An Orgy of Abstinence

Federal Funding Pushes No-Sex Education Into the Mainstream

Renée is going out with Ronald. Anyone can deduce this from the "Renée 'N' Ronald" hearts she has doodled on her notepad alongside a few crucifixes. But still. As Dirk Been, a handsome, 25-year-old former Survivor contestant, climbs onstage at the world's largest abstinence conference (a three-day Miami extravaganza that ended last Saturday), Renée, a 14-year-old from nearby Miami Springs, quietly slips her retainer out of her mouth. There is something about the moment—maybe the sheer thrill of having 500 teenagers crammed into a hotel ballroom to celebrate celibacy, or maybe the way Been moves through them, wearing an appealing smirk—that makes a girl want to free her teeth of plastic and wires. So, as the lanky Been mounts the stage, Renée drops the unsightly retainer, still wet with spit, into her elegant black clutch, with its "Condoms Don't Protect the Heart" sticker pasted near the clasp.

Any movement needs sex appeal, especially one targeted at teenagers. And Been, an aspiring actor whose Web site lists his favorite pastime as dating, offers just the right mix of touched-by-television allure and benign hunkiness to lead the youth rally at "Abstinence: Taking the World by Storm." The National Abstinence Clearinghouse, the nation's largest abstinence group, which has seen its membership blossom from 500 to more than 7500 in the past four years, has gathered kids from Florida to Brazil to take in Been's chaste charms.

These are boom times for the abstinence movement. The "just say no" approach—which began on, and still encompasses, the fringes of the religious right—is now graced with government support as never before. Five years ago, in a little-known provision of the Welfare Reform Bill, conservatives in Congress set aside almost half a billion dollars in state and federal funding for programs that attempt to steer kids away from sex—and avoid any positive mention of birth control. Now, with an enthusiastically pro-abstinence administration in place, the former outsiders are gaining ground in the battle for teenage loins. In 1999, 29 percent of high schools surveyed were already promoting abstinence to the exclusion of information about contraception—a number that continues to rise as the no-sex movement surges forward.

"I've been a virgin all my life," begins Been, as the crowd launches into another round of hooting and screams. Even though he was voted off the island after only three episodes, Been is the kind of guy who knows how to see the bright side. ("I thank God every day for the opportunity to be a part of Survivor," he says solemnly at one point.) Optimism—that a worthy marriage partner will eventually come along, say, or that a wayward bus won't strike before that happens—comes in handy when committing to a sex-free life. So does the ability to withstand a little taunting, which Been admits he's gotten along the way from classmates, teammates, strangers, and even the president of CBS, whom he met in the pre-Survivor weeding process.

Indeed, Been seems to think his unwavering commitment to premarital chastity—and his resistance to the temptress CBS producers put in his midst—had something to do with the brevity of his reality-television stint. But abstinence, he ventures, is worth the unpopularity. Holding out for his future bride, Been suggests, is even sexy. "I can't wait to tell that person this is something I saved for her," he says, shaking his head slowly as if audience members can't possibly understand just how much he looks forward to that moment.

You might say the abstinence movement has gotten lucky. The idea of confining sex to marriage is hardly new, of course. But these days, right-to-lifers, religious educators, and people in the pro-marriage movement are coalescing around an updated idea that chastity is the very salvation of society. According to many in Miami, it was teaching about birth control that sparked the sexual revolution.

Indeed, abstinence proponents seem to blame sex education more than premarital sex itself for four decades of increases in teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, open homosexuality, street crime—and even for the existence of Monica Lewinsky (whose name elicits much tongue clucking here). The reversal they're hoping for is no less sweeping: a social purification through "character education" (as opposed to sex education). Pedagogical weapons include courses such as "Sex Respect" and "Everyone Is NOT Doing It," as well as literature like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and "Hang On to Your Hormones."

The Welfare Reform Law specified that programs receiving abstinence-only funds must teach, among other lessons, that "sexual activity outside of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects." Such abstinence-till-marriage programs are also only allowed to discuss birth control in the context of its failures. (If the subject comes up at all, the main message must be that the only safe way to avoid sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy is not to have sex.)

With $17 million in new federal abstinence grants awarded just two weeks ago (many of them to groups represented at the conference) and an additional $30 million on its way next year, spirits at the Miami Inter-Continental Hotel are high. There are other demonstrations of official affection: A representative of the Human Resources and Services Administration is on hand to guide those interested in applying for additional federal grant money. Longtime abstinence supporter Wade Horn, whom President Bush just appointed assistant secretary of the HRSA, gives the keynote speech at the awards banquet. And Bush himself, who oversaw the biggest state abstinence education budget nationwide as governor of Texas, issued a personal welcome letter to every conferencegoer. ("Abstinence is not just about saying 'no'—it's about saying yes to a happier, healthier future," writes the president.)

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