FEATURES | fall 2004
Ms. goes to an abstinence conference and learns that it pays to be chaste
When you have sex with a man, he unwraps your lollipop and sucks on it.
It may feel great at the time, but, unfortunately, when he’s done with you, all you have left for your next partner is a poorly wrapped, saliva-fouled sucker.
These words were actually uttered by Darren Washington, an abstinence educator, at the Eighth Annual Abstinence Clearinghouse Conference, an informational three-day trade show for abstinence educators, anti-abortion pregnancy care centers and medical professionals.
Washington was giving examples of how to teach abstinence. He then called up volunteers from the audience and used an actual lollipop to help deliver the metaphor.
The abstinence-only education movement is big business. Its product is the promotion of chastity through speaking engagements and the selling of curricula and promotional materials. There is underwear emblazoned with “No Sex” on the crotch, T-shirts, pens and bookmarks — you name the tchotchke — but the serious money involves large federal and state grants. The movement is growing and gaining influence.
Just this year, President Bush increased funding in his budget for domestic abstinence education to $270 million, in comparison to the $100 million given annually before he took office. The fund includes matching state dollars and must be spent solely for teaching “the social, psychological and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity.”
That matching fund requirement has meant that state dollars previously used to support comprehensive sex education — which teaches birth control options along with abstinence — have been diverted to abstinence-only programs.
Internationally, the administration regularly advocates an abstinence agenda. This spring, for example, the U.S. delegation was the lone nation to reject the Cairo Consensus — an international agreement to promote women’s sexual and reproductive-health needs. The ultraconservative delegates did so because of references in it to “family planning services,” “reproductive health,” “sexual health” and “condoms.”
The abstinence-only education movement — that is, the movement to teach only chastity when discussing sex with teens in public schools — gained momentum as part of the conservative right’s “family values” movement in the early 1980s. The Adolescent Family Life Act of 1981 was the first to provide federal funding for these educational programs, and it was churches and religious conservatives who applied to receive these funds.
By the time the Supreme Court ruled a dozen years later that these programs must delete direct references to religion, religious groups already had a near-monopoly on abstinence-only education, which as a result is still mostly carried out by religious groups and individuals. In public schools, these educators give reasons such as the prevention of pregnancy and STDs for remaining chaste, but for a large majority, their personal belief in abstinence stems from their religious convictions.
But the money these educators are currently receiving is just not enough. That’s why they’re attending the Eighth Annual Abstinence Clearinghouse Conference, where we witnessed Mr. Washington’s demonstration.
The South Dakota-based Abstinence Clearinghouse, which hosts the event each year, is the central location for the abstinence movement — disseminating information on funding, curricula, speakers and materials. This year’s conference was held in the lush surroundings of the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, probably the finest conference center in Nashville.
The hotel, originally a Southern mansion, is itself considered a tourist attraction with four indoor tropical gardens and 20 restaurants. The attendees paid between $395 and $500 to register for the conference, but they got more than their money’s worth with sessions like “Capital Campaigns,” “Fearless Fundraising” and “Moving Your Center Towards Implementing Marriage as Part of Welfare Reform” (read: How To Receive Federal Funds From Welfare Reform Legislation).
The attendees were for the most part Christian, though there was one Muslim woman identifiable by her veil. Roughly one in seven was a man; one in 10 was African American; and two women were Asian — the delegates from Hong Kong. The men wore button-down shirts tucked into slacks; the women’s outfits — even those of the two former beauty queens turned abstinence speakers — were modest, shirts tucked in, pants not too tight.
Leslee Unruh, the president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, wore cowboy boots, white with giant red hearts, which she called her abstinence boots. To convince resistant schools, the sessions contained useful rhetoric to take before education boards and health educators. Did you know, for instance, that Planned Parenthood is a “pimp”?
“They are the people who are profiting from getting young people to commit sex acts,” said Michael Schwartz of Concerned Women for America.
And the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S. (SIECUS), the nonprofit research and lobbying group that supports comprehensive sex education, “wants young people to have as many orgasms and in as wide a variety as they can have,” according to Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation.
Even worse, “SIECUS is an archaic, religious sex cult” and “pornography is training all your sex educators,” said the former “Captain Kangaroo” singer-songwriter Judith Reisman, who is called the “mother of the abstinence movement.”
It was quite a week for your intrepid Ms. reporter. But the larger issue is that abstinence doesn’t work to meet the real social needs of teens today. Without comprehensive sex education, students lack the most basic information about their bodies and about birth control methods so that when they do have sex, they don’t have the information necessary to protect themselves and their partners. The abstinence movement even teaches that condoms are not effective in preventing the spread of STDs.
Studies by independent researchers indicate that at best no reliable evidence exists as to whether abstinence-only programs work — meaning that it’s unclear whether they prevent teen pregnancy and lessen cases of STDs.
A study commissioned by the Minnesota state heath department found that sexual activity actually doubled among junior high students who took part in an abstinence-only program. Researchers surveyed 413 kids from three Minnesota counties who were taught an abstinence-only curriculum created by the state’s 5-year-old initiative Education Now and Babies Later (ENABL) — funded by $5 million from the state and federal governments.
Over the course of a year, those who said they were sexually active increased from 5.8 to 12.4 percent, and those who said they would probably have sex before finishing high school rose from 9.5 to 17 percent.
Things aren’t getting better. In Texas — a state with the highest birthrate among teenagers ages 15 to 17 — the state’s education agency recently approved two textbooks that include no strategy except abstinence for preventing pregnancy, STDs and HIV/AIDS, according to the Texas Freedom Network. Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended that programs emphasize both abstinence and contraception, such as the “ABC” program to prevent AIDS in Africa (Abstinence, Be faithful, use Condoms).
Even George W. Bush was quoted in June saying that condoms should be used “when appropriate,” but Clearinghouse president Unruh assured attendees that the president personally told her, “It’s abstinence until marriage — period.”
The Heritage Foundation admits, in its report “What Do Parents Want Taught in Sex Education Programs,” that 75 percent of parents believe that contraception should be taught to their kids, but the foundation refuses to advocate giving parents what they want.
Its report reads: “There is no logical reason why contraceptive information should be presented as part of an abstinence curriculum. …[N]early all abstinence educators assert that it would substantially undermine the effectiveness of the abstinence message.”
So, whatever happened to decent sex and health education? It’s been hijacked by conservatives promoting their ideological religious agenda despite the absence of evidence that abstinence programs benefit those they’re meant to serve. But you have to admit — it’s not a bad way to make a living.
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