Sunday Telegraph (UK), July 22, 2007
By PHILIP SHERWELL
DATELINE: New York
FOR MORE than a decade, America's campaigners for sexual abstinence have successfully preached that the best thing for teenagers is to stay celibate - and that the best thing for schools is to teach chastity and never mention condoms.
With an evangelical Texan as president and social conservatives running Congress, their campaign held sway - especially when the teenage pop star Britney Spears took a vow of celibacy.
But now that is suddenly changing. A string of states from Montana to Maine have decided to stop teaching pupils to "Just say no'' and a key Senate committee has voted to cut government spending on abstinence-only sex education. Meanwhile, Spears has ditched her second husband, spent months in rehabilitation and had an affair with her bodyguard.
Most significantly, opponents of the 700 schemes across America - with names such as Virginity Rules and Great to Wait - have seized on research released in April to argue that teaching teenagers not to have sex makes little difference.
Lawmakers in 14 states have this year concluded that the education programmes they once backed with such enthusiasm are ineffective and a waste of public funds.
Advocates of abstinence dispute that, however, and insist they are in tune with the wishes of American parents.
"This is a philosophical divide over sexual values,'' said Robert Rector, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who drafted federal legislation on abstinence education in 1996. "The groups who have been hot to abolish these programmes from the start represent values left over from the sexual revolution of the Sixties. That does not reflect what American parents want.''
Campaigners against abstinence-only schooling object to the ban on any mention of contraception, claiming that increases unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Their opponents counter that teaching children how to use contraception encourages them to have sex.
Sarah Audelo, 23, teaches girls in their mid-teens at a high school in Texas, a state which has an abstinence-only sex education policy. "I wish all my students would abstain from sex,'' she said. "But I know that's not the reality so I also want them to be able to protect themselves if they do have sex.
"I've seen the pregnant girls who are evidence that some of our young people have sex. The school runs parenting classes but cannot teach students about contraception.''
Felicia Solis, 16, a student at the school where Miss Audelo teaches, James Earl Carter High School in La Joya, Texas, agreed: "Abstinence-only education is not working. Abstinence is fine as an idea but it's not realistic. We should be taught about abstinence and contraception together.
"Lots of my friends talk about having sex. It goes on every day, that's the reality. But now they're pretty clueless about protection or rely on what they see on TV.''
One of her friends, also 16, is six months' pregnant. "She and her boyfriend were too embarrassed to ask for contraception in a shop. I think they would have been more confident if they had been taught about it in school.''
The anti-abstinence brigade has been buoyed by recent research, financed by the government, that concluded that the number of teenagers who never had sex over a four-year period was exactly the same (49 per cent) among those who did and did not receive abstinence education.
Mathematica, a social policy research company, compared children in four abstinence programmes with similarly aged children who did not have such instruction. It also found that 56 per cent of teenagers who had never had abstinence education had not had sex in the past year - compared with 55 per cent for those who had gone through such programmes.
The change in the country's political landscape last year - when Democrats regained control of Congress and also made inroads at state level - has fuelled the changing mood on sex education.
"From coast to coast, we are finally seeing public health and science being put ahead of ideology,'' said Bill Smith, vice-president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. "These programmes simply didn't work. Teaching abstinence works if you teach contraception too.''
Both sides agree that the pregnancy rate for American teens has been falling - in contrast to Britain. But whether those statistics are attributable to more contraception or less sexual activity, or both, is fiercely debated.
Abstinence supporters dispute Mathematica's findings and point to other surveys that back their case. "The science and the timing of this survey are very suspect,'' said Leslee Unruh, president of the Abstinence Clearing House. "But we know that mums and dads are with us and believe that abstinence is the best way to avoid diseases and unplanned pregnancies.''
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