The slide show was chilling: a cervix with precancerous lesions, shriveled fallopian tubes. But what made Seth Claude and his friends really blanch was a penis covered in sores and distended like an autumn gourd. "Before, I just thought if you got genital warts, maybe you had one or two, but then I saw the person with a bajillion of them and was, like, 'Whoa,'" says Seth, 13. "[The pictures] are enough to make you have nightmares."
But will they keep him from having sex? The images form the backbone of Worth the Wait, a sex-education curriculum taught at Seth's school, Caldwell Middle School in Caldwell, Texas, and in 31 districts across the state. Written by Dr. Patricia Sulak, an obstetrician-gynecologist and professor at Texas A&M University's College of Medicine, the lessons set forth the clinical consequences of teen sex in pictures and eye-popping statistics charting the numbers of young people infected with sexually transmitted diseases. The take-home message: abstain from intercourse or put yourself at grave medical risk.
A bitter battle over sex ed has long raged in this country--and with each year the foes have become more deeply set in their stances. On one side are religious conservatives arguing that sex outside of wedlock is unholy. They have secured millions of federal dollars for abstinence programs that teach about the hazards of contraceptives. The other camp, backed by virtually every major medical organization, contends it is irresponsible to deny kids information about condoms. Now, as Congress is weighing President Bush's proposal to boost abstinence funding by 33% to $135 million, those allegiances are shifting. A small but vocal cohort of doctors has gone to the abstention side. "I used to think all we had to do was dump condoms in the schools and be done with it," says Sulak. "But after reviewing the data, I've had to do a 180 on kids and sex."
The turnabout is proving contagious. Sulak has sold her slide kits to health-care workers in 44 states. More significant, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which has long been on the other bank of the sex-ed divide, will honor her with a presidential award next spring. Meanwhile, a group of more than 400 doctors collaborated on an abstinence CD-ROM, Prescriptions for Parents: A Physicians' Guide to Adolescence and Sex, released last month by the National Physicians Center for Family Resources. "Parents and children want medical facts, not a one-sided moralist approach," says Dianna Lightfoot, the center's president.
Abstinence educators also want to put the medical story on the table. From 1999 to 2001, the Medical Institute for Sexual Health in Austin, Texas, which markets materials to abstinence instructors, saw a 150% increase in sales of its products. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), whose education programs encouraged condom use, has been quietly recasting its position on abstinence. The agency pulled from its website this summer a feature called Programs that Work, which had touted the success of eight condom-based sex-ed curriculums. Now the agency is focusing on abstinence-only programs. Says Lloyd Kolbe, director of the CDC's division of adolescent and school health and an original author of the condom feature: "It was a very limited approach."