NEWS- No-sex ed: Abstinence-only aims for local support
Worth Your Wait is a "resource organization," says Melissa Cox.
PHOTO BY LUCIE STONE
In the cut-throat world of nonprofit fundraising, where money means survival, the pro-life Pregnancy Centers of Central Virginia won the jackpot in 2006: the federal government coughed up more than $645,000 to help them teach abstinence-only sex ed to central Virginia youth.
The Pregnancy Centers, formerly known as the Charlottesville Pregnancy Center, have used the grant to support Ruckersville-based abstinence education group Worth Your Wait. That group has established a solid presence in community institutions and in the Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa, Nelson, and Orange county school systems.
And while some Charlottesville and Albemarle community members have proved less receptive, that could soon change as Worth Your Wait director Cynthia Dussault say she's been meeting with county school administrators. And on Thursday evening, April 26, the group hosted an information session at the Doubletree Hotel to relay their message to interested locals.
Like a number of the approximately 100 attendees, Levonne Yountz heard about the Worth Your Wait event at her church. "I have a 12-year-old son," she said, "so I wanted to come learn how to talk to kids about sex before the peer pressure kicks in."
One of four speakers, Melissa Cox, a professional abstinence advocate, urged parents to build stronger relationships with their children and offered strategies parents can use to ensure their influence will trump that of our "sex-saturated culture." Parental involvement, Cox said, "can prevent all varieties of risky behavior: drugs, sex, everything."
Martin Ssempa, an international AIDS prevention activist from Uganda, argued that at-risk communities must embrace abstinence, not as one of several acceptable sexual practices, but as the necessary, life-saving method of AIDS prevention.
"In this country, abstinence is like a flavor of ice cream," he explained. "That's your thing, this is my thing. But abstinence is not just for white business people in Virginia. It's for everyone, because AIDS kills!"
Despite the applause and "amens" that followed Ssempa's impassioned speech, not everyone in the audience was buying the message. In fact, an hour before the 7pm info session began, objectors to abstinence-only education staged a "wave and honk for real sex ed" campaign in front of the Wood Grill down Route 29 from the Doubletree.
"Abstinence-only education programs reinforce high condom failure rates by not teaching correct condom use," says Planned Parenthood grassroots organizer Becky Reid, who adds that Why kNOw, the national curriculum used by Worth Your Wait youth educators, undermines confidence in condoms by citing general condom failure rates, without explaining that, correctly used, condoms are 97 percent effective.
Reid, who attended the Worth Your Wait session, also claims the curriculum is rife with gender stereotypes and intolerant of diverse family values. For example, one lesson teaches that marriage is a ceremony in which a woman is "given away" by her father to her husband, which, Reid says, "teaches our young women that they are property." Reid also cites research that shows that while abstinence-only curriculums delay first intercourse by 18 months, those same adolescents are significantly less likely to use condoms when they do eventually have premarital sex.
Dussault defends the abstinence message and says that any medical inaccuracies in the original Why kNOw curriculum were corrected during a year-long review process. "The federal government and a local ob-gyn have reviewed and endorsed our most recent materials," she says.
Kelli Magan, a Worth Your Wait area coordinator, says that the program's controversial '"wedding lesson" cited by Reid is no longer taught in schools.
"We do focus on the importance of families in general," she says, "and we do believe that a traditional family structure is the best scenario. But we don't teach that any other structure is wrong, and we don't have an anti-homosexual agenda."
Dussault is optimistic that the curriculum will be approved by the Albemarle County school board, based on a "positive" meeting with County health education administrators in December. She says the approval process for new health curricula can take up to a year. County school administrators did not immediately return the Hook's call. Charlottesville Schools spokesperson Cass Cannon says city schools are not currently considering any new family life curricula, including Why kNOw.
Mary Sullivan, teen pregnancy and STD prevention coordinator for Charlottesville and Albemarle schools, says the Worth Your Wait message isn't ostensibly objectionable– after all, most parents don't want their children rushing into sex. However, she says, the program is ineffective in reducing the incidence of teen pregnancy and STD infection, because it does not equip teens to make safe sexual choices if they decide to become sexually active despite the abstinence message.
Cox, however, is adamant that Worth Your Wait does not seek to eliminate comprehensive sex education programs. "Planned Parenthood does contraceptives well, and that's great," she says. "But the abstinence message is not being heard at all, and that's an injustice."
In the print version of this story, we overstated the effectiveness of condoms when used correctly by two percent, according to Planned Parenthood spokesperson Becky Reid, who says condoms are 97 percent effective. The change is reflected in the online version of the article.
"It's okay to give condoms to sexually active teens," said AIDS activist Martin Ssempa, "but we must reward abstainers equally, and give abstinence educators equal rights to access teens."
PHOTO BY MALLORY MACDONALD