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The S-word

Proponents of "abstinence-only" education say that there's no such thing as safe sex. Critics say that abstinence-only programs bar frank discussions about condoms and birth control -- even "the s-word."

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In many Louisiana schools, there's no class called sex ed. "There are some programs where you can't even say the 's-word,' -- s-e-x," says state Sen. Paulette Irons, who disagrees with that approach. "You cannot solve the problem that we have in the state of Louisiana by just saying 'don't do it,'" she says.

According to the Governor's Program on Abstinence (GPA), public schools in 45 of Louisiana's 64 parishes have now shifted to what's being called "abstinence-only" education, which promotes abstinence until marriage and forbids discussions of condoms and birth control.

This week, voters -- no matter if they choose Bobby Jindal or Kathleen Blanco -- will be electing a governor who supports abstinence-only education in this state's public schools. Opinions about this vary wildly. "I think it's a really sad commentary about how little we value our young people -- that we're putting ideology over science," says Tamara Kreinin, who lived and worked in New Orleans for two decades and is now president of the New York-based Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).

Gene Mills couldn't disagree more. "It's refreshing to have candidates who see eye-to-eye on a pro-family, pro-abstinence message," says Mills, executive director of the Louisiana Family Forum, whose voter's guide this year notes statements of support from both candidates for abstinence-only education in this state's public schools.

With two pro-abstinence-only candidates in this state, these are heady times for Mills. The state's current abstinence program -- the Governor's Program on Abstinence -- is already known as "the Foster model" among abstinence advocates nationwide, he says, and it has a bright future ahead of it. "I have a feeling that someday, it's going to be called the 'President's Program on Abstinence,'" he says.

Blanco's campaign did not provide information on Blanco's position for this story. Jindal spokesman Trey Williams says that Jindal basically agrees with the state's current law. "He favors abstinence-only education and believes that all schools should be provided with the option of doing abstinence-only education. But it should be up to the local parishes to decide, in keeping with the values of that area, how sex education should be taught," says Williams. Orleans Parish schools, for instance, teach a broader sort of sex ed, not just abstinence-only.

Even abstinence-only critics admit that the idea of kids refraining from sex sounds good. "We know that every parent wants their child to be abstinent," says Julie Redman, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Louisiana and the Mississippi Delta. But, she says, most parents also believe that their children's schools are teaching comprehensive sex ed, which includes messages about both abstinence and birth control. In many cases, that's simply not true.

Currently, the federal government spends more than $100 million each year on abstinence-only education. It's an idea that began in the early 1980s with President Ronald Reagan's "chastity" programs and then picked up speed in 1996, when Republicans attached an abstinence provision to the welfare-reform bill. Groups that receive funding from any of three federal abstinence initiatives must comply with eight points, which specify -- among other things -- that abstinence until marriage is "the expected standard of human sexual activity."

SIECUS is a vocal opponent of abstinence-only programs. Kreinin says that the programs are too limited in scope, often contain medically inaccurate information, and are allowed to mention condoms only in terms of failure rates. SIECUS outlines its complaints in detail on its recently launched Web site (www.nonewmoney.com).

For her part, Paulette Irons doesn't have a problem with abstinence, as long as it's not the only thing taught. A few years ago, Irons -- who was herself a teenage mom -- helped to place in about 40 parishes billboards that read, "Virgin -- teach your kid it's not a dirty word." She was trying to get kids and parents to talk about the idea of abstaining. But she also believes that teenagers want and need medically accurate information about sex and birth control.

"If the only education that kids are getting is 'don't do it,' then all we have done is heighten their curiosity," Iron says. "That's just natural -- they think, 'I can't have it, therefore, I want it.'"

"Can you get pregnant from anal sex?" asks one teenage girl on a recently re-run episode of the teen-written, teen-hosted television program Teen Expression.

From the studio audience, a young lady named Damonica walks up to the microphone with another question. "What about the double-up method?" where a guy wears two condoms at once, she asks. Another girl asks about different methods of birth control and their effectiveness.

On today's panel is Pamela Woodridge, a registered nurse who was herself a teenage mom. "The only method that is 100 percent is abstinence," she says, starting off. She then carefully explains the issues involved -- how anal sex can't lead to pregnancy and why wearing two condoms is a bad idea. Later, she'll field questions about the calendar method, about menstruation, about why she got pregnant, and whether she and her baby's father are still in touch.

This episode focuses on teen pregnancy prevention and teen parents. Other times, the live program's panel, its studio audience, and a steady stream of phone callers discuss topics like harmful stereotypes, education, dating and relationships, or sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Often, the most surprising moments of Teen Expression are moments that make it clear what kids today don't know.

"Young people may seem like they're sophisticated, but that may not be what's real. Because there's a lack of information and a lot of misinformation," says Euna August, executive director of the locally based Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, which works with women, youth and people of color. The Institute produced Teen Expression from 1992 to 2002, and aired it live on local cable TV every week. (It still airs in re-runs.)

If kids don't get accurate information from adults, they will get inaccurate information from each other, says Irons. "Teenagers will tell other teenagers, 'If you have sex standing up, you can't get pregnant,' or 'If you douche afterward, you can't get pregnant.' This is not good information," says Irons.

In interviews, Bobby Jindal has said that sex education "is best handled in the home, by parents." Irons agrees that that is the ideal situation and that girls whose mothers talk to them about sex are more likely to postpone their first sexual encounter.

However, says Irons, this idea is often unrealistic. She has surveyed her audiences many times when she's spoken in churches to parents and children. "I'll ask how many parents talk to their kids about sex, and all the parents' hands go up. Then I'll ask the kids if their parents have talked to them about sex. Only about five or 10 raise their hands," she says.

It turns out, Irons explains, that parents have talked to their kids about sex -- sort of. "They've told their children, 'That's nasty,' 'You shouldn't,' or 'Good girls don't do that.' That's what they consider talking to their children about sex." Irons says that, as a teenager, she believed what she'd heard from other teens -- that withdrawal prevented pregnancy. "That was my information, and I got pregnant," she says.

Misinformation from other kids is not surprising. But in Louisiana, critics say, some of the worst misinformation is coming straight from the state of Louisiana, from the Governor's Program on Abstinence.

"We've got our little bitty program here," says Dan Richey, "and we're trying to offset the messages that are bombarding teenagers every day -- hours and hours of messages about 'if it feels good, do it; actions have no consequences; and the party's all night long.'" As head of the Governor's Program on Abstinence (GPA), Richey oversees a budget of $1.6 million a year, most of it federal funding.

He describes his tour of the state two weeks ago, when 17,000 kids from about 225 schools attended GPA's fall regional conferences in Alexandria, Baton Rouge, Monroe, Lafayette and New Orleans. "Look, teenagers are starved for this message," he says. "They're looking for a way to get off this one-way train ride to nowhere. And here we have this little common-sense program that will keep them disease-free and healthy."

A few decades ago, there were only a few STDs, he says, and so the focus was solely on pregnancy. Times have changed, Richey says, but today's parents are "stuck in the '70s" -- still focused on pregnancy rather than STDs. "There is no data that suggests condom effectiveness on trichomoniasis, herpes, HPV, syphilis, gonorrhea or chlamydia," he says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that latex condoms are "highly effective" in preventing the transmission of HIV and "can reduce the risk of other sexually transmitted diseases." But Richey says that they don't teach that. "Our education teaches that there's no such thing as safe sex," he maintains. They don't mention condoms, he says, because condoms don't work.

SIECUS president Kreinin says such inaccurate assertions can be harmful. "These programs are telling kids that condoms don't work," she says. "And what I'm hearing from young people all over the country is that if condoms don't work, they're not going to use them."

Some health experts dispute other messages on the GPA Web site (www.abstinencedu.com), which is maintained by the Louisiana Family Forum:

· In the Web site's "ask the experts" section, the answer to a question about breast cancer and abortion reads, "A careful analysis of the scientific evidence does demonstrate that induced abortion, especially occurring before a woman has had a full-term pregnancy, increases that woman's likelihood of developing breast cancer." According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, this breast cancer-abortion link is inconclusive.

· In response to a question about HIV and condoms, GPA expert John R. Diggs, Jr. says that "one chemist has published several compelling articles in the rubber industry journals which indicate that there are flaws in condoms big enough to allow HIV organism passage. ... I think the answer is unknown. ... What percentage of HIV infections are due to condom leaks is unknown." Tulane University professor of epidemiology Patty Kissinger, who studies HIV and other STDs, finds this dubious. "Regular latex condoms with Nonoxynol 9 are highly effective against the sexual acquisition of HIV," she says.

On GPA's Web site, other answers claim that 95 percent of all STDs are incurable and call masturbation addictive "self-abuse" fueled by pornography, which is often found at the scene of child sexual murders. "They're lying to kids," Kreinin says. "If kids are going to be sexually active, you want them to know that most STDs are treatable and preventable."

"They're making these comments with no scientific foundation," Kissinger says. "It's against everything we're trying to do. I wish I could articulate how upset that makes me."

Richey dismisses what he calls "the eggheads" at Tulane and other universities, but says that if anyone proves any item on the GPA Web site is incorrect, he'll make sure it gets changed. "We'd be delighted to change it today or tomorrow, as soon as possible," he says. "And if it has caused anybody confusion, we definitely want to apologize in advance."

Deneisha (not her real name) is 14, her hair tied into two short braids with navy-blue ribbons. She's wearing her school uniform, eating a piece of candy while she sits, legs dangling, on the side steps of her high school.

In her backpack, Deneisha sometimes carries a condom. That's not because she's having sex, although CDC statistics show that, nationwide, about 50 percent of high school kids are sexually active. Deneisha started seeing the evidence of that in about eighth grade, she guesses, when classmates started showing up pregnant. By now, she guesses, about 75 percent of her schoolmates are having sex.

Is she going to wait until she gets married? "If I could stay a virgin until marriage, that would be good," she says. "But if I don't, I don't."

For a few months this summer, Deneisha participated in Pillow Talk, a program sponsored by the Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies that pairs younger girls, ages 13 to 18, with older girls, ages 19 to 24. Institute director Euna August explains that the program's focus is HIV prevention, so they do teach about condoms and sex ed, but they also work on self-esteem, communication and career goals. Younger girls like Deneisha attend college classes with the older girls and they throw joint slumber parties, hence the name Pillow Talk.

Deneisha mentions the self-esteem first. "Now, I look at myself with my head held high," she says. The older girls told her that she was creative and beautiful and that they like how she carried herself, she says, waving at a teacher who's coming out of school.

"I'm still a virgin -- I never had sex before," she says. "But when it comes to being tempted, I know what to do now. I can say stop." But she also knows more technical details. "I learned about dental dams for oral sex," she says, "because we were complaining at Pillow Talk that boys got protection but girls didn't get any."

She hopes to go to college to study psychology. She says that she wants to figure out how people think -- an interest that's been heightened by some people she knows who have psychiatric difficulties.

She hopes that being a psychologist doesn't mean that she has to have all the answers, because she feels like she still doesn't know herself yet. "Sometimes I go around to my friends and say, 'I know my name is Deneisha and I know I'm 14 years old, but who am I?' I guess their opinions are important to me," she says.

Deneisha is a good student and especially likes writing and biology, where she's currently studying the function of the cell. Sex ed is just like those other classes, she says. "I don't see where it's bad or good," she says.

"It's like learning about English -- just something you should know, if you ask me."

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