Teens are having more sex--and getting more diseases. But is telling them to wait the answer?
There has been heavy demand for SPRANS money, which currently amounts to $40 million. Allen estimates that 360 community-based organizations around the country, from evangelical churches to local YMCAs, have requested the grants. The demand is fueled by the fact that the SPRANS money requires no matching funds, while the Welfare Reform money requires that states match $3 for every $4 in grants. What upsets abstinence-only opponents most is that all $33 million in additional sex education funds would go to the SPRANS program, a "massive" 83 percent increase "for the most restrictive program they could have chosen to fund," says Dailard.
The debate about what sort of restrictions are appropriate, including whether or not to teach contraceptive use, is creating controversy even within the Republican Party. In an MTV appearance earlier this year, Colin Powell called condoms "a way to prevent infection." The Rev. James Dobson's Family Research Council in turn dubbed Powell "reckless and irresponsible." The council pointed to a National Institutes of Health report on condom effectiveness released last year. The study--requested by Tom Coburn, then a Republican representative from Oklahoma--concluded that there was "insufficient evidence" to determine the effectiveness of condoms in preventing certain infections. It further cautioned that the report "should not be interpreted as proof of the adequacy or inadequacy of the condom to reduce the risk of STDs." Upon the report's release, Coburn called for the resignation of the CDC's director for perpetuating a safe-sex "myth."
So, what about parents' interest in all of this? According to a March survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the majority of parents--81 percent--want schools to discuss the use of condoms and contraception with their children; where to go to be tested and treated for STDs; and how to sidestep unwanted sexual advances. What's more, teachers want to address these topics. But although 9 in 10 sex education instructors across the country believe that students should be taught about contraceptives in school, over one quarter report receiving explicit instructions from school boards and administrators. Today, 86 percent of school districts across the country require that sex ed curricula stress abstinence: Fifty-one percent allow contraceptives to be discussed as a means of preventing STDs, while 35 percent do not.
In counties around the country, from Santa Ana, Calif., to Lubbock, Texas, to Wake, N.C., some parents and teens are pushing for more comprehensive sex education. In Montgomery County, Md., for example, health teachers are petitioning to be allowed to remove condoms from hermetically sealed boxes, currently required, in order to demonstrate how they are used. Challenges to abstinence-only programs may soon be coming from the courts as well. Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the state of Louisiana, charging that the use of federal funds to teach abstinence amounts to using tax dollars to promote religion.
At the Sex, Etc. newsletter offices at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., the teen staffers trade stories about the kids who come looking for answers that they're not getting from parents or in school. Many of these questions revolve around contraceptives, which, they say, their friends seem to know increasingly little about. "Abstinence-only programs aren't going to stop teen sex by not giving teens information about how to use contraceptives," says Elizabeth Marchetta, 17, a Sex, Etc. board member. "They're trying to take away the one thing that could possibly keep kids safe," says Megan Esteves, 17. "They're numb to reality."