Making Abstinence Work in Today's World
Mary Elayne Glover Bennett
Founder & Executive Director,
Best Friends Foundation
4455 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 310
Washington, D.C. 20008
I am here to say, from first hand experience teaching the Best Friends
curriculum over 10 years, that adolescent girls want to hear the abstinence
message and will respond when it is offered in a developmentally sound
and educational manner.
Many of you know the current statistics. I would like to review
a few of them so the extent of the crisis facing our adolescent girls is
understood. Pregnancy rates and drug and alcohol use have increased
dramatically in the past 20 years. According to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, from 1970 to 1993, the number of 15 year old girls
having sexual intercourse has increased from 4% to 25%. In a Seventeen
Magazine survey, 50% f girls aged 15-16 said they had had sex and 86% of
them said they wish they had waited. We know many girls are having
sex and regretting it.
A 1995 National Survey of Family Growth showed a drop from 55 to 50%
Marijuana use has tripled among eighth graders since 1991 and the percentage
of tenth graders has doubled since 1992--from 15% to 34%. Often the
word among our adolescents is that marijuana is not really harmful.
These young people have never participated in a Best Friends program or
they would know that marijuana today is three times stronger than it was
in the 1970s, that it has major long-term impact on neurological development
and physical growth development, and that 80-90% of cocaine users started
with marijuana. Among our Best Friends girls nearly 60% report having
been offered drugs. Only 3% reported drug use by the end of their
second year of the program.
Another devastating result of increased promiscuity by our teens is
the increase of sexually transmitted diseases r (STDs). Teenagers
are far more susceptible to STDs than adults. For example, a 15 year
old girl has a one-in-eight chance of contracting an STD if she has sex,
while a 21 year old woman has a one-in-eighty chance under the same circumstances.
And violence among adolescent girls is on the rise. Since 1989,
the rate of girls arrested, according to a Justice Department study, rose
23%, more than twice the rate of boys arrested, which rose 11%. In
1983, one in five arrests was a girl; now it is on in four and rising.
As Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University states, "For
the slightest reasons a dispute over a boyfriend, a challenging glance,
girls will get into violent confrontations, where they used to have verbal
confrontations. A case in point the recent brawl of four girls and
a mother at local Dunbar High School. Psychologists, sociologists
and child developmentalists are all looking at the causes of this rage
which incites the violence, the lack of remorse, the lack of fear f consequences.
And many are pointing to the popular culture brought into our homes by
television and videos.
Adolescents are not growing up in the world of "Leave it to Beaver"
and "Father Knows Best" that many of s grew up with. They are being
mugged by reality daily and they are scared. Many teens are planning
their funerals, instead of their weddings. And many of them don't
think they have a stake in the future. These things lead to the
apathy, the depression, the low energy that is so common in our classrooms,
especially at the beginning in eighth and ninth grade. Sometimes,
I look at the faces of our girls at the beginning of a class session and
I can see the world is too much with them. They haven't been allowed
to be children. In some ways there is very little evidence of the
light-heartedness we wish to see in children. According to Newsweek's
David Gelman, teenagers face more adult strength stresses than their predecessors
did at a time when adults are much less available to help them. With
the divorce rate hovering at nearly 50% and 40-50% of teenagers living
in single parent homes headed by working mothers, teens are more on their
own now than ever before.
Often my husband, Bill, quotes Flannery O'Conner and says that "we must
push back as hard as the age that pushes against us."
Let's look at our efforts to push back. As I travel from Pittsburgh
to Charlotte to Houston to Pasadena and to our other 11 sites, I realize
how much more alike we are than we are different. Our children have
the same needs, no matter their ethnicity or culture:
This approach is exactly in line with the Carnegie Council on Adolescent
Development's report in the late 1980s, which said that "Adolescents need
to see themselves as valued members of a group that offers mutual support
and trusting relationships. They need to be able to succeed in something...they
need to believe they have a promising future."
A need to be a member of a group in which they are valued.
A group that offers friendship and a sense of self-worth.
A group that is recognized by authority figures as productive and positive.
A peer group that encourages the development of competencies so they can
function in a society in which they have a stake.
For ten years, Best Friends had been operating in public schools in
the Washington, D.C. area and we have a proven track record. An independent
study of Best Friends girls attending D.C. public schools found a 1% pregnancy
rate compared to 26% among their peers. Four percent of Best Friends
girls had experienced sexual intercourse by age 15, compared to 63% of
their peers. Nationally, we are having similar results. Today,
there are Best Friends programs in 50 schools in 15 cities. A 1996
survey, an anonymous self-report survey, of 1,147 Best Friends girls nationwide
found that only 5% of Best Friends girls reported having sex. We
currently have a 100% high school graduation rate. The fourth class
of girls who began the program as sixth graders, are graduating from high
school this month. Our first class of sixth graders, who began in
in 1987, will be seniors in college this Fall. Many of these girls
are attending college; some on college scholarships provided by the Best
Through Best Friends, we provide a character-building curriculum which
is developmentally appropriate, which develop skills to lead happy and
healthy lives. Our program is intensive (more than 100 hours a year)
and long-term (seven or more years) from the fifth or sixth grade to high
school graduation. But we make it fun to be a Best Friend girl, to
participate in fun activities--aerobics, dance, and a Jazz Choir.
Because we are taken seriously by the school, Best Friends operates in
the school, during the school day, utilizing teachers as mentors and school
Best Friends has a carefully thought out mix of 7 components--group
discussions, role model presentations, mentors, physical fitness classes,
special events and community service activities and the annual recognition
ceremony. It is the combination of these components, the long-term
commitment to each girls and our specific message that makes Best Friends
work. Our messages are:
The best kind of friend is one who encourages you to be a better person.
Friends help each other make good decisions.
Without self-respect, it is difficult to say "no" to anyone or anything.
Boys and girls often have different agendas in their romantic relationships.
Sex is never a test of love.
The decision not to have sex in high school is a good one.
Children deserve to begin life with married adult parents.
The decision not to take drugs is a good one and it is illegal to take
The decision not to drink alcohol is a good one. In most jurisdictions
it is illegal to drink alcoholic beverages before the age of 21.
Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of your life. Past mistakes
do not mean that one must continue in the same pattern.
Why would anyone be fearful of an adult bringing these messages to their
children? These are the messages, with which Best Friends is operating
successfully in the public schools. No parent has ever removed his
or her child from the Best Friends program here in Washington, D.C.
Let me remind you that we have nearly 500 girls in 9 schools here in Washington,
D.C. and 2 in Montgomery County, Maryland. Also let me remind you
that with these messages, we have been informed that Best Friends programs
qualify for the abstinence education grants.
Based on my experience, one can have a successful abstinence program
in which girls make a commitment to abstain from sex until at least high
school graduation, (a measurable goal for research purposes) and ideally
until marriage, and make a commitment to abstain from drugs forever, and
to abstain from alcohol until at least they are of legal drinking age.
Making abstinence work in today's world is really not difficult, it
is necessary, if we want our society to survive. I only wish more
adults knew what their children know. If members of some special
interest groups cannot understand that our children's lives are at stake
in this debate, our only hope is that responsible parents and educators
will take the lead and demonstrate that time honored standards of behavior
are in fact the best way to ensure the health of our children.
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