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Making Abstinence Relevant to Teens

April 2004
By: Andrew Robinson
Until teens have the opportunity to interact with the subject, they will not own the material. Inviting questions and engaging dialogue is the most powerful method of persuading teens.

It was the last day of a three-day presentation. The venue was one of the more liberal high schools. A particular student caught me off guard. Not only was she wearing a skimpy mini-skirt and an equally skimpy top, but she entered the classroom halfway through the period. I had a feeling she might have some thoughts about abstinence.

Sure enough, when I posed the question, "What are the positive things about sex?" the girl's hand shot up. "It's natural," she said with a heavy dose of spite. Everything within me wanted to react and jump into a debate. By some miracle, I gathered myself enough to say, "You are totally right! Sex is completely natural," and I continued emphatically, "Sex is as natural as breathing." I got the student's name and credited her publicly for drawing our attention to this fact.

Later I asked a similar question: "What benefits do you think we might experience by waiting until marriage for sex?" The same girl raised her hand. Eager to hear what she would say, I called on her immediately. In the most sober tone imaginable and without so much as a hint of spite she said, "I think I would have more respect for myself." You could have peeled me off the blackboard. In a matter of minutes this student who had been mocking abstinence came to see the value of waiting until marriage for sex.

Teens will respond to the message of abstinence if it is presented in a way they can hear. Stop and Think has employed the following principles that help presenters reach thousands of students each year.

Teach, don't lecture. Teens are accustomed to being talked at. An adult who will look a teen in the eye with sincerity and curiosity is more likely to be taken seriously when he talks.

Challenge, don't condemn. Challenging teens is risky business. It is essential that teens know we are challenging their ideas, not their persons. In contrast, a condemning approach is the quickest way to lose students. You might as well talk to an empty classroom.

Interact, don't react. In our experience with Stop and Think, this is the chief principle. Especially with the subject of sex, teens will try to get adults to react. As happened with the student mentioned above, time and time again we have seen students change their position on sexual abstinence simply because we didn't react incongruously to their statements. By not reacting to a student's statements, we can demonstrate that we value the student more than his or her comments.

Avoid trying to be like a teen. There is a stark difference between relating with teens and trying to be like teens. I am thirty-one years old. With each presentation I give, I recognize the distance in age that separates me from the students. Students would easily spot the foolishness of my trying to be like a teen and would be turned off. In contrast, they will honor an adult who sincerely relates with them.

Ask and answer questions. The questions teens ask can be shocking. The surest way to avoid having to address shocking questions is to lecture. By lecturing a class, I can make sure there isn't any time for questions that will make me feel uncomfortable or that I cannot answer. I may even have a lot of really good things to say. But until teens have the opportunity to interact with the subject, they will not own the material. Inviting questions and engaging dialogue is the most powerful method of persuading teens of anything, especially the value of waiting until marriage for sex.

Tell them why abstinence is best. It is not enough to tell teens to wait until marriage for sex. As teens are prone to do in every arena of life, they insist on knowing why. Part of the problem is that adults aren't exactly sure why waiting until marriage is the best decision. At Stop and Think we have worked hard to deliver a presentation that makes sense. Students can't listen to our presentation and say we didn't give them a boatload of reasons for waiting until marriage for sex.

The Stop and Think approach could be summarized by the statement: "Do what they least expect." Students expect us to enter a classroom and lecture, pressure, lay on the guilt, even manipulate them into choosing abstinence. They sit up and listen when we employ none of the above tactics. Students are continually impressed by our sincerity and lack of sensationalism. If students are going to take seriously the message of abstinence, these elements are essential.

Stop and Think was hatched in Eugene, Oregon, in 1991, the vanguard of "free-thinking" towns. One might assume the schools here would reject an abstinence-until-marriage program outright. Demand for the presentations trickled in at first. For the first few years we delivered about 20 to 30 presentations. As the years went by and as more teachers learned about Stop and Think, our presentation numbers grew. This school year we anticipate doing over 400 presentations in Eugene and its surrounding communities.

Stop and Think is now available to pregnancy centers nationwide. Because Stop and Think was developed to address the issues facing a pregnancy care center, it has been designed specifically for easy implementation at any PCC. If you are interested in incorporating Stop and Think as part of your center ministry, contact Andrew Robinson at 541-485-8662 or

Students' Comments

I learned:

" ... you don't have to have sex to be cool or popular." (8th grade male)

" ... I should stop and think, and remember that I have a future before I make any critical decisions." (8th grade female)

" ... a lot about things I thought I knew a lot about." (9th grade female)

The Presenter:

" ... really knew where we were coming from. Not shy to talk about the consequences of sex. Made me feel comfortable." (8th grade male)

" ... made me reconsider my values (which were non-existent.) Your presentation was very good. Thanks!" (11th grade female)

Now I:

" ... am leaning more on my goals than boys. Thank you." (10th grade female)

" ... feel more confident about not having sex." (9th grade male)

" ... know what to say... My boyfriend has been pressuring me to have sex, but I wasn't sure what to say." (8th grade female)

" ... will start practicing abstinence ... until I'm married... I really want to thank you because I'm not a virgin and you've made me change my mind... Your presentation has and means more to me than I can say!" (10th grade female)

" ... understand the long and short term risks a little better." (9th grade male)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Andrew F. Robinson is the Stop and Think Program Director.

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