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% among girls. 

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." 

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 Friends Foundation. 

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 coordinators. 

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: 

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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