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Video Music Awards spur ‘promise ring’ debate

A British comic’s jokes at the Video Music Awards about the Jonas Brothers and their “promise rings” vowing virginity have renewed the debate over sex and teens. After VMA host Russell Brand made fun of the Jonases, singer Jordin Sparks defended the rings.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

A British comic’s jokes at the Video Music Awards about the Jonas Brothers and their “purity rings” have been decried as tasteless in most quarters — but they have also renewed the debate over what direction high school sex education should take.

The conflict is between the abstinence-only approach to sexual education favored by the Bush White House and some faith-based communities and a comprehensive discussion of human sexuality advocated by many clinicians.

VMA host Russell Brand left no question where he stands during the program, taking a shot at the three Jonas Brothers and their vow to remain virgins until marriage. In response, singer Jordin Sparks proudly showed off her own purity ring and returned the volley: “I just have one thing to say about promise rings,” she announced to the audience. “It's not bad to wear a promise ring, because not everybody — guy or girl — wants to be a slut.”

Sex-education advocate Martha Kemper and abstinence activist Denny Pattyn took up the battle Tuesday with TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira.

Dueling debaters“Are we so threatened by a message of morals and values that these young men who chose to wear a ring were attacked?” asked Pattyn, the founder of a program called the Silver Ring Thing, in which teens pledge to remain virgins until marriage. “What’s the fear here? Why can’t we have an alternate message about waiting until you’re married to have sex? Why can’t we have those values? What are we afraid of?”

Kemper, a vice president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, agreed that attacking anyone for their beliefs is wrong. But, she said, “In the same way, though, I think we have to be really careful not to say, ‘If you don’t wear a purity ring, you’re a slut.’ We can’t make that either-or, either you have morals or you don’t. I think we have to be careful to respect everybody’s decisions.”

While being careful not to criticize teens who take purity pledges, Kemper said they’re not for everyone. “The problem is that in too many communities what we’re seeing is programs like Denny’s replacing more comprehensive sexuality education,” she said. “These programs aren’t giving young people the information they need to make decisions now and in their future.”

The issue is very much in the national consciousness. The hit movie “Juno” dealt with a 16-year-old’s unplanned pregnancy. Britney Spears’ 17-year-old sister, Jamie Lynn Spears, got pregnant by her boyfriend and recently delivered a baby. And Bristol Palin, the 17-year-old daughter of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, sat on stage during the Republican National Convention with the 18-year-old young man who impregnated her. Sarah Palin is an advocate of abstinence-only sex ed.

Disputed findings
Clinicians say that Bristol Palin and Spears demonstrate the dangers of not teaching kids about sex and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. The United States has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the developed world. Government statistics show that in 2006, more than 400,000 babies were born in this country to mothers aged 15-19.

Various government and independent studies show that teens who take purity pledges typically put off becoming sexually active for about 18 months longer than teens who don’t. But, several studies warn, when the pledge-takers do become active, they are more likely to have unprotected sex and to engage in risky sexual practices.

The abstinence advocates reject the findings. “Those studies are flawed,” Pattyn flatly told Vieira. He cited a study done by the conservative Heritage Foundation that shows that the purity pledgers are more likely to be high achievers in school and engage in fewer risky behaviors. He also said that condoms are not as effective as advertised and has said that he does not want his own teenage daughters to use them, even if they break their own purity pledges.

Advocates of comprehensive sexual education programs say that condoms lose effectiveness if people don’t know how to use them.

“The idea is that condoms need to be used consistently and correctly, and if we’re not telling them how to do that, they can’t,” Kemper said.