Marriage might be far away from most teenagers' minds, especially as they relish freedom from teachers and textbooks this summer. But waiting until then to engage in sexual activity was the message more than 40 teenagers heard during an abstinence rally earlier this month.
"Who we represent?" organizer Viola Watson sang as the rally began at God's Refuge Christian Fellowship Center in west Jackson. "Jesus. J-e-s-u-s C-h-r-i-s-t Homeboy."
The majority-black group of teenagers clapped and swayed in the church pews. Most of the teenagers are members of the church, but others have come from churches as far away as Magee and the Delta.
Nikki Hernandez created the program "First Love Alliance" to promote the message of abstinence and host rallies for teens after Mississippi ended its state-wide abstinence rally in 2009. The state ended the rally after the ACLU sued the state Department of Human Services for promoting religion at a taxpayer-funded event. Private sponsors funded the rally Saturday.
While Hernandez admits that it is hard to measure the program's effectiveness, she thinks it's an important message that all teens need to hear despite the religious overtones. She's planning more rallies throughout the city.
LaRickie Robinson from the Northtown Child Development Center was the first speaker. She called six girls and six boys to the front of the pulpit. She then gave them small Styrofoam cups of water and asked them to gargle the water, spit it back into the cups and stand across from each other. The boys and girls then combined their water into one cup.
This activity symbolized the act of sex, and the teens released embarrassed giggles as they read the consequences of their actions on the bottom of their cups. The consequences included herpes, gonorrhea, HIV and pregnancy. A few escaped without any negative consequences.
"When you have unprotected sex, this is how your body transmits the different diseases," Robinson said. She then passed out an abstinence pledge for the teens to sign.
After the activity, Hernandez asked for a show of hands from those who wanted to get married. Everyone raised his or her hand.
While the rally portrayed marriage as the end goal and a destination that most everyone will reach, recent U.S. Census Bureau data show that not only are people delaying marriage, but that married couples represent just 48 percent of all U.S. households.
In 2010, married couples represented just 45 percent of Mississippi households, a decrease from 49.7 percent in 2000. Americans are delaying marriage until later in life: 43 percent of white women ages 25 to 29 have never married, compared to 71 percent of black women ages 25 to 29 who have never married. The average age for marriage is now 28 for men and 26 for women.
Lakendrick Brown, 14, is a freshman at Wingfield High School and a member of God's Refuge. He had quite an eventful day at the rally. During the cup activity he got herpes, and later he performed in a skit. In the skit, Brown played the role of Marcus, a player with two girlfriends. In the end, both of his girlfriends found out he'd been cheating, and one of them ended up pregnant.
"I wanted to go to college. There are so many things I had planned. Lord, what am I going to do?" he threw his hands up and cried out at the end of the skit.
Brown said he planned on signing his abstinence pledge later that day when he got home, and if he had to pick an ideal age to get married, it would be his mid-30s.
"In my 20s, I want to try and experience more," he said. "After I have that, I'll settle down and have a family."
Khitta Kommany, a student at Northwest Rankin High School, played the role of one of Brown's girlfriends in the skit.
"I want to at least be finished with college before I get married," she said.
A group of 13-year-old girls just giggled and shrugged their shoulders when they were asked when they want to get married.
Mississippi Department of Human Services Special Projects Officer Jerry Vardaman also spoke at the rally. His slide-show presentation displayed herpes-infected fingers, swollen syphilis-infected eyes and lips covered with oral warts, causing many teens cover their faces and yell, "Eww."
Vardaman knows it isn't a pretty sight, but he hopes teenagers will get the message: STDs are real. In 2010, the state reported the more than 29,000 cases of STDs.
But Vardaman's presentation wasn't all serious. At one point he walked over to a church pew lined with candy bars.
"Sometimes in a relationship, they may want to score with your Whatchamacallit or your Kit Kat," he says as he picks up a corresponding candy bar. "...If you are sexually active and don't take precautions, you could end up with Sugar Babies, Junior Mints, a Baby Ruth or an STD."
Interesting message, especially to black youth, that you must wait until you get married before you have sex. Nothing wrong with that message, per se, but I think its effectiveness wanes when you do not provide practical methods that the young people can understand and/or utilize to actually achieve the goal of abstinence until marriage. Simply noting that you can catch STD’s and/or get pregnant is not enough information. These young people probably know many of their peers (or even themselves) who are sexually active and do not have an STD or an unwanted pregnancy. In order for young people to be empowered in the area of their sexuality, first they have to embrace sex and sexuality as vital, enriching, and positive parts of their humanity. Scare tactics about STD’s and teen pregnancy have been used in this battle for years and have come up woefully short. A more holistic view of sexuality will empower young people to make more responsible decisions about their sexual activity.
Also, if the goal is to increase marriage rates, there needs to be more concrete information about the marriage process (discuss things like monogamy, family planning, dating as an educative act, communication, and relationship development) and how to make it work. Too often, in these contexts, marriage is presented only as the time to have sex without guilt. It is no wonder that so many marriages (especially in the black community) either never exist or fail miserably. Marriage is a lot more than sex and requires a maturity and commitment that must be developed purposefully. I do not understand how for so long, so many of us thought that it was enough just to shame or scare young people into not having sex, yet we see things like STD and teen/unwanted pregnancy rates and divorce rates sky rocket over the last 30 years.
I applaud this group for being in the struggle to combat the issue of STD and teen pregnancy, but I wonder about the effectiveness of this approach.
- Renaldo Bryant
Thanks Nikki for your response.
I do not doubt that you and your group mean well, love and respect both God and the youth you work with. The concern I have is that in your response you say several times that young people are not emotionally or mentally ready to have sex. Yet, nothing you provide them with can guarantee that they will wait until marriage to have sex or protects them from those consequences you cite if and when they choose to have sex. If you are really concerned about young people contracting STD’s and getting pregnant, why not teach about contraception? Though contraception is not 100% effective, it is better than no contraception at all.
With all of your pleas about educating young people about the possibilities and outcomes concerning STD’s and unwanted pregnancy, studies show that the best abstinence only ed does is delay the decision to have sex. Many studies have shown that abstinence only sex ed programs aren’t effective in preventing STD’s nor teen pregnancy http://www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/pdfs/impactabstinence.pdf
Also, I am confused about how what you are doing will prevent young people from making rash choices about sex. If a young person chooses to have sex, and is ignorant of contraception, isn’t that enabling the irresponsible choice by willfully making them ignorant of all of the possibilities and choices available to them?
I can understand and appreciate your passion for abstinence may come from your strident religious beliefs and love of God. But, in any faith walk, much is intuitive and self evident. Are your beliefs self evident to every young person you come into contact with? What if you meet young people of a different faith perspective? What if they challenge the notion that God intends sex to be for marriage only? How do you help that young person by not teaching about contraception?
Also, teaching that sex is only for marriage may distort the concept of marriage in many young people’s minds by over exaggerating sex’s role in a marriage. As many people will agree, marriage is much more than sex. What aspect of your program talks about dating, communication, conflict resolution, avoiding abusive relationships, family planning, and constructing and living in monogamous relationships? These things would really help young people understand how to mature into a marriage relationship, and put sex in its proper perspective within a marriage.
- Renaldo Bryant
I apologize Nikki for the sentence that asks if your program will address issues of conflict resolution, communication, dating, etc. You said it would, I just got caught up in my own argument that I forgot to reference your response ;-).
All in all, I think your program has value, but I don't think it will be as effective as it could be because it limits young people's options. Whenever you limit an option for a young person, it constrains their decision making, which heightens the chance for irresponsbile and destructive behavior. Thus we see the higher incidents of STD's and such for students who are exposed to abstinence only ed, for instance, like we see here in MS.
- Renaldo Bryant
I don't know much, but I do know that Jesus is not nearly as obsessed with our genitals as we are.
Religion aside, with very few exceptions, any adult who tells children they should wait to have sex until they are married is a hypocrite. Because hardly any adults follow that advice.
The message we need to send to youth is that they should wait to have sex until they are adults. Then they can make a responsible decision, based on their own values. Anything else is evangelism masquerading as education.
- Brian C Johnson
I will Say this and perhaps leave the discussion at the “agree to disagree” stage. The passages you cite can be interpreted many different ways. For instance, the I Corinthians passage talks about sexual sin as having sex in pagan temples as a form of worship. The practice was done as a form of worship to the Greek goddess Aphrodite in areas around Corinth, a diverse trade post off the Mediterranean coast of Greece. The temples were filled with temple prostitutes available for worshipers of Aphrodite. Some of the Corinthian Christians were still practicing sex worship with temple prostitutes. Do you think that people having premarital sex is akin to having anonymous temple sex with a prostitute? If you do, then I think you have either taken the notion of premarital sex out of context or you have a view of sex and sexuality that is repressive and would be hard for you to see the good aspects of this vital part of our humanity.
This passage also admonishes people to flee from sexual immorality (v.18). What is considered sexually immoral is a subjective matter. Community standards come into play on this matter. It just concerns me when people in or out of the church are concerned about the sexual behavior of consenting adults, so much so to characterize all sexual activity between people who are not married as “sexual immorality”. I agree with Brian that kids should wait until they are adults before making the decision to have sex. But, is it “Sexual Sin” simply to have sex outside of wedlock, at any age? I do not think the sexual ethics of the bible actually support this, though I am not defending many of the sexual ethics of the that the bible actually supports (very patriarchal and oppressive notions of men “ betrothing” women without any consent or voice of the women, Paul’s notions about celibacy and marriage that you mention, etc.) .
Thanks for the work that you do and for the conversation.
- Renaldo Bryant
Brian--I think we had that same conversation one time. Its the "don't wait until your married, just WAIT...a little while" conversation.
I applaud anyone doing anything they think will be positive in their community. But, overall, I don't agree with abstinent education as they've shown it doesn't work without some component of sex ed-safe sex added to it. I think its throwing good money after bad, personally. And, I find the concept of Jesus and God thrown in there to be reprehensible (but that's just me). We already have too many puritanical ideals about sex in this country that cripple us from actually addressing teen pregnancy and teenage sex...throwing that whole "YOU WILL BURN" crap around doesn't really do anything but create a HUGE moral quandry for kids that DO have sex (such as "I'm bad because I did it already, therefore there is no reason to 'save' myself and stop or change my actions") You say kids aren't ready for sex because they can't understand the emotional ties behind it but then you give them a curriculum based upon a HUGELY abstract ideal that requires upper level morality thinking in order to aid them in "stopping" that unwanted behavior. Nah, not gonna work.
- Lori G