Did you hear about the New York education professor, the Singapore IT aficionado, the Spanish doctor and the Philippine economist who met up in Manila last week? They, and 700 others who arrived at the same destination, were all in pursuit of what an American author has ingeniously dubbed "the thrill of the chaste".

And thrilling it was to spend two jam-packed days listening to the wit and wisdom of experts and amateurs alike on the theme of the Second International Congress on Love, Sex and Life — that is, chastity as "Love, Laughter and Life Ever After". Corny? Only for the cynic who has forgotten what the gift of human sexuality is all about.

It is not, as the congress reminded us, about "having a relationship" while protecting yourself from a deadly disease. Not, as a Spanish advertisement pretends, a great "therapy" so long as you use a condom. And not, as the mass media constantly portray it and as some young people have come to believe, a way of having "fun".

Chastity education starts the day you ask your toddler, "What outfit do
you want to wear today — the red or the blue?" said Esther Esteban, an
expert in values education. Choose the blue and you have to say no to
the red, for now. Later on, choosing virginity means not choosing
company in which you may be tempted to lose it.

Nor, on the other hand, is the meaning of sex captured by "abstinence education", just saying "no" and slogans about remaining a virgin until marriage. Saying no and waiting till marriage are important messages for young people but, as the congress brought out in a multitude of ways, from the comic to the academic and even the stirringly romantic, these cautions point to a larger, positive reality: the ability to give oneself to another completely and for good. This was the meaning of a "keep love real" campaign run in conjunction with the congress. We were all invited to sign up to it and my personal pledge is in front of me as I write.

As the aforementioned economist, Bernardo Villegas, put it in a memorable closing session: "By nature human beings want to commit themselves to one true and endless love." This is the theme of all popular romantic songs of all times, he said, before driving the point home with a moving rendition of the 1952 hit, "When I fall in love, it will be forever… When I give my heart, it will be completely…" Not bad for a professor who is usually occupied with the problems of a developing country. Dr Villegas is also president of Intermedia, a Rome-based consultancy and co-organiser of the congress.

A lasting marriage

Young people today are just as interested as their grandparents in finding "one true and endless love", according to research carried out among 4000 Filipino high school and university students prior to the congress. This may surprise some jaded experts from the rich countries who have lost the plot about sex, but the data is in and it shows that no less than 85 per cent of the young people who filled out an anonymous questionnaire value waiting to have sex as a special gift to the person with whom they will share their life. A lasting marriage was the top life goal of a whopping 93 per cent, said study director Jokin de Irala, a professor of public health at the University of Navarre in Spain.

Three quarters of the large sample had not had sex, and half of those who had, admitted they were not ready for it. The young people did want more biological information, but around 80 per cent of both boys and girls wanted to learn about other aspects of relationships: how to prepare for dating, how to manage their feelings, how to distinguish between desire, sexual attraction and love. In view of the "veterinary" approach of some agencies to sex education, this was a very significant finding, said Dr de Irala.

Put it down to a sin-conscious Catholic culture if you like, but the study shows that sexual experimentation is not inevitable, even when young people are exposed to the full gamut of provocative media messages, aided by the mobile phone — as the youth of the Philippines are.

The Philippines, congress director and university dean Antonio Torralba assured me, is the text-messaging capital of the world — a small exaggeration to illustrate how a local youth character-building programme he has nurtured keeps in touch with the thousands of young people who have attended its seminars. The programme, I Am Strong, was one of a dozen presented, based on the same principle and from places as diverse as Mexico and Macau.

Organisers took the mass media and new communications technology seriously enough to bring Keith Liu, head of internet and games experiences for Nokia, from Singapore. While this may have looked like a sortie from behind enemy lines to delegates all too aware of the dangers of the internet, Mr Liu, a father of three, argued convincingly for parents not only to monitor their kids' use of the technology but to let the young people teach them about it and make it part of the parent-child relationship. "I played board games with my mother," he told me. "Some of the new games can be played together — the play and bonding elements are still the same."

According to one of the main messages of the speakers — and these ranged from grey-haired professors to guitar-toting youths — no single aspect of contemporary culture can harm your children if you A) are a good model of the values and virtues you want them to have; B) are close to them and they can talk to you easily; C) have brought them up from the beginning to make good choices. Chastity education starts the day you ask your toddler, "What outfit do you want to wear today — the red or the blue?" said Esther Esteban, an expert in values education. Choose the blue and you have to say no to the red, for now. Later on, choosing virginity means not choosing company in which you may be tempted to lose it.

Strength of character

It all comes down to character education, the theoretical basis of the congress. "Sexuality education must have the development of good character as its central goal," said keynote speaker Thomas Lickona, Professor of Education at the State University of New York at Cortland and director of the Centre for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility). There are three crucial assets young people need to live a chaste lifestyle in our highly sexualised culture, he suggested:

* Ethical wisdom: the wisdom of the great religious and philosophical traditions which provide the intellectual foundation for a chaste life. The "why" and "why not" of sexual decision making.

* Strength of character: the fortitude, modesty, sense of responsibility for the welfare of others, and other virtues that make it possible to actually live chastity — which includes returning to chastity again after lapsing from it.

* Ethical support systems: family, friends, faith community, school, all of which should enable young people to live a chaste life in a hostile environment.

Essentially, it is the parents' job to form a child's character and prepare them for chaste life. In this context, sex education is both more and less than "the big talk" — the kind that "embarrassed" one speaker into a chaste youth, so anxious was he to be spared another; the kind that makes some mothers offer to pay I Am Strong facilitator Lora Tan Garcia if only she will do it for them. (Instead, the young mother of two has written a book, Keep Love Real, to help them and their teenagers.)

The best sex education demands more because it begins with the child's first questions and keeps going. But it is also something easier and more natural, Dr de Irala, father of four, told a press conference. It is explaining the facts in ways that are attractive, respectful and meaningful all at once. A little girl, when she asks, can be told that although she doesn't have a penis, she has something else equally special "but it's inside, it's protected". And at puberty, "You're body is preparing you to be a spouse, a mother." Formal programmes can help parents with this kind of fine tuning.

Character, said Kevin Ryan, founder of the Centre for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, comes from the Greek word meaning "to engrave". That makes character the sum total of the marks made on a person by experience, for better or worse. In the end, young people have to take hold of that chisel and form their own hearts.

That today's young people are just as capable of this task as their forbears was evident from the prominent role they played in the congress — as organisers, speakers, technicians, ushers and finally as performers, both at the congress proper and at the I Keep Love Real youth rally that followed. It will be worthwhile keeping an eye on their blog, since, while the congress might be over, the campaign for a real love revolution is only beginning. 

Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet. She attended the congress courtesy of Intermedia.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet