The ABCs of S-E-X

Will a plan to increase federal funding for abstinence-only programs mean the end of real sex education in Nevada?

Photo by David Robert

“Is your body going to stay the size of a fourth-grader forever?”

Six little girls shake their heads. “No,” they chorus softly.

“You’re going to grow, and you’re going to change,” teacher Pam Hamilton continues. “How many of you have heard of the word ‘puberty?’ “

A couple of quiet giggles escape. One girl with long brown hair claps her hand over her mouth. But quickly the serious faces return. Growing is like climbing a staircase, Hamilton tells them. It’s filled with small steps, and some girls climb faster than others. When you get to the top, you’re a woman.

Womanhood seems like a big, far-off thing for these fourth-graders. They are getting their first sex education lesson in this Monday-afternoon Elmcrest Elementary School classroom. Hamilton, a teacher in the Washoe County School District’s S.H.A.R.E. program, visits classrooms like this one to teach elementary-school students about their bodies. S.H.A.R.E. is an acronym for Sexuality, Health and Responsibility Education.

This class, comprised only of girls, is unusually small. The six fourth-graders are divided between two tables in a room big enough for 20 or 30. The girls occupy only a corner, making it look as though they’re in an intimate girls’ club or a whisper-filled cafeteria tryst. Here, though, words like “penis” and “vagina” get only fleeting titters or slight squirms. The girls seem to sense the seriousness conveyed by Hamilton’s upbeat but no-nonsense voice.

“Is it going to happen to all of you at the same time?” Hamilton asks, her piercing gaze searching their faces. Hamilton, with her short blonde hair, angular features and arrow-straight posture, is the sort of person you can’t help but trust—the sort of person who would know what to do if you got food poisoning, a bad rash or a broken heart.

“Noooo,” the girls reply.

The overhead projector shows a drawing of two children playing dress-up. The heading is “Puberty and Abstinence.” Hamilton asks the girls to say the words with her.

“Puberty and abs … astin …” A delicate-featured, elfin-eared girl in a white T-shirt furrows her brow in concentration as she tries to say the word. The other girls don’t do much better.

“That other word’s hard, huh?” Hamilton says, underlining it with a little red laser beam—the 21st-century classroom’s answer to a wooden pointer. “Ab-stin-ence.”

The word “abstinence” gets easier to say as the vocabulary grows and speech faculties improve. But its definition, its moral and religious import, its application in the public-school classroom and its ties to another weighty term, “federal funding,” just get harder to grasp. In S.H.A.R.E., an “abstinence-based” program, the word is stressed; the official S.H.A.R.E handbook notes that “promotion of abstinence and providing our children with refusal skills are primary messages in this course of study” but goes on to concede that “the reality that not all children will choose to practice abstinence cannot be ignored” and that “contraceptive education is necessary to reduce the risk of disease and unwanted pregnancies.”

“We talk about abstinence,” Hamilton says. “Abstinence not only from sex, but also from risky behaviors—from smoking, from drinking. … Our philosophy is [that] abstinence is the best choice. If you stay abstinent, you’re not going to get pregnant; you’re not going to get a sexually transmitted disease.”

S.H.A.R.E began in 1991 as a response to an initiative passed during the 1987 Nevada legislative session requiring school districts to establish curricula addressing AIDS, the human reproductive system and sexual responsibility. The instruction begins in fourth grade with classes like Hamilton’s. Children learn about body systems, health and hygiene as coed groups but then divide into boy classes and girl classes to talk about what each sex can expect during puberty. Topics such as self-esteem, decision-making skills and the cultivation of healthy relationships are introduced in the fifth and sixth grades, along with more advanced lessons covering male and female anatomy and more extensive discussions of AIDS and peer pressure.

In seventh grade, students discuss not only AIDS but also other sexually transmitted diseases and learn about pregnancy and childbirth. The eighth-grade curriculum stresses sexual responsibility and abstinence, delves into relationship skills and introduces contraception. The ninth-grade curriculum reviews previously discussed S.H.A.R.E concepts, with an emphasis on decision-making and risks; students also learn about sexual assault and talk to a panel of speakers who have the HIV virus.

At the beginning of each year, parents sign a permission slip agreeing for their children to be part of S.H.A.R.E. or at least partake in most of its lessons. (Some parents opt out of certain lessons, such as AIDS education.) Janet Hay, curriculum coordinator with the Washoe County School District, says 90 percent of parents agree to all or most of the curriculum; 5 percent say no, and another 5 percent “go into the black hole"—the permission slip never comes back to school. The students who don’t participate receive a health lesson from their regular health teacher. For children who do participate, homework assignments include discussions with mom and dad about what they are learning in S.H.A.R.E.

“There’s almost always a sixth-grade parent who says, ‘My child has been in every year. It really opens the doors for us to talk about it.’ That’s the best preventative of pregnancy and STDs, where you have that open communication. A parent can instill those values you want to instill in your child.”

Nancy Lim is a parent of three children—a second-grader, a first-grader and a preschooler—who sits on S.H.A.R.E.'s Advisory Committee. She plans to talk with her kids about sex—although not until it’s first introduced in S.H.A.R.E.—but believes sex education programs are especially important for the kids whose parents don’t address the subject.

“There are a ton of kids who don’t get the information at home, and it’s vital they get this,” she says. “They don’t get accurate information on the school playground. … Sure, I know I’m going to be talking with my kids, but that’s not to say that every kid has parents who are going to be discussing that with them. The parents’ role is more the moral issues—the parents can talk about their own religious backgrounds, their own sense of right and wrong.”

And even if parents do talk to their kids about it, they won’t always have up-to-date information, she adds.

“I don’t know about all the contraception, so when I look at [the curriculum], I’m learning too,” Lim says. She adds that kids often listen better to adults who aren’t their parents.

“I tell my kids to brush their teeth, but when [another] adult tells them to brush their teeth, they’re 10 times more likely to act on that.”

Until last year, there was a final year of S.H.A.R.E. instruction, 12th grade, during which role-playing, decision-making and scary what-ifs regarding sexual assault were discussed. This last year of instruction got nipped from the curriculum during last year’s statewide budget cuts.

“We’re disappointed,” says Laurie Haley, a parent of two teens who have gone through S.H.A.R.E. “I honestly think they could have cut somewhere else. But there’s hope in the future they could bring it back.”

Haley, a full-time mom, also sits on S.H.A.R.E.'s Advisory Committee, lending the knowledge she brings from her science background. She has a bachelor’s in molecular biology and a master’s in genetics.

“It’s so important,” she says of sex education. “Your health reflects how you look at the world, and sex is such a central part of health and well-being and our outlook on life.”

Whatever impedimentsplague students when it comes to talking about abstinence, the word seems to roll off President Bush’s tongue with marked ease. He can hum it, in fact, to the tune of about $135 million—the amount allotted to abstinence-only programs in his proposed budget plan for the 2003 fiscal year. The plan would increase the funding for grants to “public and private entities” providing abstinence education but not “any other education regarding sexual conduct,” according to the federal Health Resources and Services budget plan, available at to organizations such as SIECUS—Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States—Bush’s proposal is yet another indicator of the administration’s coziness with the Religious Right.

Pam Hamilton talks to fourth-graders about their bodies in an Elmcrest Elementary School class.

Photo by David Robert

“By funding abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, our elected officials in Washington, led by President Bush, are promoting a conservative ideological agenda at the expense of sound public-health policy,” says SIECUS President Tamara Kreinin in the organization’s August 2002 news release. SIECUS launched a “No New Money” campaign last August calling for a halt to the trend of upping federal funds for abstinence-only programs. “No evidence exists to date that these programs are effective at delaying sexual activity or reducing unintended pregnancy or the spread of disease,” the SIECUS news release reads.

Stephen Russell, a researcher and teen sexuality specialist at the University of California at Davis, says abstinence-only programs simply do not work.

“We know quite a bit about sex education,” he says. “It’s very clear that the research does not support all of the attention that abstinence-only education is generating in politics and in the public eye. Abstinence-based comprehensive programs are the sexual-education program that has been proven to be most effective.”

Of course, not everyone agrees. Janine Hansen of the Nevada Families Eagle Forum says programs that teach about contraception give students “dual messages"—telling teens they should remain abstinent yet simultaneously “teaching how to” have sex.

“This dualistic message does not help to promote behavior that promotes healthy life choices,” she says. “A condom doesn’t protect a broken heart.”

Hansen says that the abstinence-only message is a realistic one. Teens are capable of abstaining, she says, “if we tell them they have the capacity to do so.”

“We don’t tell them we don’t trust them to make the right decisions, so ‘Go ahead and drink and drive, go ahead, we know you’re going to.’ … What works is to tell children to make good decisions.”

Hansen points to studies that show abstinence-only programs work best. The Eagle Forum has brought experts testifying to the effectiveness of abstinence-only curricula before the school district, but the district has continued with a program that Hansen says “essentially lies” to children.

“It doesn’t tell them that the real healthy alternative is abstinence.”

There is indeed research that supports the effectiveness of abstinence-only curricula. The Abstinence Education Department, for instance, released in 2001 an abridged version of Focus on the Family’s “Take Twelve” booklet, which “dispels” myths such as “Abstinence programs have been proven ineffective” (No. 8) and “Comprehensive sex education has been proven effective” (No. 9).

The publication quotes from a study published by the Journal of Political Economy, stating “Sex education in the preteen years might have led to the significant increases in female sexual activity and pregnancy in the early and middle teenage years,” and from a Louis Harris study conducted for Planned Parenthood in the late 1990s: “Teens who had comprehensive sex education at school were 54 percent more likely to have had sex than teens with no sex education and 65 percent more likely to have had sex than teens who had abstinence-focused education.”

Russell contends, however, that “there aren’t methodologically good studies that demonstrate abstinence-only programs are good for teens.

“They’re based on small numbers of kids, short-term rather than long term factors,” he says. He adds that researchers will ask teens in abstinence-only programs if they are going to have sex in the future, and they’ll say no. “But,” he continues, “are we looking at attitudes or actual behavior? We know those things aren’t always the same. Our intentions aren’t always the same as our behaviors.”

Russell points to a study by Douglas Kirby for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.

“There do not currently exist any abstinence-only programs with strong evidence that they either delay sex or reduce teen pregnancy,” the study concludes. “However, this does not mean that abstinence-only programs are not effective, nor does this mean that they are effective. It simply means that, given the great diversity of abstinence-only programs combined with very few rigorous studies of their impact, there is simply too little evidence to know whether abstinence-only programs delay the initiation of sex. The jury is still out.

“These conclusions,” Kirby continues, “are in contrast to studies of ‘abstinence-plus’ programs that strongly encourage youth to be abstinent, because abstinence is the first and best choice for teens, but also encourage youth to use condoms and contraceptives if they do have sex. Many studies … have demonstrated that [these programs] can delay sexual intercourse, reduce its frequency, increase condom use and/or increase contraceptive use.”

Russell notes that those calling for abstinence-only education, rather than these comprehensive abstinence-based programs—programs like S.H.A.R.E.—are “a vocal minority.”

“Public option polls say over and over that adults, specifically parents, say they want kids to have access to sexual education,” he says. And yet abstinence-only “has become the policy perspective at the federal level, so lots of federal funding is earmarked for abstinence-only.

“Communities are in a bind,” he continues. “It’s a catch-22. Federal funding is driving a lot of local decision-making because of the [local budgetary] constraints.”

Russell says that in large, relatively liberal states like California, the availability of federal funding for abstinence-only education may not change things all that much. But smaller states will probably see programming change.

“I lived in Nebraska, and that’s a much smaller world. Because the funding changed [due to a 1996 welfare-reform bill], the entire structure of health education changed. In a state like Nevada, you probably are going to see significant change.”

Russell says Nevada, with its quickly growing urban areas, will continue to become more and more reliant on state and federal funding for education. “More and more institutional structures are shifting and requiring, and in some cases mandating, the kinds of educational opportunities kids have. We’re going to see real change.”

Hansen says she believes it’s the role of the state, not the federal government, to determine education programming. But if federal dollars came available for the kinds of abstinence-only programs Eagle Forum has been calling for, exceptions could be made.

“If they’re going to spend our tax dollars, I would rather they spend it on something that’s healthy.”

John Ruby, founding pastor of South Reno United Methodist Church and chairman of the S.H.A.R.E. Advisory Committee, stresses the effectiveness of comprehensive sex education programs. Any federal abstinence-only dollars coming down the pike, he says, will hardly be received by the committee with open arms.

“The S.H.A.R.E. committee has been consistent that sex education has been effective. That’s why it’s called Sexuality, Health and Responsibility Education rather than abstinence-education.”

The S.H.A.R.E. program receives no federal dollars, but other sex education programs in Nevada do. The State Health Division’s Governor’s Youth Advisory Council, comprised of 11 teens representing a “cross-section” of students from various ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, was formed with funding from a 1996 federal welfare-reform bill that designated $50 million to states that had—or would create—abstinence-only curricula. The council advises the Health Division on teen issues and performs a 15-minute presentation called “Abstinence Works” in classrooms across the state.

Jessica Cowee, abstinence-only education coordinator with the State Health Division, says that the council focuses on the hardships of teen pregnancy in its presentations. They talk about the emotional problems that can stem from sexual activity and teach teens methods to “reject sexual pressure.” But the program looks at abstinence from a public-health standpoint, Cowee says, not from a religious or moral one.

College freshman Morgan Bryant promotes abstinence through the Governor’s Youth Advisory Council.

Photo by David Robert

“That’s a common misconception about this funding,” she says. “ '[We say], now that you have all the information, we just want to emphasize why abstinence is a healthy choice until marriage.’ I believe that we underestimate kids. I believe kids do have the power, and they do have the ability to wait.”

Cowee admits abstinence-only isn’t a philosophy that all kids will take to heart—but she hopes that many will.

“I think that marriage is a very, very good goal, and if kids decide to wait longer because of [the council’s message], that’s a very, very good thing. And if kids don’t reach that specific goal, that’s OK too.”

Morgan Bryant, 18, is a freshman at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a member of the Governor’s Youth Advisory Council for the past three years. She decided to volunteer on the council in part because of what she saw her 13-year-old sister going through at the time.

“It was kind of like, watching all the crap that she went through—I didn’t remember any of that stuff.”

Bryant has made a decision to be abstinent. When asked why, she hesitates a bit.

“I get asked this a lot,” she says. “It’s just something I decided in my mind. Call me selfish or naïve. I have other problems in my life right now. … There’s a definite religious backing to it, but right now there’s no one in my life I’ve been with that I really loved. This is what’s right for me right now.

“Call me at this time next year,” she adds, laughing.

Bryant says the council talks to teens about the risks—physical risks and emotional hazards—of having sex, but “it’s important [teens] come up with their own reasons” for abstaining.

“As to why, we leave it up to them. It makes it your decision.”

Bryant says she thinks the abstinence message is a realistic one but, like Cowee, acknowledges that not everyone will heed the message.

“Our priority is not to make everyone abstinent, although that’s what we would love. It’s to inform students who otherwise wouldn’t know these things. I think it’s realistic to say [wait until marriage]; I don’t know if it’s realistic that everyone will. You can say that you’re going to be abstinent at the top of your lungs. I don’t know [that] it’s going to happen. If you’re just abstinent for one more day, that’s the way I look at it. You set your boundaries, and you set your limits.”

Bryant says the day-to-day abstinence philosophy works for her better than a wait-until-marriage-no-matter-what dictum.

“It’s overwhelming to think of things in large numbers,” she says.

Raised in Las Vegas, Bryant didn’t go through S.H.A.R.E. She didn’t get much in the way of sex ed at all, she says.

“I hated sex ed. I’ve noticed that a lot of kids I’ve seen [in Reno] have been a lot more knowledgeable, so it seems like there might be a much more comprehensive program here in northern Nevada.”

At her Las Vegas school, Bryant says, a mere day or two was set aside for sex education.

"[They said], ‘This is this, this is that, this is why.’ I wasn’t very happy with it.”

Bryant says she believes in the abstinence message but thinks kids should be taught about contraception through schools, too.

“We can’t because of our funding,” she says of the council. “Our hands are tied. But somebody needs to.”

The six fourth-grade girls have just returned from a short recess. Their cheeks are flushed, and their laughter is sweet and resonant—not the hushed giggles of before. As they stomp through the door and take off their coats, a blast of cold, clean winter air comes into the classroom.

They take their seats, and Hamilton asks them to close their eyes “because we’re going to imagine some of those changes happening to us.” The girls’ faces twist in concentration. Hamilton asks them to imagine a cleansing routine—a warm soapy bath at night, putting on clean clothes, scrubbing their faces every morning—hygiene measures that will be especially important as their bodies begin to change. After the girls open their eyes, Hamilton shows a video about girls and puberty, then turns off the TV.

“I’m going to talk to you today about a very grown-up word,” she says. “Sexual intercourse.”

Hamilton gives a brief and straightforward description—it’s what happens when a man puts his penis into a woman’s vagina. Short definitions of both genitalia have been given earlier in the lesson. On the overhead, Hamilton shows how sperm fertilizes a woman’s egg.

“Are there any teenagers who are ready to have a baby?” she asks. The girls shake their heads. “I want you to put a circle around this new vocabulary word. The word is ‘abstinence.’ “

The girls circle the word in their S.H.A.R.E. workbooks.

“It means ‘Waiting for sexual intercourse.’ So if I came up to you and asked, ‘What is abstinence?’ what would you say?”

“Waiting for sexual intercourse,” the girls say slowly, carefully, in unison.

“So, do you think it’s a good idea to wait until you grow up and have met the person you want to spend the rest of your life with?”

The girls nod, their faces reflecting the gravity of Hamilton’s.