An Orgy of Abstinence

Federal Funding Pushes No-Sex Education Into the Mainstream

As for the looming question of whether the 1996 abstinence-education bill will be reauthorized when it expires in 2002, "I don't think we need to be too worried about that," said one smiling attendee.

Still, the idea of unequivocally telling kids to avoid sex—and shielding them from information about contraception—is very much embattled. Abstinence-till-marriage promoters are up against the overwhelming majority of both adults and teens, who see the "just say no" approach as antiquated and unrealistic. In survey after survey, parents say they support both encouraging abstinence and teaching about birth control, an approach most at the Miami conference regard as a dangerously mixed message. In June, a coalition of groups including Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State called for the withdrawal of all federal funding from abstinence-only education in public schools. And Surgeon General David Satcher, a Clinton appointee, recently issued a report calling for sex education that includes information about contraception.

Perhaps the biggest challenges for the abstinence movement come from within, though, as the teens at the center of this sexuality battle try to work out the sticky logistics of remaining chaste. Even Been, purity poster-boy of the moment, sometimes finds himself at odds with the official abstinence message. The particular bone of contention that comes up in one interview is masturbation, specifically whether Been thinks it's possible to indulge and still consider oneself abstinent. After pausing to think about the question, Been decides that it is: "As a man" and "as a physical being" and "having all these hormones," he finds the practice "only natural."

Illustration by Marc Phares

This is not the Clearinghouse's official position on masturbation, as president Leslee Unruh, who was sitting in on the interview, is quick to point out. She cites the organization's "Abstinence Survival Kit," which says that "sexual self-stimulation" may "eventually leave the person unable to respond sexually to a real person." In other words, masturbators may become so addicted to this self-sex, they might not be able to enjoy the real thing with their spouses once they find them. "It's the first stage of sexual addiction," warns Unruh.

So what can teens do without straying from the path of purity? Beth and her friend Mary have both given this question considerable thought. Wearing matching glittery sweaters with "Pet Your Dog, Not Your Date" stickers affixed to them, the two ninth-graders from Homestead, Florida, have come to the conference already armed with a strong commitment to abstinence. At 14, Beth has decided that she should court, rather than date, which means she hangs out with the boy in question only when they're with either of their families. When she turns 16, the two will officially start dating, though they'll only meet in public places. Mary, who's also 14, only goes on group dates. "I wouldn't want to put a boy in that kind of situation," she explains of her decision not to date one-on-one.

Perhaps their choices seem severe, but not to them. Both of Beth's two older sisters became teen mothers, one getting pregnant when she was just 15. Mary, too, has seen the toll of reckless teen sex up close. One of her friends got pregnant in seventh grade. "She missed a ton of class," Mary says sadly. Indeed, even while the teen pregnancy rate has reached record lows—between 1991 and 2000, the birthrate among 15- to 17-year-old girls dropped by a whopping 29 percent—more than 40 percent of girls still get pregnant before they exit the teen years.

Even more are having sex, of course. About 50 percent of ninth- through 12th-grade students have lost their virginity, a figure that has become the half-empty, half-full glass of sex education. While abstinence supporters tend to worry about guarding the remaining virgins, those in the sex education camp focus on the kids who have sex—and need to know about how to protect themselves against pregnancy and disease. So deep is the divide, the mere mention of the names Planned Parenthood or SIECUS, the New York City-based nonprofit that promotes sex education including contraception, elicits hisses in some conference rooms here.

While both sides claim the scientific high ground, citing studies that support their programs, the true complexity of the competing approaches is often flattened out by this partisan rancor. Abstinence supporters tend to latch onto only one part of a recent report by a Yale University researcher, for instance, touting the finding that kids who took chastity pledges were more likely to begin having sex later, while downplaying another finding: When those teens did eventually have sex, they were less likely to use birth control. Similarly, some on the other side have taken Satcher's recent report on sex education as a dismissal of abstinence-only education, though the surgeon general concluded not that such education doesn't work, but that there isn't yet convincing evidence that it does.

It's unlikely that that evidence will be coming soon. Many abstinence folks are opposed to the surveys researchers want to use to evaluate federally funded programs because they include specific questions about sex. "Questions plant ideas," warns Peter Brandt, director of issues-response for the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family. "Individuals involved with condom programs shouldn't have a role in evaluating abstinence programs," he argues. "And who cares what those people think, anyway?"

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Loading...