A recent study evaluating four federally funded teen abstinence programs concluded that the programs, some of them lasting as long as four years, had zero impact on students' rates of abstinence, number of sexual partners, or the age at which they became sexually active.

A somewhat-less-rigorous study of my own had equally shocking results. You might not have known, for example, that the phrase "proud to be a virgin" gets only 2,130 hits on Google, while "lost my virginity" shows up more than 272,000 times.

One explanation could be that people are 127 times more likely to boast about their sexual prowess than admit their inexperience. I'm getting the strong message that virgins my age - 26 years old and counting - are fast becoming an endangered species.

This is the part where I'm supposed to shuffle my feet and mutter that just because I'm in college, don't have a boyfriend, and have never slept with anyone doesn't mean I'm not popular, and sex is overrated anyway.

To the contrary - sex might be one of the best experiences on earth. Unfortunately, it's also one of the most physically and psychologically dangerous.

I've seen what happens to my friends who had sex for pleasure without weighing the consequences. The emotional problems alone are reason enough for me to cool my heels for now.

Sometimes - I'll be honest - it's my thoughts that need a bit of cooling.

But virginity has its advantages. I don't have to nag some guy to call me, and I'm not losing sleep worrying about getting dumped for a cheerleader. No intercourse means no stress over pregnancy tests, patches or pills.

Being within spitting distance of becoming a 30-year-old virgin does not make me a clueless nerd whose palms sweat at the thought of a boy catching my eye. Neither am I a starched old maid who favors tweed skirts and clucks her tongue at the sight of a belly ring, but I've found that avoiding suggestive clothes helps keep my behavior modest, too.

While religious beliefs are the main reason for my sexual stubbornness, I didn't go to some church to wear a white dress, hold hands in a circle, and pledge my heart and soul to remain pure. (Virginity, although worth celebrating, is certainly no automatic stamp of holiness.)

In my mind, chastity pledges are like the anti-plagiarism oaths many students take: At least for the five minutes they're making promises, they're not getting into any trouble.

Are parents really this naive? Do they honestly think their daughter is safe as long as she has a pamphlet about teen pregnancy and a pink rubber bracelet stamped "Worth Waiting For"?

I bet they'd feel differently about giving their 8-year-old son a book of matches and a fire extinguisher and telling him to go have a good time with his friends.

When I see Internet posts from girls as young as 13 asking Yahoo "experts" if they should lose their virginity - or how far they can "pleasure" a guy before it's technically "sex" - I feel like I'm watching a squirrel choose the best way to skitter across a busy highway.

It's adorably cute, right up until statistical odds turn rodent into roadkill.

The "experts" advising curious virgins are typically quick to encourage condom use. Oh, good, I think. At least the squirrels have helmets.

When there's a condom that lessens the risk of heartbreak, eliminates the chance of being used and lied to, or provides certain protection against all sexually transmitted diseases, then maybe "safe sex" will be less of an empty phrase.

Worst of all are the glossy magazine articles that urge romantically inclined ladies to follow their heart. I can't even walk into a supermarket for milk and come out with fewer than two unneeded purchases; I'm certainly not going to trust my complete physical and emotional well-being to mere intuition.

I'm sick of seeing people my age in movies whose only role seems to be hopping from bed to bed. I'm disgusted by songs in which young women invite men they barely know to seduce them.

I'm really tired of the disapproving stares of older women who assume my 10-year-old brother is my son.

I would buy a T-shirt that proclaims my moral beliefs, but it's hard when all the tops my size say either "Delicious Mama" or "Slippery When Wet."

For now, I'll focus on teaching my brother all the things my mother taught me: that virgin is not a dirty word, hormonal lust is no substitute for love and respect, and who you really are ultimately depends on what you choose to do.

And my mom didn't need millions of dollars in federal funding to do it.

Rebekah Zumwalt (rebekahz@gmail.com) is a communications major at Atlantic Cape Community College.