Abstaining From Abstinence-Only

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Ten fifth-grade boys sit by their mothers and other kin in a South Bronx school auditorium, listening to a man explain why it’s vital to talk with kids about sex. The discomfort in the room is palpable. A grandfather shoos his grandson to the refreshment table for chips. Other adults stare stonily ahead. Some boys slouch lower in their seats.

Then speaker Doug Watterson matter-of-factly announces that puberty will bring great change to these young men–change simultaneously wondrous and frightening, change filled with promise, danger, but above all, he intones, significance. At this, many boys steal careful glances at their moms, appraising their reactions, and looking visibly proud.

Project Straight Talk is a sex ed course unlike any other in New York. Due to federal funding limitations attached to New York State’s Abstinence Education and Promotion Initiative, virtually all public money available to teach young people about sex carries an extreme restriction: They must be taught to abstain from sex before marriage. So the organization sponsoring these Bronx sessions, Inwood House, looked for another way to teach young people about sex–without leaving out essential topics like extra-marital intercourse, protection against STDs and birth control. The organization considers such knowledge to be kids’ best ammunition against AIDS and unwanted pregnancy.

The program’s secret weapon is the boys’ own families. Watterson aims to get parents and other caretakers accustomed to opening up with their pre-pubescent children about sex. “For your kids, there are going to be hundreds of talks about sex from people on the streets,” he explains to the Straight Talk parents. “We want to be the ones to get them the right information.” Eventually, the hope is, parents will start providing this information at home, about the very facts of life that federally funded sex education programs, like Straight Talk, cannot teach.

Last year, Project Straight Talk finished its fifth year at Morrisania’s Community School 198, where about 85 percent of the kids are poor enough to be eligible for free lunch. This school year, it left Morrisania and moved to P.S. 33 in the Fordham neighborhood. The ratio of people living with HIV or AIDS in both areas is about three times that of New York City as a whole. These neighborhoods also have some of the highest percentages in the city of teen girls giving birth.

Through Straight Talk, explains Doreene Bryan, who coordinated the program at C.S. 198, “We’re trying to pull the babies more into the homes…before the streets catch them.”

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During the last two decades, funding for “comprehensive” sex education–teaching teens about birth control as well as abstinence–has gotten increasingly hard to find. Since George W. Bush became president, abstinence-only sex education is all the rage in the White House. Federal guidelines now dictate that to get government money for sex ed, programs must present sex outside of marriage as potentially physically and psychologically harmful and discuss contraceptives only in terms of their failure rates. Homosexuality cannot be mentioned. As a result, organizations committed to comprehensive sex education have had to think outside the box to save programs they believe in.

Inwood House’s pregnancy prevention program, Teen Choice, has brought comprehensive sex ed to a handful of New York City schools for over 20 years. Once, it subsisted largely on federal money. But due to today’s rigid rules dictating what educators can and cannot tell teens, Teen Choice has had to turn to private foundations–and so has every other comprehensive sex-ed program. The competition, according to Rebekah Diller, director of reproductive rights at the New York Civil Liberties Union, has led to a severe funding crunch for organizations providing comprehensive sex ed.

Teen Choice used to expand to one or two new schools a year. Now it’s trimming–down from 14 schools two years ago to only 11 today. “We have less access to money, and less schools, because we won’t do abstinence-only education,” explains Gladys Carrion, Inwood House’s executive director.

A recent report by Assemblymember Scott Stringer suggests that schools aren’t picking up the slack. It found that 63 percent of New York City schools failed to meet the city’s requirement that grade-school and middle-school students receive sex-ed classes from teachers certified in health education. Nor were most schools giving these students the required five to six lessons a year on HIV and AIDS prevention.

Carrion has a reputation for speaking bluntly, even when her views contradict those of Inwood House’s funders. She fiercely believes that learning how to make informed personal decisions–what she calls “emotional literacy”–extends to young people’s sexual lives, and should be taught along with reading, math and science.

It wasn’t an accident that Project Straight Talk ended up singling out boys for special attention. Inwood House’s research of its programs showed that while its Teen Choice pregnancy prevention program influenced girls of all ages to analyze their sexual behavior in light of their own welfare, the program had little impact on older boys. “Even though the boys had acquired knowledge, they didn’t act on that knowledge,” says Carrion. “Once they’ve engaged in sex and risky behavior, there’s no turning back, unlike girls, who sometimes change their mind.”

To reach boys, Carrion and Teen Choice Director Pat Maloney realized they’d have to work with them at younger ages. On reflection, it occurred to them that fifth-grade boys generally have little need for condoms or instruction in how to have intercourse safely–because virtually none of them are having intercourse yet. That meant Inwood House could still get funding from an unlikely source: the government and its abstinence-only grants. In 1999, Project Straight Talk was born, with Maloney as executive director.

Straight Talk instructor Watterson, whose warm mix of authority, encouragement and joshing captivates the boys, believes that the ban on discussing birth control and homosexuality just isn’t an issue when working with fifth graders. And anyhow, abstinence-only rules do let him answer the boys’ questions–he just can’t bring up certain subjects himself. So at his weekly workshops, they write anonymous queries–most of which still have one foot in the age of innocence. A sample: “Why do we get body odor so fast?” “Why do girls like boys?”

Some experts say that it can be harmful even at the grade-school level to limit what a sex-education teacher may talk about. In elementary school, points out Joshua Lamont, communications director at the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network, kids are already using homophobic terms like “faggot.” Teachers who can’t confront these slurs and explain what they actually mean are put in a confusing position.

The people behind Project Straight Talk are betting that parents will pick up the slack. After being taught to be frank with their kids, they can give the children information–even, hopefully, about gay sexuality–that government funders muzzle Straight Talk from providing.

To help parents get comfortable with this role, the adult-child workshops combine sex information that reflects the program’s name with activities that seem random, even goofy. At one session, parents and sons viewed a Planned Parenthood cartoon video, with a boy asking his red-faced dad questions like “What’s a period? What’s a wet dream?” This was followed by an optical illusion game perhaps more suitable for Sunday school: Copies of an ink blot were distributed, which, when stared and blinked at intently, conjured a blurry image of Jesus.

When Sandra Lopez asked for help from Straight Talk, sex education for her son Jeremy was the last thing on her mind. Her immediate concern was that Jeremy seemed out of control. Each morning at school, he would rush down the hall ripping off posters, kicking doors, cursing at people, and refusing to go to class.

“He just would not stop,” remembers Doreene Bryan, who was P.S. 198’s parent coordinator, and also the school’s parent liaison to Straight Talk.

At Sandra Lopez’ request, Bryan began working with Jeremy. She gave him a notebook and encouraged him to count to 10, then write about his feelings when he felt angry. Sometimes she asked permission to read his journal. Sometimes he let her.

Jeremy’s tantrums subsided. He started attending class and doing his homework. He made what his teachers described as “a complete U-turn.” He even emceed at his Straight Talk graduation last spring.

While Jeremy was learning to express his feelings, his mother was learning to listen–even when the subject was sex. Like many parents in Straight Talk, Sandra Lopez was afraid of her son’s budding sexuality–and especially of the trouble it might bring him with disease and premature fatherhood. She hadn’t expected to feel less anxious when the TV showed couples kissing and her two sons were around. But that turned out to be a pleasant and unexpected perk of Straight Talk. Before she attended the program, “every time one of them had a question, especially if it had something to do with change or puberty, I’d send them to their father,” remembers Lopez. “I just couldn’t deal with it. I was seeing them as my babies and my babies shouldn’t be asking these questions.”

Listening to the other kids and parents in Straight Talk, Lopez learned that her kid wasn’t the only fifth-grade boy curious about sex. She also started venturing to answer some of his questions herself. Now Bryan and Lopez share the same hope: that Jeremy’s curiosity for the facts about sex will continue as he becomes a teen, and that he’ll turn to his parents for answers.

But is the program enough to keep boys like Jeremy on the straight and narrow through their teen years, when they live in some of the city’s most distressed neighborhoods? “Straigh Talk is a beginning,” says Carrion. “It’s a good foundation.”

Kendra Hurley is an editor of Represent,the magazine by and for teenagers in New York City’s child welfare system.