A guidance counselor strides to the chalkboard and announces to the squirming eighth-grade class at the Maggie L. Walker School in Crown Heights that they are now going to discuss their favorite topic—sex. The giggling begins, but Jerry Abernathy’s baritone cuts through and the 13- and 14-year-olds settle down without being asked. He begins with “What does abstinence mean?”
A hand goes up in the front row. “Not to have sex,” says a soft-spoken girl with a stiff ponytail. Correct, but Abernathy—who seems more like a basketball coach with his friendly slang and black warm-up suit than a state-funded “substance abuse prevention intervention specialist”— tells them he’s not asking them to abstain forever.
“Sex is one of the most important things we are here to do on this planet,” he explains. “We are here to procreate, to reproduce, to carry on the human race. Some of you are already doing it, but I’m going to tell you to slow down.” Otherwise, he continues, there can be serious, even deadly, consequences.
Abernathy, who says he was trained in a program sponsored by the state’s office of alcohol and substance abuse, gives weekly lessons like this to eighth-graders (and a toned-down version to sixth-graders) for two months out of the school year, and spends the rest of the time counseling students in crisis.
Lately he says he’s been in particularly high demand—other neighborhood schools are seeking out his services, and he has more work than he can handle. That schools would want to line up for charismatic instructors like him makes sense—he comes at no cost to the district. But if it’s abstinence education they want for their students, there are now more choices than ever.
Various private groups are getting enormous grants from the feds. The Diocese of Brooklyn–sponsored Builders for Youth and Family gets $225,000 annually for after-school programs in Bushwick. The
nonprofit Educators for Children, Youth and Families gets the same amount for its work in Brownsville, as does St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital for its work with sixth-graders in Harlem and on the Lower East Side.
This fiscal year, abstinence programs will receive a total of $206 million nationwide. Bush sweetened the pot from $170 million last year, and since he took office, the amount of cash allocated has more than doubled. Last year New York got more than $9 million, which makes the state one of the largest grantees, second only to Texas.
Of course not all health care advocates see the increase in federal money as a good thing. In September, the ACLU launched Not in My State, a campaign
designed to get local officials to re- examine the issue. At the beginning of the year, Democratic congresswoman Barbara Lee of California and Democratic senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey sponsored a federal bill that, if passed, will amend the Welfare Reform Act so that states can get money for programs that teach safer sex as well as promote abstinence.
By mandate, abstinence-only programs can only discuss condoms and safer sex in terms of their failure rates. “It’s based on ideology, not science,” says Dana Czuczka of Planned Parenthood of New York City, pointing to last year’s congressional study spearheaded by Democratic congressman Henry A. Waxman of California, which found that several popular abstinence-only programs deliver alarming misinformation about STDs, gay people, and abortion.
By law, New York students must get the facts about HIV/AIDS prevention as part of a comprehensive curriculum, but a 2003 study by Assemblyman Scott Stringer found that about 75 percent of public schools are not in compliance.
And then there’s the moralizing. A provision of the welfare reform law says that in order to qualify for funds, instructors have to teach—or at the very least not contradict—what’s called the “eight point” definition of abstinence education. Among the more controversial points are that marriage is the “expected standard of sexual activity” and that sex outside of marriage is likely to have “harmful psychological and physical effects.”
By downplaying points they’re uncomfortable with, some grant recipients are able to work around the ideological restrictions. In several cases community groups sponsor dual programs—one that teaches abstinence, another that’s more comprehensive.
Other federally funded community groups, like the Caribbean Women’s Health Association, look at abstinence in philosophical terms. “It’s not only sex, but self-control and discipline,” says program director Dr. Marco Mason. “We teach a set of values to help keep them out of risk.” Students with direct questions about sex are referred to counseling or other programs.