Just Saying No to Abstinence Ed

If you took a drive last spring down the farm-to-market roads that wind through the piney woods of east Texas, you may have admired a lovely crew of teen beauty queens. They all but radiated from the billboard above you, in sparkling tiaras and evening gowns. They were, each one, card-carrying virgins, declaring, "We Are Waiting for Our Prince Charming." A few miles later, another sign informed you that one in four sexually active teens will contract an STD. You could have also glimpsed a highway testimonial from 15-year-old "Ima Waiten."

In this largely rural corner of the state, it's hard not to go through Longview, a town of 78,000 residents, four Dairy Queens and two high schools—and the birthplace of Virginity Rules, which sponsored these roadside praises of teen abstinence and hosted kid-led virginity campaigns. They represented a small slice of the more than $1 billion George W. Bush has bestowed on abstinence education. But even without a looming budget crisis, the next chief executive may not be so dedicated to the cause. Barack Obama supports comprehensive sex ed. And while Sarah Palin said she opposed "explicit sex-ed programs" in 2006, aides now say both Palin and her running mate, John McCain, back federal funding for programs that "promote abstinence as the best option" but also include "information on contraception." For true believers in the wait-for-marriage camp, that's hardly comforting.

They couldn't be losing their president at a worse time. Studies have cast doubt on the programs' effectiveness, and critics have skewered curricula for breaches of accuracy and ethics. The Bristol Palin pregnancy reduced the issue to a late-night TV punch line. (Actually, Wasilla High teaches both abstinence and comprehensive sex ed, according to principal Dwight Probasco.) But after spending a year trying to understand abstinence education as part of a Kaiser Family Foundation media fellowship, I found a surprisingly nuanced—and highly charged—picture. Conservatives seem to want to brand all comprehensive sex education, which includes detailed discussions of contraception, as a conspiracy to encourage teen sex. Liberals just want abstinence education to go away. Both sides profess to care deeply about the country's youth, and I believe them. Sadly, each side seems to operate in its own universe, while our children live in only one.

Although the world has recently preoccupied itself with sex education in Alaska, it is here, in my home state of Texas, where the battle over abstinence is most pitched. This is the ground where then governor Bush first became abstinence education's most powerful champion. The state draws the biggest share of federal abstinence funds by far, and nearly 95 percent of public school districts teach only abstinence, according to research from the Texas Freedom Network. If the policy fails, no state stands to lose more of its infrastructure for sex education.

That lesson has already become reality for the appropriately named Tonya Waite, who helped found Virginity Rules almost a decade ago. In 1999, the East Texas Abstinence Program, which sponsors Virginity Rules, operated out of a cinderblock building employing only Waite, whose ice-blue eyes and Hollywood smile made her a one-time contender for Miss Texas. This year, the operation had grown to a small honeycomb of cubicles boasting an annual budget of almost $1 million—enough to carry its message to 33 area school districts.

No longer. The program learned this month that it would lose its federal funding. The reasons were unclear, but have only heightened Waite's fear that abstinence ed is in jeopardy. Now 25 state health departments reject federal abstinence money, up from 11 in little more than a year. In December, the government reported a rise in teen birth rates for the first time in 15 years; opponents wasted no time in saying that the trajectory changed on abstinence's watch, and that Texas, the abstinence torchbearer, has a more dismal teen-birth record than any other state, with 62 teen births per 1,000 population. (The national rate is 40 per 1,000.)

But spend time among the folks of east Texas, folks you'll find at the stadium on Friday night and the sanctuary on Sunday morning, and you start to understand why groups like Virginity Rules will not go quietly. This isn't really about sex. In the eyes of supporters, teaching abstinence to teenagers amounts to teaching marriage to future adults. Around here, people see marriage (of a man and a woman at least) as a means to protect children and reduce poverty—making teen abstinence nothing less than a blueprint for America's future.

The vast majority of public-health experts, however, seldom discuss sex education and marriage in the same sentence. They gauge success by pregnancies prevented, germs not contracted, and kids who enter adulthood with a healthy view of sexuality. The public-health community views a wait-until-marriage message as blind to the world most teens inhabit. The average age of matrimony has steadily climbed, and is now past age 25. (Which is probably why 95 percent of Americans don't walk down the aisle as virgins.)

For all the rancor, the two sides do have points of intersection. Both believe parents and other adults in a child's life should take an active lead in shaping adolescent sexuality. They know that most parents don't want their teenagers having sex, and that about two thirds of kids who have sex say they wish they had waited.

Both camps claim the side of science. But science is, in fact, where the abstinence community finds itself outgunned. In many ways, the wound is self-inflicted: when the abstinence movement was starting to congeal a decade ago, federal funding agencies did not place a priority on evaluation. Many early leaders, motivated more by enthusiasm than science, actually downplayed the need for research.

A decade later, few studies have documented changes in behavior following abstinence education. One scientifically rigorous, $8 million evaluation didn't find any difference in the age of first sexual intercourse. In another recent report, a review of 56 studies for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, researcher Doug Kirby found favorable data for three abstinence programs, but he says the evidence is only weakly supportive.

Tonya Waite knows her curriculum didn't have the kind of studies that could hold up scientifically, and she never had the budget or expertise to get them. Without research, she says, "How do you truly judge years of performance?"

The issue now is whether public money should keep flowing to any abstinence program, given that few have any more scientific justification than Virginity Rules did. Comprehensive education is attached to a larger body of research, including studies finding that these programs may not only improve contraceptive use among teens, but lead to some of the same goals sought by abstinence advocates: delay of sexual initiation and a reduction of partners.

In truth, kids turn to sex for many reasons. Schools should address healthy sexuality and contraception, but so should parents, pediatricians, the media and every influence in a teenager's world. To take root, the message of delaying needs to infiltrate homes, classrooms—possibly even billboards. "You're going up against a lot of pop culture telling you sex is something you can throw away," says April Ford, who as Miss Teen Texas, starred in the billboard of pageant-winning virgins. An east Texas native, she used her 2005 crown to convince school groups that abstinence isn't lame. "If you have people out there who visually look exactly like what you see on MTV and the movies, it's going to have an effect," she says. An effect that she hopes will outlast Virginity Rules.