It is snack time at the abstinence program run by the Church Avenue Merchants Block Association (CAMBA), so the fifth and sixth graders have a moment to munch on pretzels and drink juice before delving into their daily rap session about sex. The ‘Cool Kids Cool Down’ curriculum, written specifically for these after-school sessions held at P.S. 269 in Flatbush, Brooklyn, covers subjects ranging from those
clearly designed to ward off sex—”the difference between love and lust,” say, or “the difference between needs and desires”—to more general concerns such as “friendship” and “showing respect for self and others.”
Today’s topic, “the freedom you can enjoy through sexual abstinence,” falls into the former category. But instructor Arlene Dexter has translated the stiff-sounding lesson plan into a direct, answerable question. “So, why shouldn’t an 11-year-old have sex?” she asks, squeezing into one of the kid-sized chairs and looking intently at her students.
A sophisticated-seeming girl with long braids responds. “If you have a baby, you have to buy baby shoes, baby clothes, and Pampers and if you don’t have that stuff somebody might take the baby away,” she says knowingly. A small girl in overalls adds that your mother “might not be willing to take care of the baby.” And one boy who plans on being an “engineer basketball player” answers that having a baby now will probably interfere with his career. But even as Dexter is nodding approvingly at his first answer, he reconsiders: Maybe he could take the GED test and still come out okay. The conversation turns to the level of difficulty of the high school equivalency exam.
The digression is, perhaps, not what Senator Lauch Faircloth and other Washington conservatives had in mind when they tacked a last-minute provision onto the 1996 Welfare Reform Act allotting almost half a billion state and federal dollars for abstinence education. But if any one lesson can be learned from watching these programs shift from concept to classroom, it is that what may start out in Washington as a neat package of values becomes infinitely more complicated when it reaches real people.
Faircloth’s provision has funded nearly 700 new abstinence-only programs throughout the country. In New York State, which will get a total of $15 million of the federal abstinence pie by 2002 (the state will add an additional $13 million over the same period), 36 new programs have been created. Nine of those are in New York City, where the money has gone to religious groups, school districts, hospitals, and community organizations, like CAMBA.
Under the law, grantees are required to promote the ideas that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human activity” and “that sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” But “abstinence-only” programs are notable—andcontroversial—for what they don’t teach. Instructors are specifically forbidden to mention STD prevention or contraception beyond providing the failure rates for various methods when asked.
Such significant omissions are at odds with what most adult Americans say they want children to learn. According to a recent survey conducted by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), more than 80 percent of adults support the teaching of abstinence as well as information about contraception and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.
Abstinence-only advocates don’t pretend they reflect the nation’s values. As congressional staffers involved in drafting the legislation plainly wrote: “That the practices and standards in many communities across the country clash with the standard required by the law is precisely the point.” Just-say-no education is designed to change thinking by countering existing programs that teach about birth control.
In New York, those holding this minority view on sex education have received much of the abstinence money. The largest single abstinence grant in all of New York State—more than $1,750,000 over five years—went to the Catholic Church, or, more precisely, the Archdiocese of New York. The second-biggest grant—$1,375,000 for the sameperiod—was awarded to the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. Elsewhere in the state, seven of 27 grants were awarded to various other divisions of the Catholic Church.
“It’s precisely what we feared would happen,” says Donna Lieberman, director of the Reproductive Rights Project for the New York Civil Liberties Union. Robert Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Church State Separation, agrees. The abstinence grants constitute “a first-class scandal,” according to Boston, who believes that education about sex coming from the Catholic Church is necessarily religious.
But the state department of health, which awarded the grants through a committee, defends its choices. Spokesman Rob Kenny notes that many types of organizations received abstinence grants and dismisses church-and-state concerns as “ridiculous. Children today need to hear that they have a future worth planning for. Part of that planning means saying no to sex.”
And as indignant as civil libertarians and sex education proponents may be, they seem to have little legal recourse in the matter. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that religious organizations are entitled to receive government funding for abstinence as long as the programs they run do not have explicitly religious content and serve students in public as well as private schools. In its grant application, the archdiocese (which did not return calls for this story) agreed to play by these rules.
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?”