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We Don't Have to Take Our Clothes Off

Terry Sawyer

The abstinence education movement, by and large, fails to save young people from the perils of sex, but it may be more successful in 'saving' them in a different way, writes Sawyer, 'A cursory glance at some of the people who receive some of that $270 million that the President has set aside for abstinence education lends further credence to the notion that abstinence education is just one of many methods fundamentalist Christians have for getting God in through the doggie door when straight-up knocking won't work.'

Critics of the Bush brand of conservatism often site it's somewhat loosey goosey relationship to the truth as one of the reasons they wish he would go away like a bad rash "down there". From a war whose motivations seem to slip through analysis like sands through the hourglass to the use of bogus science fiction to justify retrograde environmental policies, George junior has helmed an administration that's more like a shadowy public relations firm than a presidency. That duplicity has trickled deep into Bush's domestic agenda, which will include an unprecedented increase in funding for abstinence education even while it slashes commitments to other programs such as financial assistance for poor AIDS patients' prescription drug costs. Proponents of this untested, experimental educational program claim to have young people's best intentions at heart, but in the final analysis one is left wondering why the Federal government should massively shift educational resources at the behest of like-minded well wishers who just might have some hidden partisan axes to grind.

There's a sliver of disingenuousness that plagued my interviews and readings about abstinence educators, a sense that they were maneuvering through questions rather than answering them. Terry Buckley, a representative from the abstinence curriculum makers, Worth the Wait, pointedly refused to answer how you could teach gays and lesbians to be abstinent until marriage when gays and lesbians can't legally get married. She simply repeated a mantra of "we have no opinion on it" as if I'd just plugged a quarter in a jukebox and requested the "Bad Answer Remix". While this statement wouldn't be at all surprising for a religious organization dispensing Bible-driven crotch guidance, it comes as a surprise for a group that, accordingly to Buckley, is based solely on "medical, legal, and socioeconomic facts".

But the "just the facts" cover story touted by some abstinence educators designed to duck the taint of religiosity works only if the word "facts" can be stretched in a generously Fox News sense of the word. The Union of Concerned Scientists described this predilection of the Bush Administration, and in my view (by extension) Republican social programs, by noting "When scientific knowledge has been found to be in conflict with its political goals, the administration has often manipulated the process through which science enters into its decisions". Whereas the Bush Administration frequently uses renegade industry-funded scientific opinion that's wholly outside accepted scientific realities (on the environment, in particular) abstinence educators prefer partial truths and tricks of emphasis, favoring a heavily weighted grab bag of favorite facts, while shunning studies and facts that might thorn their seamless conclusions.

Dr. Joe McIhaney, founder of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, has become somewhat of a standard bearer for the abstinence education movement due in particular to his elbow rubbing with the President who has appointed him to health-related government advisory panels, including the AIDS commission. But his rise to prominence has not come without much attendant controversy. A recent abstinence education piece in Salon (24 February 2004) describes some of the unsavory right-wing board members of his organization, including W. David Hager, a physician who refused in his private practice to prescribe contraceptives to unmarried women and advocated prayer as a cure for P.M.S. For an avowedly scientific organization, Hager is odd company to keep. The Salon article also details McIlhaney's reprimand from the Texas Department of Health, which accused McIlhaney of intellectual dishonesty in the presentation of data. Still, to talk to the man is to forget much of the backstory. McIlhaney is unerringly polite and kind (foregoing dinner in order to give me some time); the sort of man whose general personality makes his conclusions sound seductively rational and yarn-like, as if you're just sitting on grandpappy's knee and receiving hard knock wisdom through a pipe smoke haze.

Dr. McIlhaney discovered his passion for this issue of sex education from the experience of his private practice where he saw a "hidden epidemic" that neither colleagues nor the general public seemed to be dealing with in realistic terms. He claims that his organization has no ideological bent and that his only mission is to "find avenues to dramatically reverse this hidden epidemic". Throughout our conversation, I never could get McIlhaney to admit whether or not teenagers should be taught how to use condoms. When pressed, he'd simply launch into a protracted statistical analysis of the situations when they are not effective. Though it's clear from his institute's website that even dry humping is frowned upon as inconsistent with the "abstinence lifestyle", so it's probably a safe bet that McIlhaney supports sex education limited to the enumeration of dangers and risks, without instructions for the parachute. In his view, so-called "comprehensive" education has been a proven failure and it's time for educators to put all their eggs in the abstinence basket.

Mike Messinger is the Abstinence Education Coordinator for the state of Texas, no small feat when you consider that Texas accepts more funding than any other state, despite the fact that the funds are disbursed based on population (California has refused Federal abstinence funds). Messinger speaks with unadorned bluntness, he has the kind of insightful pragmatism you'd expect from someone who has to fill out the paperwork and parse out dry statutory requirements. Messinger feels removed from the political fray of the debate, seeing it as a product of warring extremists: "I think a lot of the controversy is out on the ends, on the extreme sides. There's a lot of us on the middle ground, where there's very little controversy and we're all working together."

Indeed, while Messinger is barred by both state and Federal law from speaking about contraceptives, he cites extensive collaborations with family planning organizations not similarly gagged in their activities. Despite his stated preference for whatever works to make teens safer, Messinger confesses that he would eschew talk of condoms because he sees it as an inconsistent message: "Philosophically, and as a father, I think the mixed messages can be a problem. I don't mind kids having information, but I think they need a single message like 'This is the way we do things'".

I confess to not understanding this thinking in the slightest. Where abstinence educators see a confusing message, I simply see nuance. In this respect, abstinence educators seem to borrow much for early and failed "Just Say No" anti-drug programs whereby all drugs were labeled equally harmful and evil, with none of the attendant risks thoughtfully weighed. But once kids realize that pot wasn't nearly as scary as they had been told, it's logical to assume that they might also question the informational edifice in it's totality, leading them astray into harm's way. Adolescence isn't a period of retardation; my guess is that narrow, paternalistic authoritarianism is just about as effective on young people as it is on adults.

When Messinger and McIhaney are pressed about their faith in abstinence education, they reluctantly relent or, in McIlhaney's case, point to the failures of comprehensive education rather than the dubious or non-existent success of abstinence education. Messinger takes a decidedly more frank tack, admitting "There's nothing that shows broadly that it's (abstinence education) really making an impact, but that's what we're trying to build up to". To that end, he cites a study that's being commissioned by the State and implemented by Texas A&M with the hopes of providing some data devoid of political motivation. But if there's no broad evidence to support to support the grandiose claims of the abstinence movement, there's mounting evidence that not only are their methods ineffective: they're dangerous.

In a study from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, abstinence education was shown merely to delay the onset of sexual activity, but most certainly not until marriage, a practice that's almost quaint in its anachronism. In an excellent Washington Post story (20 January 2003), Ceci Connelly, further details how, in some regions where abstinence education has had modest gains against pregnancy, the resultant increases in STDs have been disastrous. One of the side effects of abstinence education's incessant mocking and denigration of condom use, is that teenagers tutored under this methodology are far less likely to use one when the levee finally breaks, leaving them hyper-exposed to the dangers of sex.

One of the other interesting aspects of the report is that some of the positive effects of abstinence education came from their marketing tactic of portraying virginity as the contrarian thing to do, slanting it in terms of "coolness", hoping to appeal to teens' dual demons of simultaneously seeking the comfort of group identification and the uniqueness of individuality. You remember how it is; think Jordache jeans, the Joy Division cassette, your brief fling with anarchist doctrines, and all those friendship pins artfully woven into your shoelaces. Such things were all part and parcel of jockeying for some safety on the ledge of adolescent melodrama. This suggests that the reliance on a simple message of abstinence might garner only short-term traction if teens are incorporating it into the tumultuous world of "cool" and "uncool". The complex ways in which adolescents process the information that they're given means that the abstinence-only message is likely to backfire at the point when it's most successful: at the moment when teenagers perceive a confluence of adult approval and an influx of virgin "dorks", therefore diluting any residual "cool" that might have accumulated on virginity.

Despite Buckley, Messinger, and McIhaney's unanimous chorus of denial, I can't shake the not-so-faint whiff of religious ideology that surrounds the movement. Many of the abstinence education curriculum sites pointedly use the word "marriage" as opposed to "partnership" or "lifelong commitment", an elision that, in the current climate where they cannot "marry", totally erases the possibility of gays and lesbians having healthy sexualities using the abstinence education criteria.

Further, gay and lesbian teens face a whole different set of sexuality issues connected to the validation of their existential identity as sexual beings, as they have to forge a positive self-image in a culture where their equal humanity is still up for public debate. That educational necessity is wholly absent (in my view, intentionally so) in a curriculum that is little more than scaring kids with a horror show of slides showing weeping cankers, knotty warts, and close-up shots of milky pus. Abstinence education focuses solely on constructing a world for teens where there is nothing but risk, disease, and death, leaving more in-depth explorations of human sexuality in the dust of their mission's zealotry. Though both Messinger and McIlhaney claim (believably, I might add) that they harbor no prejudice towards gays and lesbians, and believe that their data and methods can be readily tailored to the gay community, unless that sentiment gets translated into actual educational practice, it seems to be a whole lot of meaningless talk.

Abstinence educators consistently overstate their conclusions as if the choices they advocate are inevitabilities rather than ideological commitments. For example, given the STD facts and data presented by McIlhaney and others, there's absolutely no reason that serial monogamy with tested partners isn't as safe as marriage, though it's never mentioned in any literature as desirable or possible form of coupling. A cursory glance at some of the people who receive some of that $270 million that the President has set aside for abstinence education lends further credence to the notion that abstinence education is just one of many methods fundamentalist Christians have for getting God in through the doggie door when straight-up knocking won't work.

Among those given Federal abstinence money will be dubious "crisis counseling centers", where women who seek to exercise their right to an abortion are pummeled with torturously one-sided information designed to alter their decision. Not to mention, the Federal trough will be opened to organizations that only hire "Christians" (where Christian is probably defined as right-wing Republican fundamentalist), which is yet another oddity thrown in the mix by a movement that claims to be dictated first and foremost by the preponderance of science in their favor.

Lastly, since Buckley, Messinger, and McIlhaney all conceded in varying degrees that there exists no conclusive scientific evidence in support of their position, abstinence education can't help but be compared to a cart before the horse act of Faith. One of the main reasons liberals like myself carry such a dim vision of conservatism is because instead of saying "I believe that God dictates a certain lifestyle that also happens to be very physically healthy", McIlhaney, Messinger, and Buckley all seem to be saying "I have no prior political commitments or beliefs, this has nothing to do with religion, and in fact, I am simply forced to believe this because of the factual evidence". In case you didn't catch that, that's the espionage version of the culture war. That evasion of obvious philosophical allegiances makes many of the good intentions appear to be hidden grappling hooks for power; devious means for exploiting people's good will in order to make cultural gains for a movement that never seems to be able to make its case through openness and honesty.

Ignorance is only a shield against a reality where ideals and practice mingle in a hot tub, laughing about how they can't believe they didn't hang out sooner. Young people are going to want to fuck each other, they're going to want to do drugs, and they're going to carve out identities in contradistinction to the world of adult desires. I don't mind programs that maybe make kids a little scared about taking the carnal plunge, but at the same time, be real; provide them with full, unbiased information about safe sex. The truth that everyone agrees on, though some through clenched teeth, is that consistent, correct use of a condom reduces the risks for many, though by no means all, STDs. If I had kids, I'd want them to be drug-free and asexual, too. They'd reproduce by releasing fuzzy white spores into open fields and never experience the sweet joys of sex just so that they would never have to face the possibility of pain, disease, or death. But barring such dreaming, I'd want my kids to carry a condom in their back pocket because regardless of the Russian roulette of it all, I'd rather they face five empty chamber than six full ones.

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