No sex is safe sex for teens in America

On a bright but breezy Texas winter morning at the high school on Clear Creek Road, next to the vast Fort Hood military base, the talk is all about sex.

Or, rather, about how you absolutely must not do it or anything close to it outside wedlock. It is part of the sexual revolution in US schools called Abstinence-Only Until Marriage, a programme being cascaded with funding from the Bush administration.

Karen Koehler smoothed her demure skirt, adjusted her green blazer and looked out intently at the class as the 15- 16 -and 17-year-olds fidgeted in their seats.

‘Give me an example of risky behaviour,’ said Koehler, sex education teacher at Shoemaker High School, Killeen, about an hour north of the state capital Austin.

The teenagers started with easy stuff. ‘Cheating in tests,’ called out one.
‘Smoking,’ said another. Not what Koehler was after.

‘Something to do with sexuality. What about girls in short skirts?’ Silence from the class of 25 pupils. ‘If you wear provocative clothing it makes people think things about you. Guys, what does that say to you - she is loose? She is easy?’ asked the teacher.

The boys tittered. Koehler ignored them: ‘Girls, how far are you going to take the first date?’

From this educational foreplay, the lesson progressed to the dangers of sexually transmitted infections and an insistence that condoms do not prevent disease or pregnancy.

The climax came with the message now being taught in schools across the US: abstaining from sex until marriage is the only form of protection. The federal government will put around $170 million into abstinence-only sex education programmes in schools in 2005, a $30m increase over last year.

Bush was pushing for the total to go up to $270m - similar to the money spent on the nation’s family planning services, which are experiencing cuts as conservative forces crack down on contraception and abortion.

The abstinence funds go to educational, medical or religious groups at local level who devise sex curriculums for the schools. There is no federal quality control of the material, just the edict to teach abstinence and limit discussion of contraception to failure rates.

At Shoemaker High School they use an abstinence-only course popular across Texas called Worth the Wait - a trademarked brand.

Koehler continued her lesson by listing the sexual activity that fell in the ‘danger’ category. ‘Regular intercourse; anal intercourse; oral intercourse; skin-to-skin under clothes; genital contact; and there are some problems with deep passionate kissing - these are risky behaviours.’

Holding hands, hugging with clothes on and ‘light kissing’ were OK, the teens were told. Koehler then ran through the gamut of sexual diseases. ‘How are you going to keep yourself safe?’ she asked the class. ‘Abstinence,’ they chorused.

‘What do you also hear will keep you safe?’ she asked. ‘Condoms,’ they answered.

‘Do they keep you safe?’ she asked. ‘No,’ they chorused.

Koehler believes young people are unreliable in their use of contraception. She is banned by law from promoting the benefits of correctly used condoms.

According to the Centres for Disease Control, the Sexuality Information and Education Council and most medical and sexual health associations worldwide, condoms give up to 97 per cent protection against pregnancy and help prevent gonorrhea, syphilis and chlamydia. In Texas textbooks are being rewritten to remove any mention of the advantages of contraception.

It is all part of the radical conservative backlash, much of it evangelical-inspired, against the lurid diet of sexual imagery in American music, movies, media, and now the internet.

Bush’s home state of Texas, and Florida, where brother Jeb is governor, are two of the largest recipients of federal abstinence-only funding - around $7m annually. Only California and Maine have no abstinence teaching in their state schools. Many schools are backed up by youth groups and churches promoting abstinence as cool. Girls can buy ‘purity beads’ and ‘true love waits’ bracelets and chastity T-shirts. According to Mike Goss, president of Abstinence America, a government-funded campaign in Houston, a bestseller has the slogan: ‘Virgins make the best lovers in marriage - I’m prepared to wait’, while boys go for: ‘Abstinence - the new sexual revolution.’

The US National Survey of Family Growth just reported the latest figures, from 2002, showing that 30 per cent of American girls aged 15 to 17 have had sex compared with 38 per cent in 1995 and 31 per cent of boys, compared with 43 per cent in 1995. Teenage pregnancy rates show the US birth rate for 15- to 19-year-olds fell from 62 per 1,000 in 1991 to 43 per 1,000 in 2002. The top five states for teen pregnancy are in the south, with Texas fifth highest at 59 per 1,000.

In 2002, the equivalent rate in France was 10 per 1,000 females, in Canada 25 and in Britain, which has the highest rate in western Europe but also has comprehensive sex education, it was 28.

Joint research by Columbia and Yale Universities found that 88 per cent of Americans between the ages of 12 and 18 who pledge abstinence do not wait until they get married to have sex, compared with 99 per cent of ‘non-pledgers’.

Teens who ‘pledge’ wait around 18 months longer than their peers to have sex and have fewer partners, but once the pledge is broken only 40 per cent of males use condoms compared with 60 per cent of ‘non-pledgers’.

‘By 18 to 24 they catch up with their non-pledging peers in sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy rates,’ said Professor Peter Bearman of Columbia University.

Abstinence-only policies go back to the early years of Ronald Reagan and intensified while Bill Clinton was in office, when Republicans slipped a provision into welfare reform legislation. Bush began his crusade from the mid-Nineties when he was governor of Texas.

‘This is censorship. Worse, this is ideology trumping good education and public health,’ said Gloria Feldt, president of national birth control and health screening provider Planned Parenthood.

She was born in Temple, a small town 20 minutes from Killeen. Pregnant at 15 and a mother of three by 20, before the pill was invented ‘and saved my life’, Feldt said that abstinence-only education in Temple in the Fifties meant silence. Today it means fear.

Meanwhile, gynaecologist Patricia Sulak, director of Worth the Wait, said: ‘If you set the bar high more people try to reach it. I want to get to these kids before they show up here pregnant or with a sexually transmitted disease.’

There are more radical curriculums out there than Sulak’s. A recent report led by Californian Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman revealed some federally funded programmes taught pupils that Aids could be spread through sweat and tears, abortion led to sterility and suicide, pregnancy could result from touching someone’s genitals and oral sex could give you cancer.

A national report on the efficacy of abstinence-only programmes has been postponed. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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