'one' with one person than just bringing other partners into it." As a symbolic gift, she received a ring inscribed with hearts and the words "True Love Waits."
Mallory admires the fact that others have managed to remain faithful to the pledge. "I can think of this one girl...you see how pure she is and how close she is to God, and you just sit there and you think, 'Why wasn't I like that?'
"And I feel like I can't get that back, because I've lost my virginity. It's like I've already lost my chance."
After having sex, Mallory says, she spent the rest of the day crying. She called her best friend, a boy she had dated previously, to tell him what happened. She expressed her anguish and remorse, her need for comfort; he stepped in, and they began dating again. One night over dinner he told her they should break up--it wasn't working out, he said; he wasn't getting what he wanted from the relationship. Sex was what he "wasn't getting," Mallory says. She put $5 on the table and walked away, calling back to him, "Find your own damn ride home!"
She didn't understand why her best friend would try to coax her into doing something that had sent her into a downward spiral just months earlier. "I thought I knew everything about him," Mallory says. "I thought he knew everything about me."
The pain of what she calls her failure is still fresh in every word and gesture. "Since that day, it's like everything around me has crumbled," Mallory says. "I've recently realized that it all, in some way or another, was because of that day." She occasionally uses marijuana and prescription drugs like Xanax to stave off the overwhelming depression. She admits that the guilt has consumed her to the point of destroying her spiritual life: She no longer goes to church; she doesn't pray--she doesn't think she deserves to.
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"It's not a matter of God forgiving me, because I've asked for forgiveness, and I know that he's forgiven me," Mallory says. "I have to start living the way I'm supposed to, the way I've been taught, the way I want to, then maybe I can forgive myself."
Ross believes that teenagers whose broken pledges cause pain, doubt and depression are feeling a natural response comparable to what any person feels when he or she violates an internal standard. "I think, though, this is exactly the same pain that adults in marriage feel when they promise 'till death do us part' and then fail to keep that promise," he says. "I don't think being a part of the True Love Waits movement creates anything not typical with just the human experience." The program focuses more on the positive aspects of abstaining rather than the negative aspects of being sexually active, says Ross. "Rather than creating fear about consequences, we spend much more time talking to them about the joy of sexual expression--with a lifetime partner in marriage."
And Mallory knows exactly why losing her virginity has been so emotionally excruciating. She feels that though her family doesn't know anything about her sexual experiences, she has deeply disappointed them. "I've let down everyone that I've ever loved," she explains. "I let down myself, I've let down my parents and my grandparents, I let down my whole world...Before things happened, I thought I was so naïve," she says. "I wish I were naïve again."
Mallory knows that at some point in the future she will have to stop hiding under a dark cloud and relieve herself of this secret burden. "I just really want to find a way to get through it. I want to start going back to church. I want to start living right. I want it off my chest," she says wearily. "I don't want to feel guilty anymore."