Abstinence-only curricula comes under fire

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Elaine Jones of Kenwood Academy

photo by Mary Hanlon

Elaine Jones of Kenwood Academy

Three phrases stand out in large, white letters on the long blackboard: “To abstain,” “sexual activity” and “subliminal seduction.” Close to 50 freshmen shift in their desks, watching the teacher or talking to their peers in the crowded, windowless classroom at Kenwood Academy.

Elaine Jones blows on a whistle around her neck to gain the students’ attention and launches into her lesson on subliminal seduction—how teens are bombarded with images of sex every day, and how they can resist those seductions and abstain from sexual activity. Not just now or in the near future, she says, but until marriage.

“What is a sex act?” Jones asks the class, pointing to the “sexual activity” portion of the blackboard. One student, who has been tossing out jokes throughout the class, raises his hand from the corner. “Say, if I was a virgin,” he asks. “If I had oral sex, I’m not a virgin?”

The students look expectantly at Jones. The guidelines of the abstinence-only curriculum certainly do not consider oral sex acceptable behavior for unmarried persons, but it is an act Jones says the teens are curious about.

Jones explains that technically, if a girl engages in oral sex, “she is still a virgin. But, in her sexual abstinence, she is not a virgin anymore.”

Along with other sources, Jones teaches from an abstinence-only curriculum called Project Reality, created by an independent organization of the same name and used in 525 middle schools and high schools in Illinois, including 130 in Chicago Public Schools.

But abstinence-only curricula like Project Reality are coming under increasing fire. The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois recently sent a letter to some 1,300 school superintendents across the state, warning that abstinence-only programs often include false or misleading information about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases—for instance, that condoms are not effective in preventing the spread of STDs.

According to the ACLU, recent studies show that abstinence-only programs do not prevent teens from engaging in premarital sex and may deter young people from using condoms or from getting tested and treated for STDs.

Yet under policies put in place by the Bush Administration, schools that want federal funds for sex education can only receive grants if they agree to teach solely from abstinence-only curricula, says Lorie Chaiten, director of the reproductive rights program at the ACLU of Illinois.

Jobi Peterson, executive director of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health and a former CPS administrator, says very few students receive adequate information in health classes because schools lack the resources to pay for comprehensive sex education programs. The caucus is lobbying legislators to provide federal funds for comprehensive sex education curricula, which the group notes would include a strong message in favor of abstinence but also medically accurate information on reproductive health, STDs and pregnancy prevention.

“Teachers really do want to give more information to young people but they just don’t have the curriculum or materials,” Petersen says.

The issue is particularly critical in Chicago, where teen birth rates have declined in recent years but remain higher than the averages—in some communities, more than double—for the state and surrounding Cook County suburbs.

Reality far from ‘abstinence only’

In the classroom, however, sticking to a strict outline of “abstinence only” is not always practical. Teens bring questions and experiences that fall outside of these rigid parameters. And while students recognize the wisdom behind abstinence-focused teachings, they are also the first to point out the irony of such instruction in schools filled with pregnant students and teen parents.

“Every time you look up, someone’s pregnant,” says Kiyona Jackson, a soft-spoken senior at Hyde Park Academy in Woodlawn, which has a teen birth rate of 19 percent. “I don’t think they get pregnant on purpose. They listen to [sex education], but they go against it or whatever.”

Even though she knows not all students will listen to the sex-can-wait message, Kendra Thomas, another Hyde Park student, says she believes that it’s an important viewpoint for students to receive. “They tell you that [sex] can cause you to do things you don’t want to do, and emotional stress,” she says.

According to Denise Everhart, one of Hyde Park Academy’s physical education teachers, the school supplements its health education program with lesson plans from ABJ Community Services Inc., an agency that trains instructors to teach abstinence-only materials, and Project VIDA, a group founded in 1992 to address the rising number of HIV and AIDS cases in Chicago’s black and Latino communities.

Everhart supports this combination.

“[Students are] getting the facts now,” she says. “Oftentimes, they misunderstand the whole reproductive process—for example, some think that they can’t get pregnant standing up. They don’t understand conception, and that’s something they definitely understand by the end [of the course].”

Najamusahar Muneeruddin, a sophomore at Lane Tech High in North Center, says some students might rebel against the Project Reality curriculum taught there.

“Some kids that take the sex ed class get angry, thinking ‘Why are they telling me what to do?'” she says.

Classmate Rex Libunao agreed. “If we are going to have sex, we might as well have choices,” he says. “At least you’d know about condoms, but they never told us about that.”

Federal funding up

Abstinence-only supporters believe Project Reality and other such lessons arm students with information they need to refuse sexual activity until marriage.

But detractors claim that message is realistic only to a handful of students in today’s classrooms.

The debate has gained momentum over the years. The Bush Administration increased funding for abstinence-only curricula to $206 million for fiscal year 2006, from $170 million for fiscal year 2005. Most recently in Illinois, some lawmakers have proposed a measure to guarantee state funding for “abstinence-based” sex education, which would promote abstinence as the best way to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancies but would also provide age-appropriate information about condoms and birth control. The Illinois School Code specifies only that health education curricula should include instruction on “family life, including sexual abstinence until marriage.”

Caught in between are students left with valid questions and no answers to be found in their workbooks, like “The Navigator,” a text that supplements the Project Reality curriculum. “What if a girl was reading that, and was pregnant?” questions Lane Tech student Halla Karaman. “What if she wanted an abortion? Where would she go? How much would it cost? Do you need parental permission?”

“That’s the problem,” continues classmate Quetzalli Castro. “They tell you how you get pregnant, but not what to do. They tell you about abstinence, but they stop there.”

For her students, Jones has helped supply some of the answers. It was Rahkeisha Teagues’ favorite part of the class. “She gave us little cards to write questions down on. It’s fun,” Teagues says.

In aging metal file cabinets near the door of her classroom, Jones keeps several stacks of note cards bound with rubber bands. On each note card is a single health-related question written on the first day of class by a student; Jones proceeds through them as the semester progresses, answering each and every one of the students’ anonymous questions in class.

“I’m an advocate of abstinence, but I’m also realistic,” Jones says. “I try to teach to the whole class.” Usually the cards cover a range of topics, but this past year the cards shared an obvious theme, Jones says. “Every question was on sex, and they’re very detailed.”

A version of this article was first published in the July/August issue of The Chicago Reporter. Intern Leah Banks contributed to this report.

Cassandra Gaddo is a Chicago writer.