On her left hand, Kelby Burton, a sophomore in architectural engineering, wears a sterling silver ring inscribed with a delicate heart and a superimposed cross.
Some might guess she is married, but instead of representing a lifelong commitment to another person, Burton’s ring symbolizes a vow to God.
“I have a promise between God and I that I will remain pure, abstinent until marriage,” she said. “The ring is there to remind me of it.”
And, according to new data released in March by the National Center for Health Statistics Burton is not alone.
The National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) showed an uptick in abstinence among 15- to-24-year-olds. It revealed 29.9 percent of men had not had any sexual contact ever, while 28.3 percent of women had abstained.
In the 2002 NSFG, only 22.7 percent of women and 22.6 percent of men reported they were abstinent. The survey defines “sexual contact” as engaging in vaginal, oral or anal sex with an opposite sex or same-sex partner.
“They can choose,” Joy Bullock, executive director for the Manhattan Pregnancy Testing Center, said. “Young people are very bright. They can have control over their own bodies. They’re not wild animals who don’t have any ability to make decisions or be in control.”
Luke Werhan, a freshman in communication studies, decided to wait until marriage as well, despite societal pressures.
In what he called being a part of “Generation Sex,” of “test drives” and sexual recreation, Werhan said he geared up before coming to K-State by telling himself that abstinence was the “only way to avoid the consequences of sex.”
“I needed to make a commitment to it,” Werhan said. “I’m really proud of the fact. I’m not embarrassed by it.”
The NSFG, which aims to assess the overall sexual behavior, sexual attraction and sexual identity of 15- to-44-year-old Americans, polled 13,495 men and women over a two-year period from 2006 to 2008 using a random sample from the U.S. household population. The interviewing technique used allowed those surveyed to enter in their answers without the knowledge of the interviewer.
Beginning in 1973, this was the seventh time the NSFG had been conducted. However, only those from 2002 and the 2006-to-2008 polls included both male and female responses.
“I don’t doubt that abstinence is on the rise because it’s a very effective method,” said Bullock, who has been with the center for 20 years. “It works 100 percent of the time.”
The testing center sponsors a class taught in Riley County ninth grade classrooms called Freedom for Healthy Relationships. Manhattan High School is among four schools in the county participating in the abstinence-only program.
Although Bullock did not offer any hard numbers, she said in the four years of the program’s existence, more and more students are bubbling in the option of not having engaged in sexual activity on questionnaires.
So why, in a culture saturated with sex, as Werhan said, are teenagers and young adults deciding to delay sexual activity?
Well, it is a “mixed bag” of reasons, Bullock said. As a supporter of abstinence-only sex education, she attributed the rise of abstinence to programs like the center’s and a fear of sexually transmitted diseases.
Werhan shared these concerns. He said he took this step because of his parents and faith, but “ultimately because when you look at the statistics and when you look at all the consequences that come along: STDs, unplanned pregnancy and most of all emotional baggage.”
And his concern might not be unwarranted, according to data in the NSFG. The CDC found 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted disease each year with nearly 50 percent of those diagnosed among 15- to-24-year-olds. The cost to this age group alone, the CDC said, was estimated at $6.5 billion in 2000.
A comprehensive sex education supporter, Tracey Allen-Ehrhart, a grant writer and one-time prevention manager for the Kansas City Free Health Clinic in Kansas City, Mo., attributed the increase to technology, the recession and sex education in general.
“Anything that helps them to be better informed would help in decision making that is positive,” she said.
Allen-Ehrhart took the abstinence trend a step further based on her five years of experience working at Planned Parenthood as the education director.
“There have been trends toward teen pregnancy rates lowering … attributing it to both young people delaying sexual activity longer and to using contraceptives effectively,” Allen-Ehrhart said.
In the U.S., according to the CDC, the teenage birth rate declined 8 percent between 2007 and 2009 with a record low 39.1 births per 1,000 teens between the ages of 15 and 19, the lowest in seven decades. For Kansas, the percentage change within these years was insignificant.
Meghan Finnegan, the administrative coordinator for the Flint Hills Community Clinic, has experienced the reality of these numbers with teens and young adults coming in for pregnancy testing.
“I most certainly have not seen a decrease,” Finnegan said. “In fact, it almost seems as if it has picked up.” On average the clinic receives two to three calls per week for pregnancy testing not including calls for sexually transmitted disease testing or requests for the morning after pill.
According to statistics from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, in Riley County between 2008 and 2009 there was a 2-percent increase in teen births among women within the “under 18” age bracket and women 18- to-19-years-old combined.
Allen-Ehrhart said there is not one answer to this assortment of somewhat contradictory statistics, but she said education in general is key in looking to the future.
The plea she has consistently heard from young people through her work is, “‘No one gives us the right information. We want the information, but yet adults don’t want to give that.'”