Behind Closed Doors: Teens and Abstinence

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Devon Kennedy, a 17-year-old high school senior, talks about his personal decision to embrace abstinence, and why he's working to encourage his peers to do the same. Kennedy also shares thoughts about a recent study showing an increase in teenagers who choose to abstain from sexual intercourse.


I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a few minutes, we get an earful of the tunes actor Kevin Bacon loves to hear. It's our In Your Ear segment, coming up next, and in my Can I Just Tell You commentary. But first, it's time for our regular feature, Behind Closed Doors, where we talk about things that aren't so easy to talk about, like abstinence.

Studies show that more teens have been abstaining in recent years, but the gains are leveling off. And some are asking whether any of this has to do with abstinence programs or some other reason. We plan to talk about the politics of abstinence education in tomorrow's broadcast.

But today, we want to talk about the personal decision to embrace abstinence. Joining me in the studio is Devon Kennedy. He is 17 years old, and this fall, he will be a senior at Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C. This summer, he is interning for the Best Friends Foundation, a program that promotes abstinence.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. DEVON KENNEDY (Senior Student, Anacostia High School, Washington, D.C.): Thank you for having me being here.

MARTIN: So how did you first hear about abstinence? Is this something that you heard about in school or at home or at church?

Mr. KENNEDY: Actually, I've heard about it in, well, 6th Grade. The Best Friend program was introduced to my elementary school, a leadership program developing values.

MARTIN: Well, when you first heard about it, you know, what was it like? Was there like a lot of like giggling or…

Mr. KENNEDY: Yes. Yeah.

MARTIN: I don't know. What was that like when they first introduced the idea?

Mr. KENNEDY: It was a lot of giggling because, well, I was young and naive. And I didn't understand the difference between love and sex and…

MARTIN: But what did - how do they introduce it to you? What did they say? We want you to - we want to talk to you about not having sex. Is that how it -they brought it up?

Mr. KENNEDY: No, no. They brought it in casually. They didn't just say, it would be better for you to not have sex, but they didn't drill it in our heads. They just - we picked it up year after year. Sixth grade, we picked up - you got a little more - seventh grade, eighth grade, ninth grade. That's when you - the situations come to you.

MARTIN: Well, talk to me about that. What's going on in junior high school? Girls start calling you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KENNEDY: Junior high school is, you know, in elementary school, you usually stay in one class all the time, and you really don't get to socialize a lot. Junior high school, you - all right, that's what I think. The boys really start talking to the girls.

MARTIN: At 13 or 14 or so, what's going on? I mean, is it that you start thinking about having sex, or is it that, you know, your friends start talking about having sex? What's going on?

Mr. KENNEDY: Yes. Yeah, your hormones hit to - nobody's going to say hey, you should have, try to have sex so - yeah. It's indirect. You see - well, you hear about everybody doing, and it's like, hm. I want to try that.

MARTIN: So when do you think you made the decision for yourself that you were going to try to be abstinent?

Mr. KENNEDY: Ninth grade.

MARTIN: What was the turning point for you? What was the key that made you want to make that decision?

Mr. KENNEDY: Well, in eighth grade, I really didn't know exactly what HIV and AIDS - I didn't know how serious it was. Ninth grade, they, like broke it down. Like what symptoms are there? There's no cure for AIDS, and it's a price you have to pay if you make the wrong decision.

MARTIN: The fear of getting a girl pregnant factor into your decision?

Mr. KENNEDY: Yes, yes, that does, too. I know I'm not ready to raise a child right now. My friends, they have sex and they had a fear that they almost had a child, but actually, the child wasn't theirs. But the girl was pregnant, and he thought he got her pregnant and he was scared. He was really scared. He was freaking out. He was like, oh my God, can't believe this is happening.

MARTIN: How old were you when all this was going on?

Mr. KENNEDY: This was last year. This was last year - 11th grade.

MARTIN: Is your decision to not have sex at this point in your life, is it rooted in religious belief?

Mr. KENNEDY: No. No, it's not.

MARTIN: What is it rooted in?

Mr. KENNEDY: Moral value, just - it makes me feel better physically and emotionally and mentally. It just - I can concentrate now more on education and track and field because that's my favorite sport. I like running track and field. You know, all those little minor worry - or not - major worries about contracting an STD or, you know, getting addicted on drugs or alcohol, I don't have to worry about this because I don't drink or I don't take drugs.

MARTIN: So your commitment to abstinence is about sex, alcohol and drugs?


MARTIN: It's all three?


MARTIN: And would you say it's basically because you don't want to mess up your life?

Mr. KENNEDY: Yes. I don't want to be a statistic.

MARTIN: Does marriage enter into it? Is your pledge to yourself to abstain until you are married?

Mr. KENNEDY: Yes. My goal is to not participate in sex until I'm married, and I don't know about drugs and alcohol - well, I don't think I ever take drugs, and I don't know about alcohol at all. That's kind of in the gray area, but yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Okay. And why is that important, to stay abstinent until marriage?

Mr. KENNEDY: Well, first of all, you're healthy. And when you meet the person that you want to be with for the rest of your life, she knows that you're healthy. I don't know about the same for her, but…

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and I'm talking to high school senior Devon Kennedy about his choice to remain abstinent. Do you talk about this with your friends?

Mr. KENNEDY: Not a lot. Well, if they ask me, yeah, yeah, so you're having sex, it's - I'm like, no, I'm staying abstinent to prevent catching AIDS or STD. But I want to say it like that. I'll say in a vernacular to them.

MARTIN: What would you say?

Mr. KENNEDY: I'd probably like no, man. I'm not trying to catch no diseases, and I'm just going to chill till I get married or something.

MARTIN: What do they say?

Mr. KENNEDY: Some of our friends like, oh man, you whack or something like. And then I know I was like my true friends are, yeah, I kind of understand that. I can feel that.

MARTIN: Do you ever feel left out?

Mr. KENNEDY: No. Uh-uh. Well, I don't mean to be arrogant, but I can say that I'm a very popular person. I'm a people person.

MARTIN: And you think that makes it easier…


MARTIN: …to be, to stand up for your point of view on this?

Mr. KENNEDY: Yes. And I'm the captain of the track and field team, and people will look up to me and when I talk, you know, people listen.

MARTIN: Does anyone ever tried to tempt you?

Mr. KENNEDY: Girls would - they won't try to tempt me. They'll try to put me in a situation which would make me break my vow of abstinence, like a - well, why don't you come over to my house later on the night? Or something, like that. That's a situation that might lead to, you know, sex or something like that.

MARTIN: Yeah. So, and why do you think they do that? Do you think it's challenge because you've been public about your decision, or you just think…

Mr. KENNEDY: Oh, I mean - no, they don't try to tempt me, because they know I'm being abstinent. They try - well, they're just trying to tempt me because…

MARTIN: You're cute?

Mr. KENNEDY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They can try and get with you.

Mr. KENNEDY: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And what do you say?

Mr. KENNEDY: First of all, I try to, you know, get out the situation. But if it comes down to - why you don't want to have sex with me, then I tell them straight up I want to live a healthy lifestyle. I don't want to have sex before I'm married.

MARTIN: You make it sound really easy, Devon, and I have to wonder whether it's really as easy as you're making it out to be.

Mr. KENNEDY: I just, I don't try to think about it as this big old decision. It's this just like somebody trying to go on a diet, you know. I'm not going to eat meat, or I'm a vegetarian. Nobody just goes and broadcasts it. You know, if somebody try to buy somebody some food or something, hey, I don't eat meat. It's simple as that, yeah.

MARTIN: And when I started our conversation, I mentioned that the statistics show that more young people like you…


MARTIN: …are making the decision to…


MARTIN: …abstain from sex, and I wonder why you think that might be - or to delay their decision to have sex, you know. For me, I know when I was your age, the big issue for me is, it was pregnancy, because AIDS did not exist then - at least not to my knowledge. And the big issue for me was pregnancy, which was I didn't want something to interfere with my plans.


MARTIN: And I think central to that is the effect that I had plans, you know? The fact that I had something I want to do…


MARTIN: …that was more important than the momentary attraction of whoever was Mr. Fine…

Mr. KENNEDY: Yeah.

MARTIN: …you know, at the moment. Okay? And so what I'm wondering is, I wonder if what do you think might be more important? Is it making sure the kids have plans, or that they have things that they want to do?


MARTIN: Or is it the fear factor? The fear of getting a disease that could kill your getting pregnant?

Mr. KENNEDY: You hit it right on my…

MARTIN: Or disappointing someone? Or disappointing somebody important to you like, you know, like your parents?

Mr. KENNEDY: You're right on the money about the go factor. That's what drove me to be abstinent, because I know I want to go to college. I want to get a higher education, ride out the track team as long as possible, and you know, maybe I might make it to the Olympics or something. I don't know.

But if you have something to strive for, it makes it easier because you know what you're doing it for. If you want to be a doctor, you want to be a lawyer. But if you come up with a kid in high school, it's kind of hard to continue with that plan.

MARTIN: What would you say to other people like you, people your age, who are thinking about having sex and that - are would just, kind of feel like, you know, everybody's doing it. I want to know what it's like. I'm curious, my boyfriend, girlfriend. I don't want to be a dork. I don't want people to think I'm not, you know, in the group. What would you say if people are kind on the fence about a decision, what would you tell them?

Mr. KENNEDY: Well, I was on a fence there once, but my brother just told me, he told me like this. He says it's not that great. It's about - it's a short period of pleasure, and then that's it. And then you have to worry about the consequences after, you know, you did what you did. That pushed me over the fence and I said, yeah. I'm going to wait till I'm married.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, good luck to you, Devon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KENNEDY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Devon Kennedy is a senior at Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C., and he's a summer intern at Best Friends, a program that promotes abstinence education. He joined me here in the studio. Devon, thanks so much.

Mr. KENNEDY: Thank you for having me here.

MARTIN: And good luck to you.

Mr. KENNEDY: Thank you.

MARTIN: And you've heard Devon Kennedy talk about his personal decision to embrace abstinence. Now, we'd like to hear your comments.

Are you around Devon's age? He's 17. If so, can you identify with Devon's decision? Or do you think it's unrealistic for a young person in today's culture to go sex-free? Do you think abstinence-only programs work?

And, of course, if you're a parent, what are your thoughts on abstinence-only sex education programs in schools? Would you welcome the curriculum if it came to your child's school? What do you think young people should learn in a sex education class? To share your thoughts about this or any other topics you hear on our program, please go to our blog at and tell us more.

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