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The opposite of sex? Adults, teens beg to differ

If you already worry about the way your teenager can swing wildly from one viewpoint to another, you probably don't want to hear this.

“Kids can believe in abstinence, but also intend to have sex,” said N. Tatiana Masters, a social scientist at the University of Washington and author of a new study on teens' contradictory attitudes about abstinence and sex.

The research, published in the current issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, shows that adolescents and teens often hold seemingly irreconcilable ideas about having sex, confounding the abstinence-only sex education message supported by over a billion dollars of federal funding.

The finding adds to a growing body of evidence eroding confidence in abstinence-only sex education.

Roughly $1.5 billion in federal grants to state education authorities have been distributed to finance abstinence-only curricula since the Clinton administration. But some states, like California, Wisconsin and Ohio, have stopped accepting the grants because the money is tied to a mandated abstinence-only message that studies have shown to be largely ineffective.

The problem with that message, Masters said, is not that adolescents ignore it. In her survey of 365 young people ages 12 to 15, she found that many had a positive view of abstinence, and those who did had less chance of having sex during the following 12 months.

But there was a catch. So-called “sex intention” powerfully modified “abstinence intention.”

In a range from 1 to 3, with 3 being the highest intention to abstain or to have sex, teens who scored very low on their sex intentions (1s) were not likely to have sex regardless of their abstinence intentions. But among teens with high scores (3s) on their sex intentions, those who also held the highest abstinence intentions were actually most likely to have sex.

"Increasing a kids' abstinence intentions has little impact on the bottom line," Masters said. But if a teen with a high sex intention obtains higher abstinence intentions, "he may become, we think, confused or conflicted and those heightened abstinence intentions may make him more likely to have sex in a kind of boomerang effect."

Masters isn't sure why this is, but speculates that the conflict might cause kids to feel out of control and less able to make rational decisions.    

Teens often have complicated feelings about sex, viewing abstinence as a stage in their development, while many adults view it as a semi-permanent state to be maintained until marriage or at least full adulthood.

Masters used the metaphor of an escalator to explain the apparent contradiction.

“Say you have a kid who is 15 or 16 and she is madly in love,” Masters said. “She may say, ‘You know, I want wait to have sex with this person. We do not know each other well enough yet, or I am not old enough, so right now I have intentions to be abstinent. But if I am still with him in a year, I might consider being sexually active. She has just stepped onto the sexual escalator.”

Other research has shown that many teens who take a so-called “virginity pledge,” do wind up having sex before marriage. The danger is that “those teens may not have the information and tools, once they are having sex, to make the healthiest choices,” said Schuster, also author of "Everything You Never Wanted Your Kids to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid They’d Ask).

Part of the problem, he argued, is a lack of definition about what adults mean when they say “abstinence.” When he speaks to parent groups, and asks them when they would be comfortable with their children having sex, “they say ‘Not until they are 35!’” he said. “But then you get past the joke and ask ‘Well, until they are married? In their 20s and ready to get married? In college? What if they were in high school and have been dating the same guy for two years?’”

Kids use the same sort of self-definition for abstinence, Masters said. They may endorse abstinence from sex, but that endorsement can be conditioned upon circumstance.

“We hear confusion from kids about the term ‘abstinence’ and what it means,” said Bill Albert chief program officer of Washington D.C.-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “They say ‘abstinent from what?’ and ‘abstinent until when?’”

Albert, who interacts with thousands of teenagers across the country, explained that young people don’t see the dichotomy that animates the political battles over sex education.

Brian Alexander is the author of the book “America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfaction."