No-Sex Ed

City Programs Face the Trials of Teaching Abstinence

So, instead of taking place in the courts, wars over abstinence funding have come down to words. SIECUS, which supports teaching about both abstinence and contraception, criticizes teaching materials used by the archdiocese as religiously biased.

"Facing Reality," the curriculum for high school students, lists "pursuing spiritual goals" as one of the rewards for abstaining from sex and recommends that teachers lead their students to "recognize that some people with AIDS are now suffering because of the choices they have made." "Choosing the Best," for middle-school students, states that marriage will protect against HIV and STDs. (SIECUS also cites medical inaccuracies in the programs. "Choosing the Best" states that HIV can be passed through kissing and that condoms fail over 25 percent of the time.)

With Republicans hoping to throw even more government money toward abstinence (George W. Bush recently promised to up federal abstinence spending from $50 million to $135 million a year), those on both sides of the ideological divide are also arguing over questions of effectiveness.

Supporters of the just-say-no approach have claimed responsibility for a recent drop in the teen pregnancy rate, and an analysis done by the Alan Guttmacher Institute indicates that the abstinence message may have at least contributed to that drop. (Most of it, according to the institute, is due to increasing use of contraception among sexually active teens.)

But, in 1997, researchers from the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, found that the vast majority of more than two dozen non-government-funded abstinence-only education programs had no effect on the timing or amount of sexual activity. And the largest study to date of an abstinence-only program found that the Education Now, Babies Later program, which involved 187,000 teens in California, had no impact on the age at which teenagers began to have sex.

Without solid evidence that they work, putting money toward abstinence-only programs is "irresponsible and illogical," according to Terry Lewis, the former director of the AIDS and Adolescents Network in New York. On the other hand, says Lewis, money from these grants sometimes makes its way beyond abstinence to meet other community needs.

The Caribbean Women's Health Association, a Brooklyn-and Queens-based group that is receiving $150,000 a year in abstinence grants over five years, for instance, is spending its money on a program that "promotes self-esteem" among immigrant teens, according to the network's executive director, Yvonne Graham. Meanwhile, Adolescent and Family Comprehensive Services, a Bronx-based group, arranges for sports events and camping trips for its teens. In Flatbush, CAMBA fulfills a need for after-school activities so great that there is a waiting list for children who want to be in the program.

Confusing matters further, a parent organization can supply information about contraception via one program while carrying out the abstinence-only mandate through another. So Inwood House, a community group in the Bronx that receives a $102,000-a-year abstinence-only grant, is at the same time providing AIDS prevention courses in other programs it runs. CAMBA offers a wide array of community services, including condom distribution and AIDS prevention, but keeps these independent from its abstinence program.

Kids, of course, are oblivious to funding stipulations. And, at CAMBA anyway, most of the time the after-school abstinence program looks like any other. Children do their homework, poke each other, have drama class.

At some point, though, the difficult matter that spawned this program inevitably comes up. On a recent school day, it took the form of small pieces of paper on which students wrote a question they really wanted answered.

"Why do us girls start to like boys?" was one, scrawled in pencil. Another student wrote, "My teacher said when boys get big and see a girl they always look on the butt. Is that true?" A third asked, "Why do women have sex even if they don't want babies? Why?"

These are mysteries that perhaps no curriculum could ever fully unravel. But then came another written inquiry:

"How do you NOT get babys?"

With rumors afloat that a friend of some of the girls in the program, an 11-year-old, is pregnant, the issue couldn't be more timely. And, in a program with another funding source, it could even get a straightforward, if not simple, reply. But, for the moment, Dexter leaves the question unanswered, deciding to pass it on to her supervisor.

"It's a tough one," she sighs later. "Why do the simplest ones always seem like the toughest ones?"

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