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The Young and the Sexless

The abstinence-only movement is flush with funds, but wheres the evidence that it works?


  • Bruce Elliott
  • Kevin Uzri

Take a good look at Kevin Uzri: You'll notice the Mr. Clean-styled baldness straight away, then the trimmed beard, the smart-but-not-nerdy glasses, the thick arms and stout chest packed neatly into a form-fitting T-shirt. You'd never know that until his early twenties, he was fat.

Take a good look at Kevin Uzri: You might think he's a physical trainer or that he toils somewhere in the local military industrial complex. You'd never know he works as a facilities manager (a job he describes as "mostly janitorial, for now") at Vanguard Church on Academy Boulevard.

Take a good look at Kevin Uzri: You might think he looks like a healthy 33-year-old man and you'd be right.

You'd never know he's still a virgin.

"It's not the first thing that pops up," Uzri says, laughing: "Hey, are you a virgin too?"

Growing up in what he describes as "the armpit of California" (that'd be Fresno), the teen-age Uzri never filled out a chastity pledge card or attended a purity rally. Uzri says that growing up in a Christian household, remaining chaste was almost a given, what was understood as the right thing for him to do. As one hears often when talking to the young and the sexless, he connects chastity to "God's plan" and staying true to his future wife even if they've never met.

"This is not an easy thing to do. It's not like it's ... I question it a lot. Is it worth it? Why am I doing this? Why am I wasting my time?" Uzri says.

Uzri, however, is holding true to his beliefs despite the fact that even among fellow Christians, he sometimes feels like an outcast. "I still feel like the odd man out 'cause I'm kind of weird, 'cause I'm a freak because I did this."

It's hard to say if Uzri would ever consider himself a freak if his adolescence had coincided with today's teen chastity movement. With its often-lavish spectacles of Christian rock and rap, celebrity chastity speakers, and ceremonies in which teens are fitted with "key-to-my-heart" chastity rings, the rituals and solidarity might have provided him succor.

Promoting abstinence

For the past decade, as influential Christian groups have mobilized to eliminate comprehensive sex ed programs, rallies designed to encourage teens to commit to their chastity until marriage have become commonplace throughout America.

As the pledge movement has taken flight, its secular cousin, abstinence-only education, has found a home in government, statehouses and school districts across the country. And federal tax dollars have been fast-coming to help pay for no-sex programs in an effort to reduce pregnancy and promote marriage as the norm for all sexual activity.

Over the last six years, taxpayers have shelled out nearly $900 million in federal money to outreach programs that promote sexual abstinence as the only way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

President George W. Bush's proposed 2005 budget includes an additional $175 million in funds, up $70 million from the start of Bush's term.

While this may sound benign to many -- after all, who's going to argue with teaching teens not to have sex? -- there's just one problem: There's little proof that it works.

True love waits

The teen chastity movement began to take shape in 1993 when two youth ministers with the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, launched True Love Waits. The organization began holding public rallies where teens signed "commitment cards" declaring they would remain pure until marriage.

The practice spread through a network of churches and youth ministries, garnering national media attention after a 1994 rally when more than 200,000 cards were displayed on the mall in Washington D.C. In the years that followed, thousands of these cards were posted to members of Congress, the Senate and then-President Bill Clinton.

During the final hours before the passage of President Clinton's 1996 Welfare Reform Act, a provision committing $50 million a year toward abstinence-only education was inserted by North Carolina Sen. Lauch Faircloth.

However, the definition on what constitutes abstinence-only education is stringent, prompting many critics to maintain the approach is designed to promote ideology than the health of teen-agers.

But Robert Rector, a policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation, claims the provision was necessary to prevent "policy hijacking" by liberals. "Many programs that advertise themselves as teaching abstinence have nothing to do with abstinence," Rector says. By way of example, Rector cites "abstinence-based" sex ed curriculums that teach teens how to negotiate healthy sexual relationships. "It's never presented as problematic. They don't even teach they should vaguely wait until they're older."

And, Rector notes, that the provision received bipartisan support. "There wasn't any controversy about it, no opposition to it at all."

Significant distinction

It's easy to confuse abstinence-only education as envisioned by Rector and others with its pedagogical twin: abstinence-based education. While they may sound alike, the distinction is significant.

Above: Brianna Vasquez (12), Deanna March (17), and Casey Monsees (15) proudly sport key-to-my-heart chastity rings, as does Jay Hitchcock (14), left. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Above: Brianna Vasquez (12), Deanna March (17), and Casey Monsees (15) proudly sport key-to-my-heart chastity rings, as does Jay Hitchcock (14), left.

What constitutes abstinence-only curriculums is defined in an eight-point federal definition known as "A through H." Each letter denotes a guideline that organizations seeking federal funds must adhere to (see sidebar).

Central to these guidelines is that the only way to prevent pregnancy and STDs is to not have sex -- period. Some tenets, however, are considerably more controversial.

Krista Anderson, vice president for education with Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, notes that several of the abstinence-only assertions are not supported by any evidence.

"Unfortunately, many times it's focused on scaring young people and giving incorrect information about disease and pregnancy prevention," Anderson said.

While abstinence-only education is receiving greater federal funding, it's not yet the dominant model for sex ed in public schools. Instead, a more comprehensive approach that stresses abstinence also teaches students about contraception and other facts of life is the norm in public schools, both nationally and in Colorado.

In Colorado Springs, nine school districts practice abstinence-based sex ed curricula. While most Colorado Springs-area districts have policies either requiring parental consent for sex education or permitting parents to opt their kids out, districts report that the number of parents who choose to opt out is minimal.

Proponents of both abstinence-based and abstinence-only education often sound alike. Both agree that abstaining from sex is the best choice for teen-agers' physical and emotional health. However, abstinence-based education provides that no matter what's said in any classroom, some teen-agers are going to be sexually active.

"You want to say that abstinence is your best option. It is the 100 percent effective choice," said Bill Albert, of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. "However, we know that many young people are going to become sexually active, so what is the message for them?"

The message, Albert says, "is to use contraception as consistently and carefully as possible."

OK to say no way

When the abstinence-only funding stream began pouring out of Washington in 1998, Colorado was ready. That year, Gov. Bill Owens created the Office of Abstinence Education. Headed by Carla Beeson, the office channels approximately $500,000 of federal Title V funds to faith-based organizations and school districts throughout Colorado. It also funds an "It's OK to Say No Way" ad campaign with short TV commercial spots airing periodically on cable networks.

However, Colorado's abstinence program is only a drop in the bucket of funding possibilities. Private nonprofits, as well as public entities like school districts, may apply directly for federal grants through the Special Projects of Regional and National Significance (SPRANS) program, as well as the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA), both of which are administered through various divisions in the U.S. Department of Health. Last year, more than $120 million worth federal funds were designated for abstinence-only education. Since 1998, the amount tallies out at $899 million.

And, in fact, as the faucets of federal dollars have gushed increasingly since the late 1990s, another trend has emerged: the teen birth rate has declined.

Between 1990 and 2002, the teen birth rate declined by 30 percent nationwide. Colorado's figures roughly mirror the trend, with teen birthrates dropping by 25 percent statewide and 26 percent in El Paso County.

And according to the youth risk behavioral survey, one of the most highly regarded gauges on teen behavior, the percentage of high school students claiming to be sexually active dropped from 54 percent in 1991 to 46 percent in 2001.

Whether these changes are the result of more teen-agers practicing abstinence or safer sex depends on your ideological bent.

Anderson, of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, notes that the last 10 years has witnessed advances in birth control. "Norplant came in in the early '90s, now we have Depo-Provera, we have the patch, we have the ring," she said. "We don't have to rely on them remembering to do something every day."

These choices, as well as more youth practicing abstinence, help explain the trend, Anderson maintains.

Focus on the Family's manager of abstinence policy, Linda Klepacki offers a different take.

Klepacki, whose work primarily focuses on national sex ed policy and research, notes that if "40 years of condom education" in public schools was effective, one would expect to witness a concurrent decline in sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy rates. Since that hasn't happened, she doesn't believe comprehensive sex ed advocates can claim to be effective.

To pledge or not to pledge

As the ideological debate rages, one important factor is often overlooked: the long-term success rate of abstinence-only education. Simply, there isn't much by way of clinical research to determine how well it works.

In 2002, the American Journal of Sociology published a study by Peter Bearman of Columbia University and Hannah Brueckner of Yale that tracked more than 19,000 teens who pledged to abstain from sex until marriage.

The findings -- which were trumpeted by abstinence-only advocates as vindication of their approach -- indicated that those who pledged chastity were more likely to delay first sex for an average of 18 months.

However, Bearman points out that while abstinence-only advocates don't usually touch on this point, his findings also showed that when pledgers broke their vow, they were 35 percent more likely (than non-pledgers) to forego contraception.

Carla Beeson, director of abstinence education for the state of Colorado. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Carla Beeson, director of abstinence education for the state of Colorado.

"It makes sense if you think about it," Bearman said. "If you've made this pledge to remain pure, you wouldn't go around carrying condoms. The cognitive dissonance would be too much."

Another finding shows that the effectiveness of students who pledge to remain chaste occurs when carried out by a sizable minority within a school or church.

"If everyone in a school pledges, it doesn't work. If no one in a school pledges, it doesn't work," Bearman said. "But if the pledge is tied to a kind of countercultural religious identity, that's when it's most effective."

Recently, Bearman released an update from his earlier study, in which he caught up with teens six years after they had made their vow of chastity.

Among his findings: Pledgers get married younger than non-pledgers, but they don't marry to have sex. Only 12 percent of the study's pledgers were virgins at the time of marriage. And, notably, the rates of STD infection remain the same for pledgers and non-pledgers alike. Bearman credits this to a number of things, namely that pledgers are less likely to use contraceptives or to get tested for STDs.

"The combination of the absence of knowledge, the lack of testing, the lower condom use creates an asymmetry between the real risk and the perceived risk," Bearman says. "Because pledgers make a public pledge, the sex that they have is more likely to be hidden."

Purity revolution

Finding that pledges are only effective when carried out by a minority of teens has led Bearman to conclude that the pledge movement has no future and that abstinence-only education does not serve the interest of public health.

Such a clinical sentiment, however, couldn't have been further from the mood at Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family's "chapelteria," (the ministry's combination chapels and cafeteria) where 250 youth pastors and activists assembled in January to talk abstinence and revolution.

The luncheon, which served as a pep talk for a massive chastity rally in Denver that drew 5,000 teens last week, was sponsored by Pure By Choice, a combined effort of Focus on the Family and the Catholic archdioceses of Colorado Springs and Denver. The group's purpose is to unite the disparate abstinence advocates throughout Colorado.

Almost entirely middle aged, almost entirely white, the luncheon crowd seemed an unlikely vanguard for "the purity revolution," the curious language used for the event's marketing.

Carla Beeson, director of Colorado's abstinence education program, welcomed the crowd with a wry remark ("I am from the government and I am your friend") and a PowerPoint presentation.

The opening slide informed lunchers, "The youth of Colorado are standing up for a counter-cultural purity revolution." The text was emblazoned above a black-and-white photo of stoic teens fiercely posturing amidst a smoky backdrop.

Father Bill Carmody, a Colorado Springs priest, understands the lingo as coming in response to the sexual revolution of the 1970s, though he says he prefers the term chastity to purity. Carmody, who held the first chastity rally in Colorado Springs in 1997, is sure to note that Pure By Choice is not for virgins only.

"What we're looking for is chastity, not necessarily virginity," Carmody said. "I find the kids that have made mistakes a lot more profound in this because they realized it wasn't all it was cracked up to be, and they recognize that this is something special and it should be preserved for marriage."

But despite the recognition that many of the teens Pure By Choice is trying to reach are no longer "pure," and that teens will invariably fall off the chastity bandwagon, Carmody remains resolute that discussing contraception is not an option.

When the Independent broached the subject, the priest grew quiet before declaring:

"Contraceptives don't work. They do not prevent STDs. They don't. It's a baldfaced lie to call it safer sex. It is not. ... For me it's no different than giving a kid a gun with one bullet in the chamber and saying, 'You got a one in six chance not to die.'"

Carmody took the luncheon stage with a coterie of teens from his youth group. One, Hillary Park of St. Mary's High School, nervously told the audience that her commitment to chastity was not driven by fear.

"It's not because I'm scared of getting a sexually transmitted disease or AIDS, but because I know that this is how God has told me to live my life," Park said. "By leading a chaste life, my future husband will know the deep love I have had for him before we have even met."

While Pure By Choice purports to be a youth organization, the luncheon seemed to revel in its PR victories. Central to Beeson's PowerPoint show was a series of headlines from the Denver Post, the Rocky Mountain News and Newsweek on Colorado's various abstinence and chastity-related programs.

"On this issue, the media loves it," Carmody said. "The media like the fact that kids are doing something that appears to be different, that appears to be stepping out; they love that so they eat this up."

Choosing the path

In Colorado Springs, the abstinence-only message is touted by several faith-based organizations. These include the Bethany Life Network, which received a $630,000 federal grant last year, and Father Carmody's youth group at St. Mary's Church.

Until two years ago, the Women's Resource Agency's Intercept program received $70,000 a year as part of a five-year federal block grant for abstinence education. Intercept is a life skills outreach group working with teen-age girls in District 2 in southeastern Colorado Springs.

Father Bill Carmody, who organized Colorado Springs first chastity rally. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Father Bill Carmody, who organized Colorado Springs first chastity rally.

Women's Resource Agency's Executive Director Kathy Stevens said that when her organization took over the program from the group that previously administered it, they also inherited the five-year grant. Though she has praise for abstinence-only advocates, Stevens said her board decided not to reapply for the federal funding.

"People choose this path (abstinence) for a lot of good reasons," Stevens said. "But it's a very spiritually founded position and we're not a religious organization, and there were times when those lines got really blurred."

Stevens said the funding came with guidelines that interfered with her staff's work. She noted that some of the girls the program worked with were sexually active and the funding requirements placed staff in a bind when they came to them with questions about sex. Since the program was receiving abstinence-only funds, it couldn't offer information on contraception.

"We would have to refer them to other groups," Stevens said.

While many have criticized abstinence-only curricula as being rooted in fear, mainly by linking premarital sex with STDs, AIDS and pregnancy, Stevens offered another take:

"I didn't see them so much being fear-based as not reality-based," Stevens says. "We're a very real-world program. Some of the girls have made different choices before they get into the program. You're not a lost soul if you've made different choices."

Not sexual objects

The future of abstinence-only education will hinge less on who's occupying the White House next January than on the findings of a four-year study that was commissioned by Congress in 1997 to evaluate the effectiveness of federally funded abstinence-only programs. The results of the study will not be released until the summer of 2005.

In the absence of any conclusive research, the skirmish between two sides of the abstinence issue is likely to continue -- even if both camps agree that teen-agers shouldn't be having sex. Perhaps it's not surprising then that a Catholic priest and a comprehensive sex education advocate might sound alike.

As Father Carmody explains:

"Ultimately this is the youth telling us as a culture that, 'you're wrong about us; we are not just sexual objects that have to be controlled like dogs or cats.'"

And as the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy's Bill Albert qualifies:

"I think that young people are smarter than most adults give them credit for."

A long wait

Meanwhile, Uzri says his commitment to chastity has never inspired a woman into becoming a seductress. If anything, says the 33-year-old virgin, once he lets the cat out of the bag they keep their distance.

"It's almost like a life of its own," Uzri explains. "Once I tell women that this is what I do, they, like, ber-respect it."

Uzri's age puts him outside the radar screen of abstinence-only organizations and church chastity cheerleaders. While some faith-based chastity advocates are reaching beyond high schools and onto college campuses, most limit their focus to grades 6-12 -- the same age group that receives all of the state federal funds.

For Uzri, staying true to his beliefs involves steering clear from strip clubs and television programs featuring scantily clad women. Uzri says none of his friends who made the pledge and are now married have regretted their decisions. However, he can't name one whose had to wait as long as he has.

"To me it's not the society or the culture that's puts pressure on me, it's my desires that put pressure on me," Uzri explains. "If I went to Amish country, it'd be easier 'cause no one's scantily clad, but I still have the desires."

To be eligible for the $121 million of federal abstinence education funding, schools, nonprofits and faith-based organizations must adhere to the following guidelines:

A. Has as its exclusive purpose, teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by abstaining from sexual activity;

B. Teaches abstinence from sexual activity outside marriage as the expected standard for all school age children;

C. Teaches that abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other associated health problems;

D. Teaches that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity;

E. Teaches that sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects;

F. Teaches that bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child's parents, and society;

G. Teaches young people how to reject sexual advances and how alcohol and drug use increases vulnerability to sexual advances; and

H. Teaches the importance of attaining self-sufficiency before engaging in sexual activity.

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