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Birds Don't Do It,Bees Don't Do It

Surprise! The Feds Don't Want Teens Having Sex


"Most sex ed abstinence-based classes are bullshit," says Ted McIlvenna, president of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. "Teens want to know how to use their sexuality," he explains.

But, over the past six years, spurned on by federal funding that mandates abstinence curriculum, teens in America's high schools are being told more and more to say "no" to sex.

The Institute is a San Francisco-based organization providing graduate-level education for future sex-ed teachers. Unlike most health organizations that are geared towards teaching sex-ed in secondary schools, the Institute is privately funded and not reliant on federal grants. Because of this private revenue source, they are allowed to rebel against prevailing trends--and are not pushing the concept of abstinence.

"Just because they teach [abstinence], doesn't make it so," adds McIlvenna. "Teenage boys will fuck anything."

In 1996, Congress passed the Welfare Reform Law. As part of new federal rules, funding for sex ed classes were tied directly to high schools promising to teach teens to abstain from sex.

"Because of the fear of unwanted pregnancy, [Congress] mandated teaching abstinence," explains McIlvenna. "It is the only place in education where we say, 'less is better.' But it is only one among a number of options."

Though teens are more sexually active today than 20 years ago (70 percent of high schoolers claim to be having sex) and are more exposed to frank dialogues about sex in everyday life, health education in high schools have actually become more conservative, and more centered on the concept of abstinence.

McIlvenna insists that hitting teens over the head with the message that they should abstain from sex will not convince them. Instead, he insists, courses should focus on obtaining healthy, respectful relationships with their partners.

To find out what teens most wanted to know about sex, the Institute conducted their own study a few years ago. Hoping to avoid skewed results, they left their liberal San Francisco base and headed into the conservative Central Valley of California. At a Fresno, Calif. high school, they asked what most concerned juniors and seniors about sex. "We expected them to say STDs or pregnancy," admits McIlvenna. "But we were shocked," he says. "The girls biggest sexual concern? How to be a good lay."

In Portland, most secondary schools contract private organizations to provide sex education; these organizations, in turn, rely on federal grants for their funding. This means that most of the sex ed curriculum in Portland includes a heavy helping of abstinence.

But even while abstinence agendas drive sexual education in Portland, some of these programs have tempered the message. "We don't use scare tactics," says Rose Fuller, Executive Director for Family Accountability Communicating Teen Sexuality (FACTS), which contracts with middle schools around Portland to teach health courses. Fuller says they don't show teens the gross slides of STD encrusted genitalia, but instead try to teach youth the methods and virtues of healthy relationships.

"People used to focus on body parts," says Fuller. "They could tell you what the fallopian tube is. But now it is more on social norms." With games and role playing, FACTS teaches young teens how to have a healthy, non-sexual relationship. In one role-playing game, students learn why a 13-year-old girl should avoid dating a 31-year-old man. In another exercise, the students roll a dice to understand their odds for pregnancy--roll a five and you've got a bun in the oven.

Concerned about teen pregnancy, the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality have been taking their programs to the street. One such program teaches sex-ed courses to inner-city girls, where pregnancy rates triple the national average. "We teach them that you prove your womanhood not by getting pregnant," explains McIlvenna, "but by your sexuality." The theme of the course for inner-city boys re-emphasizes that lesson. "I tell them, 'only male feminists get laid,'" he says.


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