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Pledging Abstinence: Inside Out

Through the lanes came virgins in tennis shoes,
their hair shining like videotape,

singing us into a kind of sleep we hadn't tried yet.
-- David Berman

Part I: The Silver Ring Thing

The Silver Ring Thing was born in the shadow of a broader sexual abstinence pledge movement that began quietly sweeping the nation in the early 90's. Back then, the pledge organization of note was called True Love Waits. (TLW still exists today. In fact, they recently held a tenth anniversary event at the Summer Olympics in Athens). The movement was an outgrowth of the Southern Baptist Coalition, so kids who attended True Love Waits events were church-goers, in the main. At the end of a rally, they'd sign pledge cards as a testament to their decision to remain virginal until their wedding nights.

In 1995, a youth minister in Yuma, Arizona, named Denny Pattyn developed a new kind of pledge event, using rings instead of cards as a constant, visible reminder of the promise that pledgers had made. Moreover, Pattyn realized that kids might accept the idea of abstinence more readily if it was delivered in a language they can understand. And what is the lingua franca of 21st century teen-hood if not technology. SRT plies its strobe-minded target audience with edgy music, lighting effects, videos and live sketch comedy, all developed and performed by a crew of hip teens and twenty-somethings, like the Program Director of the group's New England wing, Joe McGarry.

Part II: Teaching How Good Sex Can Be... Later

Silver Ring Thing New England's first shows as an official organization were held on March 27th and 28th of 2004 at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. But the group had been here before. It came in 2002 leaving some 600 new abstinence pledgers in its wake, about two-thirds of the crowd. (At least a few of those kids have since broken the pledge, and/or believe that being abstinent still allows them to have oral sex.) The success rate was such that the group decided to come back a year later, putting rings on another 300-plus fingers. Clearly, Massachusetts was presenting itself as a potential new market for the SRT message.

Having attended the shows at Merrimack College, I can understand why some young people would be attracted to Silver Ring Thing. It's been called a lot of things. "Saturday Night Live meets MTV meets Jesus Christ" is probably the best description I've heard. It's as though the entirety of pop culture were drained of its sexuality and compressed into a single, three hour event. Talking to the kids beforehand, it seemed as though most of them were already planning to stay abstinent until marriage. But the show ended up changing a couple of minds as well.

Part III: Does Abstinence Work?

The shows at Merrimack College were not only well-attended, the pledge rate was extremely high. As I write this, there are 1,500 new abstinence pledgers in Massachusetts, assuming that everyone who took the pledge that weekend is still wearing the ring. According to founder Denny Pattyn, tracking the adherence rate is difficult, both because Silver Ring Thing nation is spread far and wide and because kids who decide to break the pledge may not be that forthcoming about it.

On a larger scale, a social science researcher at Columbia University named Peter Bearman has been tracking the national pledge rate for groups like True Love Waits over the past 10 years. Bearman is one of the driving forces behind the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health or ADD Health. In 2000, he released a report that said the pledge can affect an 18 month delay in sexual activity for kids between the ages of 14 and 17, assuming there's a critical mass of children within the pledge community. Too many or too few and the pledge doesn't tend to work. Moreover, a follow up round of surveys revealed that the majority of ADD Health's original sample of pledgers have since broken the pledge, and that taking the pledge doesn't tend to reduce the risk of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Bearman says this is because kids who pledge don't use condoms as faithfully as kids who don't, stirring the atomic beehive at the seat of the pledge debate.



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