A bitter fight waged in the public schools is nothing less than a battle over core values.

America’s culture wars have landed in our schools. This time the issue is not whether students are allowed to pray or hold Bible studies, but what we should teach them about sex. In this age of AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases, the stakes are high. Below, journalist Andres Tapia profiles the many Christians involved in this latest battle. On our editorial page (p. 22), sociologist and popular author Tony Campolo shows how Christians can show their support for these efforts and how we can help our teenagers to be moral and stay alive.

“Sex is supposed to be about fun, pleasure, family, and babies—not about disease and death.”

Pat Socia, a sex-education consultant from Texas, has captured the attention of 400 students and their parents at Downers Grove North High School in suburban Chicago. During the next hour and a half, she gives a compelling and disturbing presentation of how perilous it can be as a teenager in the age of STDs (sexually transmitted diseases), AIDS, and drugs. Hers is also an inspiring presentation, whose core message—no sex until marriage—many consider a lifesaver.

Others, however, are alarmed. They feel the abstinence message of Socia and others like her is, at best, naive and, at worst, the intrusion of a political and religious agenda that must be silenced in our public schools.

The volatile debate taking place in public schools throughout the country is nothing less than a battle over core values. Is sex before marriage healthy or immoral? One view, the religious and moral, is rooted in the belief in a Higher Authority who has revealed what is right and wrong. The other view, a naturalistic and humanistic one, is rooted in the belief that with so many different beliefs, no one has the right to say what is right and wrong. What is at stake is the best way to stem the casualties of the AIDS epidemic. Except for abortion, there is no greater flashpoint for this worldview clash than the sex-education debate.

Emotions run strong, and the battles can be fierce. Planned Parenthood, for example, is suing the school board of Jacksonville, Florida, for their use of the junior-high “Me, My World, My Future,” abstinence-only curriculum developed by Teen-Aid. According to an internal memo, Planned Parenthood hopes that “a successful challenge will give Planned Parenthood a powerful tool with which to fight the senior high school version of this curriculum as well as the other major ‘contender’ Sex Respect. “One of their main objections is that they feel these curricula reflect a moralistic and religious point of view that is inappropriate for a public-school setting.

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Two years ago, when the New York City Board of Education voted to distribute condoms in the city’s schools, pandemonium broke loose in a packed gallery of the measure’s opponents and supporters. The pro-condom-distribution people cheered loudly and created an in-your-face gauntlet through which the opposition, many of whom were Christians, had to walk to exit the room. “We were barraged by epithets and cries of ‘Religious bigots!’ ” said one attendee, the Reverend Mr. Michel Faulkner.

Yet, a year later, the same board ruled that abstinence had to be the primary method of prevention to be taught in the schools. This time the announcement in the same gallery was received with some “Praise the Lords.” Lawsuits against the ruling are pending.

In the Midwest, the tide shifts continually. A complaint by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the use of Sex Respect materials, an abstinence-only curriculum, in some Wisconsin public schools has had a chilling effect on districts considering the curriculum. The Illinois legislature, on the other hand, has mandated that abstinence be taught as the expected norm and continues to renew Sex Respect’s yearly $200,000 grant for curriculum development.

A growing movement

Five years ago an abstinence-only approach was almost nonexistent in schools. Today a passionate campaign to promote abstinence-only curricula is being waged by a national informal network of thousands of parents, teachers, professional lobbyists, and politicians, many of whom are Christians. They are significantly influencing the sex-education debate.

While the success of the movement is difficult to gauge, Douglas Kirby, director of research at Education, Training, and Research (ETR) Associates in Santa Cruz, California, says he receives far more queries about abstinence-only programs than about any other sex-ed curriculum. In the past five years, he notes, abstinence-only programs have become “an increasingly significant presence in schools.” Pat Socia in 1992 alone spoke to over 150,000 students. There are currently 15 abstinence-only curricula, with the largest, Illinois-based Sex Respect, used in over 2,000 schools, and Spokane-based Teen-Aid receiving orders from all 50 states.

The emergence of the abstinence-only message as a sex-education alternative can be traced to the creation of Title XX by the Reagan administration, which set aside $2 million a year to support the development of abstinence-only curricula. Sex Respect was one of the groups that developed its curriculum from this money. Because the material was to be used in public schools, the curriculum could not contain any religious arguments. This left Sex Respect’s author, Coleen Kelly Mast, who had previously written curricula from a Catholic perspective, with the challenge of writing solely from a public-health and psychological basis.

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Sex Respect opponents feel Mast did not even come close to burying the “moralistic and sectarian tone.” Sex Respect’s executive director, Kathleen Sullivan, on the other hand, adamantly denies that theirs are religiously based curricula. As Pat Socia says, “I’m talking public health. I can’t help it if what is the best health practice is also in the Bible as the right thing to do.”

In The Classroom: Teenagers Speak

Six students in Loretta Johnson’s lifestyles class at Roberto Clemente High School in Chicago’s inner city are spitting into a glass of water and passing it to the person standing next to them. Johnson then has each student reveal the index card they have been holding face down. “Syphilis” one card reads. Another, “Herpes.” A third, “AIDS.” A fourth, “Virgin.”

She has the students then pass the card to the person they passed their glass of water to. The exercise is repeated. Now each student is holding a glass with the bodily fluids of two other people. The students groan in disgust, but the point is not lost on them. Johnson concludes: “When you sleep with someone, you are sleeping with all the people that person slept with before you. And the virgin? Not only has she lost her virginity but she has increased her chances of getting any number of diseases, including AIDS.”

Johnson believes that “if they can say no to drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, they can say no to sex.”

A surprising number of students concur with Johnson. “Ms. Johnson really cares for us. She will even talk to us after class about stuff,” says Elsie, a senior. “Her class really changed my attitude.” Elsie has gone so far as to leave boyfriends stranded as she took off in their cars for not heeding her noes to their sexual advances.

Senior Danny says, “Those condom manufacturers’ advertisements on TV keep promoting condoms but don’t say they are not 100 percent. They seem more interested in the money than in people.” Markece, a sophomore, adds, “Before the class I never heard of that word abstinence. I didn’t know about all those diseases. The class helps me get out of pressure situations.”

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Getting the message

For all the debates and strategies of activists and administrators, the crucial issue is how these competing messages “play” in the classroom. While the responses are varied, teenagers seem surprisingly open—given society’s stereotypes of them—to the abstinence message. According to a USA Today poll, 63 percent of teens felt troubled by the safe-sex message because it might condone casual sex (in comparison, fewer adults—54 percent—felt the same way). Jim Coughlin, the author of Project Respect’s curriculum for high schoolers, says, “The most common thing we hear from kids is, ‘Why hasn’t anyone told us this before?’ ”

Wearing a T-shirt that says, “Don’t bother me,” Latoya, a senior at Roberto Clemente, explains what she learned from using the Sex Respect program: “I’m more interested in education than sex. Having a baby now would mess up all my plans. I look at the mistakes my friends make. During freshman year there were 20 of us who made a vow not to have sex while in school. By my senior year, only four of us had not gotten pregnant. The other day I saw one of my friends from the original group of 20. ‘Oh, you’re pregnant,’ I said.

“ ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘it’s my third.’ ”

Not all teenagers can abide what is being asked of them in these programs. Dave, a sophomore at Step, an alternative-education high school in Arlington Heights, Illinois, attended one of Pat Socia’s presentations: “She made sense, but it ain’t me. It won’t change my behavior. I can’t think about AIDS all the time. With all the things going on in the world, if you don’t die of AIDS, you’ll die of something else, like a gang shooting or from a drug OD. I’ve been tested three times. Once I get tested positive I’ll stop having sex. I’m not scared for myself, but I don’t want to pass it on.”

Still, the hope is that for others, the message will get through. Like it did for one young man, who told the presenter, “If you’re right, it really messes things up for me. It means I have to change.”

By Andrés Tapia.

Christians who use Teen-Aid or Sex Respect’s curricula are careful to keep their moral arguments to themselves. They feel the curricula help them do so while getting out a message they think is best for their students and congruent with their own personal beliefs. “I can argue for abstinence passionately and truthfully—the Centers for Disease Control [CDC] backs up my statistics—without once having to mention God or right or wrong,” says Socia.

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Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and other groups see these abstinence-only advocates as fronts for the Religious Right. “They are well funded by the fundamentalists. I believe they are also fronts for prolife groups,” says Trish Moylan Torruella, Planned Parenthood’s director of education, who notes the strong antiabortion stance of the abstinence-only curricula. What follows are the more detailed arguments from both sides.

Teaching abstinence only

The safe-sex message “is destroying our communities,” says Xavier Flores, an AIDS-prevention counselor in East Chicago, Indiana. “They are telling our people that using a condom will save them from AIDS. That simply is not true.” A burly, yet genial Hispanic, Flores is visibly angry. Stressing that there is an 18 to 20 percent failure rate among teenagers using condoms to prevent pregnancy, he argues that the “safe sex” message lulls young people into a false sense of security: “If we can have so many condom babies, imagine how many condom AIDS cases we’re getting? A sperm is 500 times larger than the AIDS virus. Also, you can only get pregnant during a few days each month, but you can get AIDS any day. Why are we asking our children to trust their lives to a piece of latex?”

Four percent of condoms break, and 2 percent leak. Furthermore, according to a letter by the editor of Rubber Chemistry and Technology, C. M. Rolands, “The rubber comprising latex condoms has intrinsic voids of 5 microns. The AIDS virus is only 0.1 micron.”

As Socia puts it, “Condoms are just not user friendly.” She refers to one list she saw that had 14 things to remember when using a condom. She questions whether teens will remember them “in the heat of the moment.” Adds Sullivan, “Ten years ago Planned Parenthood was saying that the condom was the worst way to go in preventing pregnancy. Why are they now extolling its AIDS-prevention virtue?”

“The safe-sex message is also racist,” says Flores. “The safe-sex people come into our Hispanic and black neighborhoods and tell us that since we don’t have it in us to say no to unhealthy sex, they might as well give us condoms. Besides, you’ve got to be clueless and culturally insensitive to distribute condoms in heavily Catholic communities. Our role model is a virgin!”

Abstinence proponents feel teenagers are in great peril. In the past two years, AIDS among 14-to 23-year-olds has gone up 72 percent. And the threat crosses class lines: 1 out of 500 college students is HIV positive; in New York City, AIDS contracted largely through intravenous drug use or prostitution is the leading cause of death for women between 20 and 29. “Because AIDS can have an incubation period of up to ten years, many of the 20-year-olds coming down with AIDS must have contracted it while in high school,” says Flores.

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One reason teenagers are at such risk is because those who are sexually active tend to have many partners in a short period of time. As C. Everett Koop put it when he was U.S. surgeon general, “Never was a disease so tailored to wipe out an entire generation.”

“AIDS isn’t the only problem,” says Socia. “According to the CDC, 6,000 teenagers contract an STD each day. Currently, one in seven teenagers is infected. Twenty years ago there were four types of STDs among teenagers; today there are over 30. Some STDs have no cure, and some lead to infertility.” Adds Flores, who does street counseling, “You used to see this stuff only in prostitution circles.”

Yet another concern is the negative emotional impact of premarital sex on teenagers. Mary Ann Watson, a counselor at Downers Grove North High School, articulates what many feel: “Personally, I hope students don’t become sexually active. What I’ve seen it do to boys and girls is really traumatic.” Abstinence advocates argue that this might be why nonvirgins are six times more likely to commit suicide. Socia passionately declares that “teens aren’t looking for sex. They are looking for love, acceptance, and security.”

According to Socia, many girls, who are in environments where they are treated “like animals in heat,” want help. Delia Perez, a Red Cross staffer, says, “We have to empower the girls.” Part of this empowerment involves passing on explicit guidelines to help youth say no to premarital sex. Among them: Don’t be alone together; don’t put yourself in situations where temptations will be great; keep every zipper zipped, every button buttoned, and every piece of clothing on. Slogans such as “What part of No don’t you understand?” and comeback lines such as “Only wimps try to prove they are men” are offered for teens wanting to walk what Socia calls the “Freedom Road.” She explains, “Abstinence is true sexual freedom, You don’t have to worry about getting pregnant, getting an STD, or dying of AIDS. Not to mention dealing with the emotional effects sex has when the relationship breaks up.”

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The case against abstinence

But critics of the abstinence-only campaign argue with equal passion that it simply is not realistic to teach only abstinence when so many teenagers are sexually active. Alarmed at the rapid inroads the abstinence-only movement is making, these critics claim it puts sexually active teens at even greater risk by failing to provide any information at all on how to reduce their risks of pregnancy, STDs, and AIDS.

Says Planned Parenthood’s Moylan Torruella, “Teen-Aid and Sex Respect fail to acknowledge that sexuality is a powerful human force not easily harnessed with ‘just say no’ messages to young people who are going through the complicated developmental process of adolescence. I wish there were absolutes; that if I told teenagers to wait to have sex till they married they would do it, but that is just not going to happen.” She also admits she is “not interested in repressing teen sexuality. I want to help give teenagers the skills needed to lead healthy sexual lives.”

Even though the “realists” will talk about how abstinence is the safest way to go, their approach assumes teenagers will have sex anyway, and so the best way to help them is to teach them how to protect themselves. Also, in the name of pluralism, they refuse to discuss the issue of sexuality in moral terms and attack anyone who does.

“Project Respect’s approach assumes premarital sex is wrong and focuses on two-parent heterosexual families—where does this leave families that include a parent without a marital partner?” asks Moylan Torruella. She adds: “These programs fail to acknowledge different viewpoints. This is offensive and downright hurtful.” Most critics of Teen-Aid and Sex Respect feel either uncomfortable with or angry at the abstinence-only movement’s “absolutes.”

Abstinence-only critics Susan Wilson and Catherine Sanderson are explicit about their humanistic assumptions. They say that “Limiting the adolescent tendency to explore, question, and ultimately come to his or her own conclusions stifles autonomy and a sense of self. In Sex Respect, the adolescent’s ability to make decisions is only valued when the ‘right’ choice is made.” They conclude their evaluation with, “This curriculum ignores the last 40 years—the feminist revolution, the birth-control revolution, the sexual revolution—in favor of an ideology of the 1950s.”

Abstinence-only opponents shudder at the fact that no contraceptive information is presented. Says Michelle Cahill, executive director of Youth Development Institute in New York City, “The abstinence-only message exposes teenagers to the deadly consequences of their actions. We’ve got to try to minimize these consequences.”

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Which approach has had the best results among teenagers—a population in which 73 percent of its members will have had intercourse at least once by the time they graduate? Both sides, not surprisingly, cite conflicting figures on which approach is more effective in changing teenagers’ sexual behavior.

Schools using Sex Respect’s curriculum, according to Sullivan, have documented that two years after students took the program, they were 44 percent less likely to have gotten pregnant than those in a control group. These results are consistent regardless of whether the school is in an urban, suburban, or rural setting. “Sexuality, Commitment, and Family,” one of Teen-Aid’s programs, is credited with decreasing pregnancies from 147 to 20 in San Marcos Junior High in San Marcos, California, after only two years of use.

Opponents, however, question the methodology used to obtain these results. “None of these studies have been submitted to peer-review journals,” says ETR’s Douglas Kirby, a researcher. The main evaluator of Sex Respect’s curriculum, Stan Weed, reports that he is working on articles he will be submitting soon for publication in peer-review journals.

Abstinence-only advocates point to another study to support their case. In Adams City High in Commerce, Colorado, the first in the U.S. to hand out condoms, the birth rate soared to 31 percent above the national average after three years of the program, according to USA Today. For the abstinence advocates, this finding confirms one of their greatest criticisms of the safe-sex programs. Says Sex Respect’s Sullivan: “They have been implementing their sex-education programs stressing birth control for 30 years, and during the same time teenage pregnancies and teenage STDs have increased exponentially.” According to government figures, between 1970 and 1987, teen pregnancies have increased from 300,000 to 750,000 a year, even though more teens are using contraceptives.

What about programs that both strongly advocate abstinence but also teach birth control and disease-prevention techniques? Marion Howard, clinical director of the Teen Services Program at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, has developed a curriculum (“Postponing Sexual Involvement”) that strongly advocates abstinence but also has a birth-control and disease-prevention module. She says, “Everyone wants a simple solution to the problem of teen sexual activity, but there is none. We can’t deny people information about protecting themselves—these are their bodies.” One-third of those participating in her program were less likely to engage in intercourse between eighth and twelfth grade than members in a control group. Another program, Douglas Kirby’s “Reducing the Risk,” claims that some time after going through the program, 24 percent delayed sex and half started using protection.

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The debate is especially heated and confused about whether birth control-based sex education encourages or discourages early sexual involvement.

Planned Parenthood, not surprisingly, insists that it does not encourage early sexual involvement. But a couple of hotly debated studies cast doubt on this assertion. A 1986 study published in the Alan Guttmacher Institute’s Family Planning Perspectives, by Deborah Anne Dawson, concluded that prior contraceptive education increases the odds of starting intercourse for 14-year-olds by 50 percent. The institute, a research organization which was formerly part of Planned Parenthood, insists, however, that findings at the 14-year-old level were an exception and therefore statistically insignificant. They point out that no other age level reported this type of correlation, and that the carefully defined parameters of the study have been overlooked by abstinence-only proponents who enthusiastically use the study to support their cause.

Still, a Lou Harris poll conducted for Planned Parenthood the same year revealed that those who had had comprehensive sex education were more likely to have had intercourse than those who had had no sex education (46 percent versus 34 percent).


Both sides share a genuine desire to save teens from destroying themselves. But besides coming to the issue from differing moral outlooks, they also disagree on strategy.

Sex Respect’s Sullivan admits that 15 to 20 percent of the kids will take terrible risks and are not going to listen, no matter who says what. Her target is the 60 to 80 percent in the middle—the kids who could go either way depending on what they are presented with. “They need strong, positive reinforcement. Seeing teen sex as a problem that won’t change is despairing.” Sullivan believes that only if these kids are convinced there is not a quick fix will they weigh the risks and take the appropriate action. This approach is referred to as the “directed-choices method.”

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Opponents cringe at this approach. “Sex Respect does not engage young people to make healthy choices for themselves,” says Michelle Cahill. “Programs that rely on fear tactics, ignore diversity, and take away choice are unrealistic and can only fail in the long run,” adds Moylan Torruella. The approach Cahill and Torruella embrace is “values clarification,” a method to help teenagers figure out what they believe rather than tell them what to believe.

Flores reacts. “We’re in a burning schoolhouse. Do you ask the kids how they feel about the situation or do you haul them out?” Josh McDowell, author of the religiously based “Why Wait?” curriculum, also reacts: “I don’t want my children dating someone who has been indoctrinated with the right to decide his or her own sexual conduct.”

Critics of abstinence programs object to the use of fear to teach teenagers the right behavior. Socia counters, “If a little fear of getting a deadly disease will help them make the right choice, then I feel that’s a pretty healthy decision. I’m out here not to scare kids to death but to scare them to life.”

And why not teach both abstinence and safer sex methods like several of the Planned Parenthood and similar programs do? “You undermine the abstinence message if you are also showing kids how to use condoms,” says Sullivan; “it’s a terrible contradiction.” Adds Flores, “That kind of mixed message is simply a message to continue in promiscuity.” In the midst of the polarization, both sides have influenced the other. Sullivan claims that “it’s because of us that they are not using the term safe sex anymore but safer sex.” She adds that the other side is now more eager to advertise the abstinence component of their curricula. On the other hand, Teen-Aid and Sex Respect have carefully read the critiques published of their programs and have made modifications to address places where there were factual errors or statements that could be misunderstood.

Yet these are minor influences. Ultimately, the heated sex-education debate demonstrates that a great divide is forming in our society, one with no middle ground. Pastor Michel Faulkner’s experience as cochair of the HIV/AIDS Advisory Council of the Board of Education in New York illustrates this. In one of the council’s first meetings, he put to a vote a statement he felt was an easy consensus item. The statement was overwhelmingly defeated. The defeated statement? “Children should not be having sex.”

Loren Wilkinson is the writer/editor of Earthkeeping in the ’90s (Eerdmans) and the coauthor, with his wife, Mary Ruth Wilkinson, of Caring for Creation in Your Own Backyard (Servant). He teaches at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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