The abstinence-only view on nonmarital sex advocated by Sandy Rios and Robert Knight [Free for All, May 25] has long proven impractical. In World War I the U.S. Army was appalled at how many of the recruits, serviced in an age of Victorian chastity by a large sex industry, were contaminated with sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). It urgently promoted a "just say no" policy to the troops sent to France, where so many said "oui" to sex (for free or for fee) that the war effort was significantly impaired by STD-induced illness. Having learned its lesson, the U.S. military adopted an extensive protection campaign in World War II, including the notorious VD shorts, de facto regulation of brothels and the establishment of post-sex cleanup stations with helpful explanatory films for the patrons. The military shows no sign of adopting abstinence-only for its unmarried youth.

In Europe teen sex is considered normal, so abstinence is not emphasized and explicit sex education inoculates preteens with the facts of prevention before the hormones start raging. Condoms are so aggressively promoted that American visitors can find it unsettling. Advocates for Youth observes that Euro-teens "far outshine those in the U.S." by being less sexually active, starting sex later, having fewer partners and being much more careful when they are active. So teen abortion rates are always higher in America than in Western Europe -- in some cases twice as high. Out-of-wedlock pregnancy and birth rates are two to 30 times greater in the United States than in other democracies. Among Americans, STD-infection rates are chronically higher than across the ocean.

Rios and Knight believe a more chaste youth will wed earlier, which was true of the World War II generation, which later started the divorce boom. A smaller percentage of married couples divorce in more sexually liberal Europe than in America.

Rios and Knight note that some opponents of "just say no" are biased, but the charge can be reversed. Strict abstinence is being advocated by conservative religious ideologues who imagine that democratic citizens can have so little out-of-wedlock sex that STDs are no longer a serious problem. As a member of Baltimore Secular Humanists, I believe the consequence of such unrealistic, one-size-fits-all policies is teens too ashamed of their sexual behavior to be prepared for what many youth inevitably do, leaving them completely exposed to impregnation and pathogens. In less religious Europe, a more pragmatic and successful strategy is producing superior results.

Abstinence is a sound personal choice, and teens should know how to say no to peer pressure. But don't count on abstinence to solve societal problems associated with youth sex.

-- Gregory Paul