Sunday, January 23, 2011

Silver Ring Thing, Part I

Silver Ring Thing bus
Back in December, I reviewed the documentary Daddy I Do, which featured segments on a Christian abstinence ministry called Silver Ring Thing. On Friday night, I had the opportunity to attend a Silver Ring Thing event at Christ Wesleyan Church in Milton, PA, which taught me a great deal about evangelical Christian purity culture. The Milton event was part of Silver Ring Thing's High Stakes Tour, a youth-oriented stage performance featuring comedy skits, music, videos, and personal testimonies. The goal of Silver Ring Thing is to encourage teenagers to vow abstinence until marriage and wear a silver ring to remind them of their virginity pledge to God. Sex outside of marriage is depicted as negative and destructive, whereas sex within heterosexual marriage is seen as the only valid expression of one's sexuality.

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To provide some background, Silver Ring Thing has seen its share of controversy. In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against the federal government, arguing that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services violated the constitution by giving federal funds to Silver Ring Thing, a religious program. The following year, the ACLU agreed to a settlement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on the matter.

The efficacy (or lack thereof) of abstinence pledges such as Silver Ring Thing has also generated controversy. Advocates for abstinence programs such as Silver Ring Thing argue that virginity pledges protect young people from pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and early sexual debut, but research does not always corroborate these claims. On one hand, a 2004 article in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests that abstinence pledges reduce the likelihood that adolescents will engage in sexual activity. However, in a 2009 article from Pediatrics, Dr. Janet Rosenbaum found that young people who took abstinence pledges did not differ from nonpledgers in terms of premarital sex, age of sexual debut, lifetime sexual partners, or STD infections. To boot, she found that abstinence pledgers were less likely to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease while engaging in premarital sex. Similarly, a 2004 article from the Journal of Adolescent Health found that STD rates did not differ significantly between abstinence pledgers and nonpledgers. Additionally, a 2003 article in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health found that teenagers who took virginity pledges were less likely to use contraception consistently in sexual encounters. In short, evidence suggests that abstinence pledges do not necessarily help young people delay sexual activity or avoid STDs, and might actually be linked to riskier sexual behaviors, such as inconsistent contraception use.

I am not against teen abstinence per se. I personally believe that teens should wait until reaching adulthood before engaging in sex, for reasons of maturity and responsibility. Having said that, I do not agree with the way that some abstinence programs frame sex as damaging, dangerous, and restricted to heterosexual marriage. Teens need to understand the risks of pregnancy, STDs, and unhealthy relationships, but they also need to know how to protect themselves from such banes for when they do become sexually active. Also, teens need to know what healthy sexuality looks like so that they can forge healthy sexual relationships as adults -- a task for which abstinence ministries such as Silver Ring Thing do not adequately prepare them, in my opinion.

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I'd read about the messages and shortcomings of abstinence programs, but I'd never seen an abstinence ministry up close. When I learned that Silver Ring Thing would be in my region, I decided to check it out and report my observations here.

The Silver Ring Thing event was divided into two parts: the main event for teens, and a simultaneous seminar for parents who wanted to support their children's abstinence pledges. On my way to the parent talk, I passed a table selling abstinence booklets, videos, and copies of Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children by controversial Bush administration appointee Dr. Joe McIlhany.

Inside the parents seminar, adults got to see prerecorded excerpts from Silver Ring Thing youth performances. Along with pro-abstinence videos that parodied the Mac/PC commercials, E*Trade baby commercials, and movies, we also watched onstage performances featuring Silver Ring Thing performers, speakers, and audience members. One speaker, a young man wearing a baseball cap, had the teenage audience chant "SEX IS GREAT!" Sex is great, he argued, but only in the context of marriage with one's spouse and no one else. The young man likened sex before marriage to opening a Christmas gift before Christmas, arguing that it was better and more satisfying to wait. For teens who had already engaged in sexual activity, the speaker said that an abstinence pledge was a chance to "start over."

To demonstrate the supposed dangers of premarital sex, the speaker selected a teenage boy and several girls from the audience. He handed the boy a wooden board painted with half a heart, representing all that the boy was. The speaker then told the boy that every time he had premarital sex, he would be giving away an irreplaceable part of himself to his girlfriends -- each yet another woman he would compare his future wife to someday. To symbolize this, chunks were chopped off of the boy's wooden board and given to the girls on stage. After an especially wrenching breakup -- symbolized by the board being partially burned -- the wooded board was a mutilated mess that couldn't form a full heart with the other half of the heart. In other words, the skit in the video tried to convince teens that premarital sex is psychologically damaging, preventing the formation of loving relationships later in life.

Any adult who has had more than one romantic relationship knows this is false, and I was surprised that Silver Ring Thing was teaching such an unrealistic message to teens. Having a sexual relationship with someone now does not prevent one from having a happy, healthy relationship with a different person down the road. Plus, there is FAR more to a human being than their sexuality. A consensual sexual encounter does not automatically harm a person's entire being! Finally, if premarital sex is supposedly so destructive, how can teens possibly "start over", as the speaker claimed earlier? I couldn't make sense of this contradiction.

After watching the excerpts from prior youth events, parents were shown a video recording by Denny Pattyn, founder of Silver Ring Thing. His message, as well as my observations at the youth event in Milton, are covered in Part II.

For more information about Silver Ring Thing, visit www[dot]silverringthing[dot]com. For additional commentary on Silver Ring Thing, visit the following links.

Suite 101: The Silver Ring Thing 

Bloggerheads: The Silver Ring Thing: The Lies of Denny Pattyn

Down in a Mirror: Purity Rings: Silver Ring Thing, Marketing, and Foucault

Time: Do Virginity Pledges Work?

1 comment:

  1. Purity rings may work for a very few. But silver rings for men and women are just a way of reminding these kids that they should abstain. That said, educating teenagers and their gaurdians on what abstienence entails would prevent teen pregnancies and STDs when they become active.


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