Preaching Chastity In the Classroom

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It's assembly time at La Vega High School in McLennan County, Texas, and a roomful of juniors and seniors is talking about the facts of life. "From this day forward, what's going to be too far for you?" asks traveling lecturer Eric Tooley, as he distributes a work sheet on "physical affection" that begins with talking and holding hands and progresses right through to sexual intercourse. "Circle the things you're not going to do until marriage." As the students finish up their assignment, Tooley makes clear his own preference: "Virginity is a gift you get to give away only once in your life, and I hope you save it for marriage."

After years of high teen-pregnancy rates in McLennan County, a publicly funded group has mounted a controversial community-wide crackdown on teen sex known as "abstinence-only education." Its proponents argue that giving kids an unambiguous abstinence message--rather than telling them to wait but distributing condoms for when they don't--will curb teen pregnancies, decrease the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (stds) and make for "sexually healthier" adults. And they warn against a strain of human papilloma virus that is linked to cervical cancer--and is not prevented by condoms. Opponents of abstinence-only education, however, call it "erotophobic" and fear it could prevent kids from learning what they need to know about sex.

The debate is set to become more prominent--and heated--over the next few months. G.O.P. presidential front runner George W. Bush is taking the abstinence issue to the campaign trail. As Governor, he has poured $6 million into abstinence programs. And he has pledged that if elected President, he would allocate some $135 million, or the amount the government now spends on contraception programs, to "elevate abstinence education from an afterthought to an urgent priority." Accordingly, McLennan County is being watched as a bellwether.

Enthusiasm for the just-say-no approach began with little-noticed G.O.P. welfare-reform legislation, setting aside $50 million over five years for states that exhort kids to save sex until marriage. Since the measure took effect two years ago, some 700 schools and community groups in 48 states have snapped up the funds, according to a study by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS). Five states have gone a step further, mandating that abstinence-only programs be taught in all their schools. The programs vary widely, but the federal funds require that children be taught the "harmful psychological and physical effects" of premarital sex. Contraceptives, if mentioned at all, must be cast as unreliable in preventing pregnancy and disease. Explains Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who helped draft the original legislation: "The programs simply tell them the more sex they have outside of marriage, the less will be their prospects for human happiness."

In McLennan County, that message shows up everywhere from hard candies emblazoned SEX IS MINT FOR MARRIAGE to pledge cards asking kids to forswear sex. At La Vega, Tooley delivers a stern lecture on the ineffectiveness of condoms, telling students the devices fail to protect against hiv anywhere from 10% to 43% of the time (as opposed to the 1% failure rate claimed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when condoms are used properly). Students view graphic slides of a uterus before and after the onset of pelvic inflammatory disease. At a recent abstinence class for seventh- and eighth-graders at nearby West Middle School, lecturer Rene Rochester gave a pep talk urging students to stem their sexual urges by "controlling...adrenaline" flow.

Abstinence advocates claim credit for a decline in teen pregnancies, down 17% from 1990 to 1996 nationally. But there is no evidence that the abstinence message--rather than, say, more vigilant use of contraceptives--is behind the trend. The government is one year into a three-year, $6 million assessment, but so far, few reputable studies of abstinence-only programs have been conducted. "The five published evaluations of abstinence-only programs did not find a delay in the onset of sexual intercourse, but the jury is still out," says Douglas Kirby, a senior research scientist who has studied abstinence programs for ETR Associates, a nonprofit health-education and research organization based in Santa Cruz, Calif. He adds that 11 studies show programs that combine an abstinence message with information about contraceptives either delayed teen sex or reduced its frequency.

Public health experts have a more pressing concern: the programs could undo a decade of progress in education about safe sex. "Denying them information about contraception and STD protection puts them at risk," says Debra Haffner, president of SIECUS. Then there's the question of the psychological impact of such a message on adolescents just embarking on the awkward terrain of sexuality. Warns Pam Smallwood, education director of Planned Parenthood of Central Texas: "If all kids learn about sex is that if you touch it you'll die, how can you ever expect them to develop healthy relationships?"

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