NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- More teens are "Choosing Virginity," as highlighted in a headline atop a cover story in Newsweek magazine Dec. 9.
"Visit any American high school and you'll likely find a growing number of students who ... have decided to remain chaste until marriage," Newsweek says of "this wave of young adults ... a new counterculture, one clearly at odds with the mainstream media and their routine use of sex to boost ratings and peddle product."
And, Newsweek acknowledges, the growing abstinence movement has been "largely fostered by cultural conservatives and evangelical Christians."
More than a million young people have signed True Love Waits covenant cards, which state: "Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate and my future children to be sexually abstinent from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship."
Among True Love Waits boosters is President Bush, who forwarded a letter to students at a TLW rally in Fort Worth, Texas, last February, stating, "Your decision to remain sexually abstinent until marriage is the right choice. Your commitment to abstinence from now until you're married demonstrates great strength, great conviction and wisdom. I encourage you to actively live out the faith and principles that led you to sign the abstinence pledge."
To back up his words, the Bush administration plans to increase federal funding for abstinence programs by nearly a third, to $135 million in 2003.
Teenagers appear to be taking notice of the abstinence message -- a recent Centers for Disease Control report noted that the number of high school students who said they've never had sexual intercourse rose by nearly 10 percent between 1991 and 2001.
Newsweek found some of those students and questioned them about their decisions to abstain. Some said religion had played a role in their decision, others said it hadn't.
Lenee Young, a 19-year-old college student in Atlanta, decided in high school that sexual activity was not the best option for her after she observed the behavior of so many peers who did not choose to wait.
"I feel that part of me hasn't been triggered yet," she told the magazine. "Sex is one of those things you can't miss until you have it."
Last summer, Young and her friends attended a Silver Ring Thing in Pittsburg, a free event that combined music videos and live teen comedy sketches with messages about the dangers of premarital sex. Teens can purchase a silver ring and a Bible for $12, and at the end of the program, they recite a pledge of abstinence and put on their rings, Newsweek said. Then they have a bonfire and dance to celebrate their decisions.
Latoya Huggins, an 18-year-old living in a rough neighborhood in New Jersey, told Newsweek that peer pressure is heavy as young people in her world engage in sex outside marriage. But Huggins told the magazine she started thinking seriously about abstinence five years ago when a national outreach program called Free Teens began teaching classes at her church.
Alice Kunce, an 18-year-old who described herself as a regular churchgoer, Sunday school teacher and a feminist, told Newsweek that religion was not the reason she chose abstinence.
"One of the empowering things about the feminist movement is that we're able to assert ourselves, to say no to sex and not feel pressured about it," she told the magazine. Kunce also said that besides fears of pregnancy and STDs, she is not emotionally mature enough for the deep intimacy sexual encounters can bring.
Among the statistics Newsweek quoted in its Dec. 9 issue regarding teens and sex:
-- More than one-third of U.S. high schools teach abstinence until marriage and 700 abstinence programs spread the news that sex can wait in all 50 states.
-- Teens are making these choices at a time when the most recent study shows that more than 80 percent of Americans didn't make it to their wedding night as virgins.
The True Love Waits theme for the current year, "True Love Waits Goes Home," reflects a broadened wording of the TLW commitment, stating: "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."
Meanwhile, a True Love Waits pledge for parents states: "Believing that true love is pure, I join (insert student's name) in committing to a lifestyle of purity. I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, and my community of faith to abstain from pornography, impure touching and conversations, and sex outside a biblical marriage relationship from this day forward."
The home-oriented emphasis can help families see that purity in lifestyle goes beyond teens avoiding sex; it applies to the whole family, Jimmy Hester, senior director in LifeWay's student ministry publishing, said.
In connection with the emphasis, LifeWay released a new "True Love Waits Goes Home Manual" in October for use by youth ministers, volunteer leaders, families and other student leaders.
Christian recording artist Rebecca St. James also is advocating the abstinence message in a new book, "Wait for Me," which also was the title of one of her recent hit songs.
"In eight years of ministry, never has one of my songs evoked as much response as this one," St. James told LifeWayonline. "It has taught me we all need encouragement to be strong in purity; not just in our bodies, but in our hearts and lives as well."
To St. James, "[T]he most joyful, beautiful, exciting romance is the one that is pure, and nationwide movements such as True Love Waits are doing a tremendous job of getting this message out. What better gift to give your spouse than the gift of purity."
The True Love Waits promise is "a promise to God -- not to a card or a leader or an organization," Hester said.
The True Love Waits message has "taken hold from Australia to Zimbabwe," he said. "Students all over the world are seeing the wisdom of and making a commitment to living a lifestyle of purity."
He added that just in the first half of this year, the True Love Waits movement has been profiled in specials produced by the BBC (in Great Britain), by another independent network in England and by the Discovery Channel here in the United States.
"I believe the inception and the explosive growth of the campaign in 1993 were clearly supernatural," Hester said. "True Love Waits was born in the heart of God and no individual or group has hinted that human ability can explain all that has happened."
True Love Waits organizers have noted that the campaign has:
-- Held high the honor of God's name.
-- Served as encouragement to Christian youth who otherwise might believe that few share their commitment to purity.
-- Prevented untold human tragedies that always follow sin.
-- Assisted in the spiritual transformation of Christian youth.
-- Partnered with churches and families around the world.
-- Impacted cultures.
-- Served as a precondition for prayer for revival, awakening and proclamation.
By Erin Curry & Polly House