This article is adapted from The Cleveland Plain Dealer Magazine

Mary Anne Mosack loves sex. She just doesn't want your teenagers having it before they're married.

Mosack is executive director of Operation Keepsake, a nonprofit "Abstinence Before Marriage" organization whose representatives have been in public and private middle- and high-school classrooms across Northeast Ohio for the past 15 years talking about sex - or, actually, talking about not having sex.

Operation Keepsake received $577,000 from the federal government in 2002, and will continue to receive federal money through 2004 to subsidize organizational costs. President Bush, who supports the abstinence-before-marriage message, poured $73 million into Special Projects of Regional and National Significance (SPRANS), which funds organizations such as Operation Keepsake.

To receive money, an organization must meet the government's strict criteria, including teaching that "sexual activity outside the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects" and that "a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity."

The Bush administration hopes to eventually boost abstinence spending to $135 million - up from $60 million in 1998 - fulfilling a campaign promise to spend as much on abstinence as teen family-planning programs.

Sex education has been a hot-button topic for more than 30 years, when the subject was first taught in schools. In the 1970s, health educators sought to curb the rise in teen pregnancy by teaching adolescents about reproductive health, hoping knowledge of how everything works would be prevention enough.

The 1980s brought an awareness of HIV/AIDS, and to meet that challenge, a shift to "Safe Sex," which included teaching adolescents how to use condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

In the late 1990s, after a 2001 National Institutes of Health (NIH) study reported that condoms offer some protection against HIV/AIDS and some protection from gonorrhea for males, but did not protect against other STDs for both males and females, science caught up with sex education classes and the curriculum changed to "Safer Sex." In response to the report, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) deleted its condom fact sheet from its official government Web site.

The debate among educators, scientists and some government administrators about what should be taught has never ceased. Some say leave sex education to the parents; others want abstinence taught. And then there's "the other side," as Mosack calls it, which prefers that students be given as much information as possible - a comprehensive sexual curriculum that includes abstinence and contraceptive information, as well as in-depth instruction in how to use contraceptives and where to obtain them.

Studies regarding what parents want do not agree. A 1995 study by the Kaiser Foundation found that 80 percent of parents polled would prefer their children learn both abstinence and information about contraception. A recent survey by Zogby International concluded in February that a majority (69 percent of parents of kids in fourth through seventh grade) want schools to teach their children the basics of sex education, but disapprove of the more explicit contraceptive guidance commonly used in comprehensive sex-education classes.

Both abstinence-before-marriage and comprehensive sex proponents take credit for CDC stats that report the number of high-schoolers who say they have had sexual intercourse dropped from 54 percent in 1991 to 46 percent in 2001.

Both sides also take credit for the drop in teen pregnancies. The comprehensive sex side contends the drop is because more teens opt for injectable contraceptives, as well as an increase in teen condom use. A study published in last month's Adolescent and Family Health journal determined that abstinence is the primary reason for the decline in pregnancies among teens.

That doesn't mean teenagers aren't having sex. The CDC reports that more than half of high school seniors still lose their virginity before graduation.

No one will deny that sexual activity among teens is a problem. It's just that no one can agree on the solution.

Until four years ago, Operation Keepsake was known as Responsible Social Values Program of Greater Cleveland (RSVP). Mosack changed the name because of the confusion between her organization and others using the same acronym. Mosack says she chose the word "Operation" because of its "militancy sound, like Operation Desert Storm," and included "Keepsake" because of its definition. "Something that's kept as valuable or precious in remembrance of the giver, which gives a good representation of how we view sexuality."

Her large hazel eyes turn steely as she adds, "I think we need to mobilize seriously and deliberately to dismantle the myth of safe sex to keep our students healthy."

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus