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.)

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."

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?"

Religious zeal seems to tinge Brandt's angry comments—and, indeed, has helped fuel the entire war over teen sexuality. While there are plenty of good reasons to discourage sexual activity—not the least being the possible ineffectiveness of condoms against some sexually transmitted diseases, such as HPV—the sex education debate inevitably circles back to values on which Americans disagree. Although the Abstinence Clearinghouse is secular, and federal money comes with the stipulation that recipients can't proselytize, religious groups, including Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, abound at the conference. Exhibitors sell an array of religious items, including "purity crosses" and "Bod 4 God" bumper stickers.

For the religious groups that have received taxpayer dollars—and there are many, including Mid-South Christian Ministries in West Memphis, Arkansas; Roseland Christian Health Ministries in Chicago; and the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which received the largest chunk of New York State's abstinence money—the challenge is conveying their message without violating government restrictions or alienating nonbelievers.

One Christian educator, Peggy Hartshorn, devotes much of her talk to this delicate matter. Hartshorn is president of Heartbeat, a chain of so-called crisis pregnancy centers, which offer pregnancy tests and counsel young women who test positive not to have abortions. If the test comes back negative, Hartshorn seizes the moment to encourage "born-again virginity," which she tells her clients is "God's plan for their sexuality." For those crisis pregnancy centers that have landed federal funding—and a remarkable number have—Hartshorn instead recommends more generically inspirational messages, such as "This is the first day of the rest of your life." According to Hartshorn, though, the reference to God bolsters the argument.

Even the strongest message sometimes falls short, of course. Among those leaving the rally on Thursday was a 14-year-old named David. Like the others in his group, David was wearing a "Virgin Territory" T-shirt and had received his "Don't Be a Sucker! (You're Worth Waiting For)" lollipop upon exiting. But when asked if he could imagine being a virgin at 25, like Dirk Been, David shook his head no. What about getting through college? Again, no. High school? David looked both ways, narrowed his eyes, and again shook his head. Then, lollipop in hand, he went off to join his friends, who were happily jostling and elbowing each other as the adults looked on worriedly.

Click here to read the sidebar "Graham Crackers and Other Chastity Devices."

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