battle is brewing on Capitol Hill between two rather similar-sounding concepts, abstinence-only and abstinence-plus education, but the differences couldn't be greater or more shocking. Despite the "abstinence" in the name, parents would be appalled to see the sexually explicit material peddled to kids in abstinence-plus programs.
Under current federal law, there are two basic approaches, abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education, and the latter receives far more cash. This issue is much larger than just money going to schools, as funds go to outside groups as part of a whole host of federal programs, including welfare and education block grants.
President Bush's campaign pledge, on which he is trying to make good, would bring abstinence, which focuses heavily on marriage and the value of waiting, and traditional sex ed, which emphasizes safe sex when "hooking up," into funding parity. But there's a big hurdle to clear in the interim. Leftist groups like Planned Parenthood are scheming to change the federal government's insistence for abstinence-only to the mislabeled abstinence-plus programs.
To get a glimpse of the practical implications of this debate, look no further than a new report released by Physicians Consortium, a socially conservative group representing 2,000 doctors. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) already monitors state- and locally funded sex-ed courses and promotes ones it finds particularly effective to middle and high schools in an official initiative called "Programs that Work."
In one exercise, students are encouraged to pursue various alternatives to sexual intercourse. So far, so good. But the recommended activities? Body massage, bathing together, "sensuous feeding," joint masturbation, and watching "erotic movies." Of course, when teens engage in these not-quite PG-13 activities, they'll no doubt be satisfied and exclaim, "Wow thank goodness I have no need to have sex now!"
Taking the prize for sheer absurdity, however, is a priceless exercise called the "Condom Race." Students are divided into two teams, and every child is handed a condom. Forming two lines, each student has to put condoms on and remove them from his or her team's designated "cucumber or dildo." The team that finishes first, wins.
Perhaps the most disturbing element of both these programs is the target demographic: 9 to 15 year olds. Rather than condemning these courses as purveyors of promiscuity to young children, the CDC lauds them as model examples for others to emulate.
If abstinence-plus becomes the law of the land at the federal level, outlandish and offensive "abstinence" programs would replace abstinence-only ones that have logged significant success in recent years.
Given that three million teenagers contract sexually transmitted diseases every year, reducing sexual activity not just making it "safer" is imperative. A recent report from the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector compiles ten separate scientific evaluations of abstinence programs throughout the country, and each course analyzed has made significant strides in keeping kids out of compromising positions.
Promoting abstinence works both in the classroom and through a public-relations campaign. Abstinence by Choice, which operates in 20 schools in and around Little Rock, Arkansas, has had a measurable impact on the lives of the 4,000 7th-9th graders it reaches each year. Sexual-activity rates among boys plunged 30 percent, and the rate for girls fell plummeted 40 percent.
Not Me, Not Now is a community-wide campaign that targets 9 to 14 year olds in Monroe County, New York, which includes the city of Rochester. The abstinence program spreads its message through billboards, paid TV and radio ads, an interactive website, posters in schools, educational materials for parents, and sessions in school and community settings. Not Me, Not Now is effective, achieving 95-percent awareness among its target demographic, slashing the sexual-activity rate of 15 year olds in the county by over 30 percent, and reducing the pregnancy rate among 15 to 17 year olds by nearly 25 percent.
Sometimes something as simple as a commitment to abstinence can yield results. Rector's analysis of several comprehensive studies found that virginity-pledge programs show progress. In one study, the level of sexual activity among teens who had taken a formal pledge of virginity was one-fourth that of their peers who had taken no such pledge. Obviously students who would be willing to take such a pledge in the first place have a natural inclination toward chaste behavior, but a 75 percent reduction is awfully compelling.
Abstinence programs work for the simple reason that kids can keep their hormones in check. Though they may seem like it at times, teenagers don't lack human willpower. Kids can, and often do, take a message of responsibility to heart.
When the slugfest starts soon over the type of abstinence education funded at the federal level, don't be fooled by the term "abstinence-plus." More than half of all federal dollars already go to programs that push comprehensive sex ed, including all sorts of information about safe sex and condoms. Given that funding disparity, money devoted to abstinence should actually promote abstinence. It's that simple.
Joel Mowbray is a freelance writer.