Abstaining from Reality

It was only a matter of time before the empty political sloganeering of traditional family values rooted itself in equally inane federal-government policies. On Feb. 28, President Bill Clinton signed off on a $437.5 million Republican-inspired program designed to convince Americans that sex outside marriage is morally wrong and unhealthy. While Big Brother has not yet legislated a position on masturbation, the ramifications of the government's new push for abstinence-only sex education has sent shock waves through the nation's social-welfare organizations–including in Orange County. “This is going to have a dramatic impact because it does not deal with the everyday realities of life,” said Ann Marie Wallace, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino counties. “People have sex. Teenagers have sex, and study after study shows that abstinence-only-based education does not work.”

Wallace said the new federal initiative–sparked by the 1996 welfare-reform law–is at odds with statistics that show more than half of women and three-quarters of men had intercourse before their 18th birthday.

But don't tell that to Clinton and the Republicans in Congress. For each of the next five years, their sexual-abstinence initiative (Clinton calls it a “national strategy”) will throw $87.5 million in public funds to organizations that exclusively advocate a Nancy Reagan-esque “just say no” approach to sex. California is set to be the largest single recipient of the largess. Groups that teach abstinence-only programs in the state will haul in $10 million a year.

To be eligible for the funds, an organization must teach the following government-mandated themes: the “expected standard of human sexual activity” is abstinence unless married; sexual abstinence yields social, psychological and health “gains”; and persons who engage in sex before marriage are likely to suffer psychological and physical harm. Critics of the initiative say the chief beneficiaries–at least financially–will be right-wing and religious groups working from a mixture of biblical scripture, testimonials and rah-rah motivational techniques. Comprehensive sex-education programs–like those that include abstinence and contraception components–are ineligible. Conservative lawmakers inserted a provision in the new law that bans from the program any group teaching facts “inconsistent” with the new government themes. As a result, messages about birth control and safe sex will take a back seat to abstinence-only teaching. Congress also failed to require the abstinence-only groups to file disclosure reports about their effectiveness.

Cory Richards, vice president of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive-health research group in New York, described the new program as “extremely troubling.” In a March 5 letter to colleagues, Richards wrote that the new abstinence-only education policy defies the success of more comprehensive sex education. She said that without contraception-based programs, there would be 1.3 million more unintended pregnancies nationwide each year, a result sure to increase the number of abortions. According to Richards, research proves that abstinence-only education has “no positive impact on rates of teenage sexual activity, pregnancy and [sexually transmitted diseases].”

Not everyone agrees with Richards. Priscilla Hurley, executive director of the Fullerton-based pro-abstinence group Teen Awareness/Choices, said she is excited about the new federal program. “It's time for the pendulum to swing back our way and reverse the damage that groups like Planned Parenthood have done over the years. They've become an abortion factory over there. They are telling kids that sex is good, to go ahead and do it,” said Hurley. “Abstinence works.”

Hurley, who plans to apply for the new government funds, said it ineffective to teach abstinence and contraception simultaneously. Her program encourages teens to dwell on the worst-case scenarios of sexual activity: one brochure describes the risk of having sex as “dying from suicide, AIDS, cervical cancer [and] alcohol-related accidents; of loneliness and depression; of becoming sterile; of facing a crisis pregnancy; of lifelong viral [diseases like] herpes and genital warts; [and] of deep-seated feelings of betrayal.” Her group recently received a $290,000 public grant from Governor Pete Wilson.

“If kids are told sex is harmful, then they won't do it,” said Hurley.

Wallace disagrees. “Any time teens aren't given all the facts–especially about sex–it's going to make the problem worse,” she said.

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