Two incarnations of George W. Bush made appearances during the last week of March. First, Houston Press reporter Tim Fleck revisited the Yalie’s mysterious brief engagement to a Rice student back in 1967, and invoked the received, if somewhat blurry, picture of young W. as a “wild and crazy party guy” – president of Delta Kappa Epsilon in college, a boozer until “well into his thirties.” A few days later, the Governor stood before The Governor’s Conference on Right Choices for Youth and denounced teenage drinking, drug use, and sex. “We must convince youngsters to resist opening the Pandora’s box,” he said, “not just to avoid death or disease, but to embrace a life that is physically, and morally, and emotionally healthy.” The Right Choices campaign, continued W., is “part of a much larger effort, and that’s changing today’s culture. A culture which has clearly said if it feels good do it, and if you’ve got a problem blame somebody else. We’ve heard today the warning signs of our failed culture everywhere in our state of Texas.”
Whosoever believeth that here hypocrisy lurketh – or at least, that W.’s own success seems to contradict his warnings about the inherent dangers of youthful vice – has not yet attended a Conference on Right Choices for Youth. In the nearly eight hours of speeches that preceded the Governor’s, it was clear that the conservative campaign to Save Our Teens has as much to do with the campaigners’ desire to atone for the sins of their generation as it has to do with young people. This was especially clear during discussion of the day’s most emphasized topic (and the campaign’s linchpin): sexual abstinence. The conference, attended by some 700 teachers, school administrators, and nonprofiteers, was put together by an Austin organization called The Medical Institute for Sexual Health. The Institute, a nonprofit which receives a large share of its funding from San Antonio businessman James Leininger, was founded in 1992 to promote the idea that the only way to avoid sexually transmitted disease is to not have sex before marriage. Most of the speakers at least touched on this theme, and over the course of the morning the gender stereotyping and general nostalgia so fogged up the Hyatt ballroom as to send at least one Eagle Forum representative into transports of prim nodding, while more moderate delegates from Austin nonprofits were forced out into the hallway for air.
In a morning speech, the founder of the Medical Institute, Dr. Joe McIlhaney, Jr., and another doctor affiliated with the Institute, Linda Bussey, explained that until about thirty years ago, unmarried teens just didn’t have sex because girls didn’t want to get pregnant and so refused male advances. But along came abortion and birth control, which “cleared the path to the sexual revolution,” said Bussey. “The women’s movement taught that sexual freedom is a woman’s right. Girls signed up for the sexual revolution, and they’re the ones most hurt by this.” (She later reiterated this seminal point: “Somewhere between Woodstock and disco, our generation has sowed the seeds to a cultural disaster.”) At intervals the two doctors showed portions of a grim abstinence video for teens, produced by the Institute: “Just Thought You Oughta Know.” In a typical excerpt, young voices were heard over a “cool” drumbeat and a repetitive alarm noise: He said if I didn’t he would find someone else…. Honestly I just wanted to get it over with…. I was drunk…. I was lonely…. I wanted to feel loved…. I was abused as a child so what difference does it make? After this particular segment ended, Bussey stopped the video and asked, “Why does this millennial generation have such a hard time [with] the wrong choices? I want to suggest that they were raised by baby boomer parents. You know, the sex, drugs, and rock and roll crowd.”
Certainly no one could miss the implicit reference to ex-wildman George W. Bush. And Bussey and McIlhaney hastened to correct anyone who might mistake their message as directed only to “inner-city, high-risk” kids; they mentioned the heroin problem in Plano, as well as a recent case in which “the entire student council and all the captains of the sports teams” from Highland Park High School – Highland Park! – congregated at a warehouse with quantities of beer – the captains of the sports teams! – and proceeded to engage in risky behavior until the police arrived. While no data concerning teen pregnancies or disease rates in Highland Park were provided, the doctors insisted on a link between “unhealthy environmental factors” and “teen sexual activity,” and finally recommended that sex be postponed until marriage.
Given that on average, half of high school kids are sexually active, the only way abstinence advocates can “realistically” urge their message upon the young is to promote what they call “secondary virginity.” At the conference this concept was addressed by the conference’s Dynamic Black Speaker, Ronald Johnson. (Naturally, Johnson is himself a Former Gang Member, and at the lunch break exclamations of “Wasn’t that Ron Johnson just something?” flitted across the buffet lines.) Johnson is the developer of a “10-step Rites of Passage Program,” designed to teach teenage fathers “what it means to be a man.” In his much-appreciated talk, he explained that boys must be taught to restrain their animal instincts and “become warriors.” How girls fit into the program was less clear, but at the end of the process, Johnson explained, “we have a ceremony where we re-anoint the girls as virgins and re-anoint the boys as warriors.”
The retrogradation went on all day long. Dr. Joseph Zanga, a New Orleans pediatrician, approvingly quoted a Gallup poll in which 41 percent of respondents said the “best” family arrangement was a working father and a stay-at-home mother, while only 17 percent thought it was “good” for mothers to work outside the home. Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, complained that 20 percent of parents believe that it’s okay for their teenage children to have sex once or twice with a steady boyfriend or girlfriend. Christine Bachrach, a demographer from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, reported on the efficacy of signing abstinence pledges.
Finally Bush himself said we must teach youth that “the rewards of abstinence far outweigh the risks of sex.” And if there were any lingering qualms that, when it comes to preaching to young people, our W. has precious little ground to stand on, those fears were put to rest by the lunchtime keynote speaker, former Education Secretary and drug czar William Bennett. The Governor’s “irresponsible youth” would not hamper his presidential campaign, Bennett told reporters: “Young and male, some of us in college, some of us in high school, did things we’re not particularly happy about or proud of later, including myself. That doesn’t concern the American people.” Nor does it stop one from writing lengthy treatises on virtue, or from finding the root of all social ills in the young males of today. W. needn’t worry about lapsed engagements or his partying twenties: he’s well on his way to becoming our Secondary Virgin-in-Chief.
So how does this play out down in the trenches? Abstinence-based sex education is required by law in Texas; during Bush’s first term the Legislature mandated that human sexuality instruction materials be locally selected, and that all sex education must “devote substantially more attention to abstinence from sexual activity than to any other behavior.” Abstemiology has also made its way into federal law: the 1996 welfare reform act included $50 million for abstinence-only education programs – that is, programs whose “exclusive purpose” is to teach “the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized from abstaining from sexual activity.” Texas has accessed the full $4.9 million for which the state’s been eligible so far; local entities submit proposals to the Texas Department of Health for individual grants, and must be able to provide a 75 percent match themselves.
A week before the Governor’s Conference, I visited the Skillful Living Center in Dallas, one of the beneficiaries of the abstinence grant program. The Center was founded in 1997 by Helen Wilson, a family therapist and Christian counselor who started doing abstinence promotion as a subcontractor for another Dallas grant recipient, African American Men of Peace. Last fall the Center was awarded its own $111,458 grant, to work with kids from several high schools and housing projects. “We nurture these kids totally from the inside out,” said Wilson, a serene, friendly woman who started her private practice in 1985. Like the Governor, she sees abstinence as part of a larger program of “character, self-esteem, career development, and mentoring.”
Wilson’s well-appointed office is on the third floor of a South Dallas professional building, and because the abstinence grant is the Center’s primary source of funding, she spends most of her time there, “desperately seeking other funds,” or traveling to conferences. Her two employees, Tahanee Odom and Monique McDaniel, do most of the work with teens. “Not only do we teach the message of abstinence,” Wilson explained, “but we have single, beautiful young women who have committed themselves to being abstinent. That gives them [the kids] a realistic view; it brings the message to life.”
I accompanied Odom and McDaniel to South Oak Cliff High School, where Odom teaches abstinence classes twice a week. Odom, twenty-five, and McDaniel, twenty-eight, are both in training to become professional counselors; they are indeed both very attractive, and they confirmed that they have each committed themselves to secondary virginity – for the most part. (“I struggle with it daily,” said McDaniel.) When we arrived at the school, we discovered that a special assembly had interrupted the regular class schedule, and Odom’s regular group of ninth graders was nowhere to be found. Anxious that I should not leave empty-handed, Odom and McDaniel set upon an unsuspecting cluster of students who were sitting in a classroom with the basketball coach. The two women handed out green, pink, and white cards to the students, explaining that the green and pink cards designated varying degrees of sexual activity and drug use, while the white cards meant abstinence. Gradually the students concluded that they’d rather have a white card, that abstinence was the safer choice, and Odom pointed out that the back side of everyone’s card was white. The students turned their cards over, as Odom advocated for secondary virginity.
After that, Odom and McDaniel engaged the students in a general discussion about the risks of sexual activity. Odom warned them against Human Papilloma Virus, which she explained could be contracted from mere “bonin’ – you know, when a guy and a girl like rub up against one another.”
“Aw man,” exclaimed one male student, “you mean we can’t do nothing?”
Another young man said he’d heard that if you’re high or drunk, your sperm count goes down.
“I’ve heard that too, but I’m not sure,” said Odom. “I’ll have to check on that and get back to you.”
One of the students in the room was Christy Woodard, a fifteen-year-old ninth grader who has been in Odom’s regular class. “It’s fun, and really educating,” she said of that class. “I didn’t know at first that herpes is in your mouth. I didn’t know that date rape is actually rape.”
When I asked her how many of her friends are sexually active, she said, “Most of them are. We all talk about it, especially the girls.” Her junior high health class had taught about condoms, she said, and her friends “use condoms, some of them take shots, or have the things in their arms.” Woodard didn’t think the message of abstinence was having much effect: “It won’t never bring the boys over, but some of the girls, kind of.”
Annette Bolden, a teacher whose ninth grade class Odom visits once a week, estimates that the majority of her students are sexually active. “Maybe a few are not. Five or ten percent are abstinent,” she said. While Bolden thought Odom’s sessions were “going really well” and provided useful information about sexually transmitted diseases, she didn’t think they would actually convince many students to refrain: “Peer pressure outweighs anything else…. I don’t think it will outweigh peer pressure.” Bolden said that besides Odom’s class, students learn about sex and contraception in one semester of health class – which they may take at any point during high school – and that it would probably be better if this class were required earlier on.
A review of current research on teen sexuality, published in 1997 by the nonpartisan National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, confirms Bolden impressions, asserting that although abstinence-only programs may be appropriate for younger children, “there does not currently exist any published scientific research demonstrating that they have actually delayed (or hastened) the onset of sexual intercourse or reduced any other measure of sexual activity.”
A variety of initiatives fall under the “abstinence education” rubric, such as a well-liked program in Dallas to improve communication between middle schoolers and their
parents, and junior high classes in which the kids, to better understand what it’s like to be a parent, care for “Baby Think It Over” dolls. But other abstinence programs involve showing high school students a video called “Teen Sex: It Can Kill You” (part of the abstinence education program at Lago Vista High School) or distributing pamphlets that warn, “Condoms provide far less protection than most people think” (as does the Medical Institute’s “Condom Sense” brochure).
Many abstinence promoters don’t just have no sex on their minds. Governor Bush has been a strong public supporter of “True Love Waits,” a privately-funded abstinence pledge program sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention. Austin schools give over several days of health classes to volunteer abstinence presenters from LifeGuard, an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center. And around the state, one of the more popular abstinence curricula for high school students is the decidely anti-abortion “Sexuality, Commitment, and Family” program developed by a company called Teen-Aid. In use by at least thirty Texas school districts (a spokesperson for Teen-Aid in Spokane, Washington told me she couldn’t say exactly how many) and a number of the federal grant recipients, the Teen-Aid approach specifically directs instructors not to teach about contraceptives, warns that divorce “means emotional trauma and economic difficulty,” and incorporates quotes into the text from such luminaries as “A. William Liley, M.D., Ph.D., Father of Fetology.” According to Liley, “Not all of us will live to be old, but we were each once a fetus. We had some engaging qualities which unfortunately we lost as we grew older…. We ruled our mothers with a serene efficiency which our fathers could not hope to emulate. Our main handicap in a world of adults was that we were small, naked, nameless, and voiceless. But surely if any of us count for anything now, we counted for something before we were born.” The fetal development chapter goes on to explicate “events in the life of an unborn child” and examples of “treatment of the unborn as a patient.”
The chapter on “Consequences of Adolescent Sexual Activity” discusses abortion in the same vein, providing a “legal definition” of the term, and then continuing in bold: “The popular definition, however, automatically implies an intent to kill the unborn.” Two full pages are devoted to “abortion aftereffects,” claiming that “five to ten percent of women who have abortions will be unable to become pregnant again. And they experience 30% greater chance of infertility.” (According to the National Abortion Rights Action League, multiple studies have demonstrat
d that abortion does not elevate the risk of future infertility.) The text also warns that women who have an abortion are likely to get pregnant again to atone for their loss, to abuse future children, and to develop “post-abortion syndrome” – a supposed variety of post-traumatic stress syndrome not recognized by mainstream psychiatry.
A more suitable name for that chapter might be “Consequences of an Appeasing Political Mentality.” Lately it has come to the media’s attention that George W. Bush is a little tricky to pin down, that his “positions” are somewhat vague. His strong pro-chastity position, however, makes the whole notion of “where he stands on the issues” seem quaint. It’s probably not his intention to bring fetology to the classroom, or to dissuade a guy from using condoms because all he’s been told about them in abstinence class is how ineffective they are. The Governor has made the Right Choice to play to social conservatives when it seems safe to do so, and the only question that arises is one we’re all familiar with after our six long years with Bill: are the more noxious results brought about by a leader’s agenda, or his lack thereof?