April 08, 2010 News » Cover Story

Sex, lies and duct tape: Science and morality make for strange bedfellows in D-11 

Bantering with a group of teenagers, former NFL cornerback Miles McPherson flashes a rakish grin.

"If I had a rose in here, and I passed it around and each one of you took a petal off," he says, making a plucking motion with his giant hands, "there wouldn't be anything left."

Well, having sex, the player-turned-pastor says, has the same effect.

"When you sleep with somebody, you give a part of yourself away," he says. Sleep with too many people, and "by the time you get to college ... you don't care about yourself, 'cuz you don't have nothing to care about."

This is part of Sex, Lies & ... the Truth, a 1993 Focus on the Family video that also features James Dobson in ski-goggle glasses telling kids that condoms are unreliable and that there's no safe sex outside marriage. It's a masterpiece of abstinence-until-marriage advocacy, delivered from a Christian morality perspective.

Though not an approved part of the Colorado Springs School District 11 health curriculum, the video wormed its way into Coronado High School for countless showings in health class. (Interestingly, a hand-written note on the side of the box warns teachers who use it to stop six minutes from the end, when the video drops any pretense of being secular.)

Carlos Bertha and his ex-wife, Deb Courtney, raised a ruckus and got it removed, but the video just marked the beginning of their investigation into the sex ed curriculum taught to their son Zach and other D-11 students.

Turns out much of the other content comes from a local Christian group tied to Focus, called Education for a Lifetime, which regularly gives multi-day "abstinence-centered" programs in D-11, Academy District 20, Lewis Palmer District 38 and several other El Paso County school districts.

EFL's main five-day high school program, drawn from a national curriculum called Aspire, casts condoms mainly as unreliable enablers of teen misbehavior. It uses cherry-picked science to make a case that no sex before marriage is safe: Even if you escape without a disease or a screaming baby, premarital sex makes you prone to infidelity while reducing your ability to bond with your future spouse.

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a nonpartisan group that advocates for comprehensive sex ed, has argued that Aspire builds a case for abstinence until marriage based on "incomplete and biased information" that promotes fear and shame while "[undermining] young people's confidence in their own decision-making abilities."

State Rep. Michael Merrifield, a former music teacher at Coronado, co-sponsored 2007 legislation requiring that any sex education offered by public schools be comprehensive and science-based. After reviewing the Aspire material and learning of its prevalence in area high schools, he sounds both stunned and aggrieved.

"I believe that is totally the antithesis of the intent of the legislation," Merrifield says, adding he sees it as an attempt to "pass off opinion as fact."

Fewer partners

The 2007 legislation may have been a victory for advocates of comprehensive sex education in Colorado. But in the larger war over what gets taught in D-11 schools, it's clear that abstinence-until-marriage advocates are still winning.

At Coronado, the unit in ninth-grade health class on sexuality and dating lasts 14 or 15 class periods, with one or two devoted to sexually transmitted infections and contraceptives. Peggy Vigil, who coordinates D-11's health curriculum, explains the goal is to provide a balanced, "abstinence-plus" curriculum. Outside speakers bolster the message delivered in class and often deliver the most updated information.

"The days of teaching from a textbook are getting behind us," Vigil says.

Officially, four groups are approved to speak on sex ed topics in D-11 schools: the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment, Planned Parenthood, the Southern Colorado AIDS Project and Education for a Lifetime.

The health department stopped regularly doing school programs in the late '90s, fearing it was sending employees into a cultural minefield, recalls John Potterat, who used to run the department's sexually transmitted disease programs.

"Sex education has been a radioactive issue for two decades," Potterat says.

Planned Parenthood hasn't been invited to present on sex ed topics in any D-11 school since 2005, when officials decided that any positive message the group offered was offset by the possibility of having anti-abortion protesters rally outside school grounds.

D-11 schools do invite S-CAP, which provides a single class-period presentation. Gary Archuleta, the group's vice president, talks to more than 100 school groups each year about how he contracted HIV, likely in a single sexual encounter with a girlfriend when he was 21. His talk focuses on facts and delivers a strong abstinence message, though he says he'd happily talk about condom use if asked to do so.

Which leaves Education for a Lifetime.

Even if you haven't stepped foot in a classroom in years, you may recognize EFL's work; it's the organization currently spreading the abstinence message with billboards across Colorado Springs exhorting teens, "Protect your heart. Sex is a big deal."

Funding to do that comes from the federal government. EFL currently gets close to $400,000 a year for school programs and a massive media campaign through the George W. Bush-era, Community-Based Abstinence Education program. EFL is actually part of the Life Network, a Christian anti-abortion group, so funding for the group also relies on a complementary initiative allowing federal money to go to faith-based organizations.

The group also gets support from Focus on the Family, and Raul Reyes, its president, once held a senior position in Focus' public affairs department. Board member Walt Larimore was Focus' vice president for medical outreach.

Diane Foley, EFL's executive director and a physician, is up-front about funding sources. Everything at Life Network, she says, is carefully compartmentalized to keep from using federal money for a religious activity. So while Life Network's Web site promotes its mission as a "sanctity of human life ministry that impacts and transforms people with the love of Christ," EFL's Web site and course materials avoid any overtly religious content.

But to work or volunteer for EFL, as for the rest of the Life Network, you need a reference letter from your pastor and must sign a statement of Christian faith. And Foley makes no secret of her personal faith and values: Callers to her private cell phone get blasted with Christian rock, and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson's book about raising boys sits on her bookshelf.

Still, she insists it's science rather than religion that shows "the benefits of marriage for all people."

Sex, like fire

Education for a Lifetime, which has been giving presentations to student groups for about 20 years, delivered two different programs in D-11 schools last fall: Aspire, which takes four or five days depending on whether the one-day STI presentation is included, and a three-day relationship program called "soul-mate training." (Foley says there's nothing religious about soul-mate training; it's a general program about relationships and dating for older high school students.)

The script for Aspire fills 43 pages with PowerPoint slides, activities and prompts for the group's instructors on discussion points and background information. Though it purports to be about healthy choices generally, the overriding message is about abstinence. Students are told that teens who drink alcohol are more likely to have sex. They are instructed to resist media messages and pressure from peers that can make sex seem like the norm.

The program leans heavily on analogies. Sex is like fire, the lesson says; both are good when controlled, but dangerous otherwise. Toward the end, students are told that their brain chemistry makes them like duct tape; if they have sex with too many people, they could wind up having trouble "sticking" to their spouses. (See "It doesn't stick," p. 20.)

Once all that's established, students get offered the chance to make an abstinence pledge by signing their names to a FISA card — for Freedom in Sexual Abstinence — which they can carry around and use to impress future spouses.

Does it work? The odds are against it: No peer-reviewed research has showed that any abstinence-until-marriage program delays sex, much less improves contraceptive use or lowers pregnancy rates.

The only material Foley offers showing the Aspire program works is data from pre- and post-course questionnaires in 2008-9. One example: "Becoming sexually active before marriage makes it harder to have a good marriage later." Thirty-five percent of students agreed with that statement before the course, but 52 percent agreed afterward.

(To David Wiley, president of the American School Health Association, this sounds like marriage advocacy rather than fact. For one thing, about 90 percent of Americans have had sex before marriage, leaving a small pool of subjects who haven't for potential research.)

There's no data comparing teen condom use or sex rates across Colorado counties, so the best indicator of programs' effectiveness may be birth rates.

According to data compiled by the Colorado Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Parenting and Prevention, El Paso County mirrors national trends, with the birth rate among 15- to 19-year-old females dropping sharply from 60.3 births per 1,000 teenagers in 1991 to 38.9 in 2005, and then jumping slightly to 39.3 in 2007. (Nationally, the rate was 61.8 in 1991, 40.5 in 2005 and 42.5 in 2007.)

Statewide, the federally mandated Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted at a sampling of high schools every two years, gives more detail. It asks teens about their sexual experiences, use of condoms, drug use and other risky behavior. The results are reported for Colorado as a whole, but individual schools can also request their results from state officials.

In D-11, there's no point: District policy disallows asking students about their sexual histories. As a result, the surveys delivered in D-11 leave out all questions related to students having sex.

Trojan horses

The 2007 law says schools that offer sex ed must teach the "effective use of condoms or other means of contraception."

Vigil is clear that she thinks the word "effective" only goes so far.

"We don't teach them how to put them on," she says. "We're not in the business of promoting condom use."

What students are taught is more difficult to nail down.

District 11 doesn't have a single sex ed curriculum for all schools; instead, schools select from a menu of approved — and, in the case of the Focus video at Coronado, unapproved — materials.

In the past five years, every D-11 high school except Mitchell has had regular visits from EFL, mostly for the Aspire course. But much is left up to teachers.

Susan Petrelli, chair of Mitchell's health department, says she's still trying to convince school administrators to let her invite Planned Parenthood to the school; for now, she says, she tries to cover the ground they once covered herself.

Vigil says teachers are supposed to spend at least one day on contraception. Though the words "condom" and "contraceptive" don't even make it into the index of the Glencoe Health & Wellness textbook used in D-11 health classes, many teachers draw on outside materials, including a PowerPoint presentation on contraception that Foley prepared for the district.

That presentation doesn't tell students how to use condoms, and Foley says that information doesn't belong in the Aspire courses, either: "I don't think you can do those two things in the same class setting, because I think the message of waiting for sex gets diluted if you are saying, 'But, just in case, use a condom.'"

Speaking in her office, above one of the Life Network pregnancy centers where pregnant women are given ultrasounds and discouraged from getting abortions, Foley argues it's difficult even to teach condom use, requiring 13 separate steps.

"By the time you get to step six, you forget why you are even using the condom," she jokes. (Planned Parenthood, incidentally, has a 10-step video on its Web site, which includes steps such as "Don't tear the condom while unwrapping it.")

Foley says she believes it could be considered "sexually harassing" to demonstrate condom use to a class with, say, a banana.

It was different back in the 1970s and '80s, when John Potterat, former director of the health department's sexually transmitted disease programs, would go into schools to talk about sexually transmitted infections and contraceptives. He and his staff did encourage abstinence: Certain cells in the genital region and throat don't mature for most people until the late teens or early 20s, meaning young teens are more vulnerable to many sexually transmitted infections. But for those who planned to be sexually active, they talked about contraceptive use, and put a condom on a wooden model of a penis.

In the early '90s, Potterat says, the atmosphere changed, thanks in part to an emerging religious right.

"It got to the point where it was just painful," Potterat says. "No matter what you said, somebody would be unhappy."

(The health department scrapped STD programs altogether at the start of 2009, and a spokesperson could not locate anyone working there who could even remember talking to school groups.)

Checking out the Aspire PowerPoint presentation on STIs, Potterat is calm as he highlights examples of what he sees as distortions of science. According to the script for slide No. 3, "Fifty years ago there were only 2 organisms that spread sexually — Gonorrhea and Syphilis. Today there are more than 25 known organisms that are spread sexually."

Potterat, now in his late 60s, has continued doing research on STIs since leaving the health department in 2001. He points out that health officials in the 1960s and '70s knew other infections were making people sick. AIDS, for instance, was only defined as an illness in the 1980s, but HIV, the virus that causes it, likely started infecting people decades earlier.

"It was around, but we didn't know about it," Potterat says.

Potterat reserves more derision for slide No. 7, which cites a common statistic that, under "typical use," 15 percent of couples who rely on condoms for a year will experience an unintended pregnancy. It then transitions straight to sexually transmitted diseases, with the cautionary words "may protect against some STDs."

"That has been the No. 1 disinformation in the last 20 years," Potterat says.

The big problem with conflating pregnancy rates and infection rates is what Potterat calls the "Michael Phelps" factor. Given half a chance, sperm will wiggle around the edge of a condom to resume their journey to a women's egg. Most STIs, by contrast, will stay put.

"It's a false analogy," says Potterat, who calls another slide "bullshit" for comparing STI rates with condom use rates, which rely on self-reporting and are prone to inflation.

"There clearly is an anti-sex bias," Potterat says. "It's a very sophisticated use of the scare tactics that used to be used in the '40s," when people were warned that STDs could make them crazy or blind, and men had to worry about their penises falling off.

Potterat, who talks in the precise terms of someone accustomed to looking for answers in scientific data, finds less sophistication in the other four days of the Aspire script, saying he can't even evaluate the material on scientific grounds.

"It has to do with things that have to do with values," he says.

But for the record, he finds it absurd that teens who may marry in their late 20s or 30s should wait until then to have sex.

"I think denying sexuality is not healthy," he says. "Abstinence until marriage, I think, is a ridiculous concept."

The big turn-off

It's also a concept that tends to come with a religious bent.

Barry Lynn, executive director of the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says he's never heard of an abstinence-until-marriage curriculum that doesn't rely on biblical morality.

"Most of these curricula are steeped in a Christian religious worldview," Lynn says, "whether they mention Jesus or not."

And that's what's frustrating to people like Elizabeth Schroeder of Answer, a comprehensive sex education resource center based at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Until-marriage advocates, she says, have tried to "commandeer" the term "abstinence." And telling 14-year-old kids not to have sex until they are married starts sounding pretty draconian when you consider that many won't get married until their late 20s or 30s, if at all. For a healthy teen with raging hormones, that's a lifetime.

But the fear that characterizes some abstinence-until-marriage programs is persuasive. Schroeder, who's worked previously as chair of SIECUS and as a consultant on sex education programs, remembers one conversation with a 16- or 17-year-old girl who'd just completed the Choice Game, an abstinence curriculum, and had learned about a married woman whose philandering husband brought HIV into their home.

"I plan to stay abstinent until marriage," she recalls the girl saying, "and maybe after marriage."

Schroeder pauses for a moment before continuing.

"I think that's an absolutely horrific message," she says.

The Choice Game is listed among 26 "promising" programs in Abstinence Works 2009, a glossy report from the National Abstinence Education Association. Interestingly, this is the same report that Foley shows me to support the general effectiveness of abstinence programs.

The report summarizes 14 "studies" pointing to supposedly significant findings about abstinence programs. Seven involve the work of Stan Weed, an abstinence advocate who heads a nonprofit research group that produces work supportive of abstinence programs.

One study trumpets the effectiveness of an abstinence program developed by two University of Pennsylvania researchers, John and Loretta Jemmott. Their work actually made major waves in February when results were published in a peer-reviewed journal, showing for the first time that an abstinence-only program could cause some participants to delay sex.

The problem: Their program urged abstinence-until-later rather than until marriage, and it focused on scientific facts instead of values and scare tactics.

Reading through the studies, Schroeder says others seem to be old, outdated, or insignificant. She sounds a note of surprise when I tell her about the seventh study, which evaluated a program called "Not Me, Not Now."

"That's the curriculum I wrote," she says.

This may seem odd, since Schroeder advocates comprehensive sex education. But the curriculum she helped develop has a strong focus on abstinence, without ever telling kids that's what it's about.

"The word turns kids off," she says.

A touchy subject

Foley invited me to listen to presentations at schools in Academy District 20 and Lewis-Palmer District 38 in the two weeks leading into spring break. But school officials resisted.

"I think it puts too much pressure on the students," said Robin Adair, community relations manager for Lewis-Palmer.

D-20's Nanette Anderson said health teachers think the presence of a reporter could be disruptive for students.

In D-11, Courtney and Bertha have run into a couple roadblocks of their own, as they decide whether it's worth it to start the extended process of challenging curricula. Courtney says she wants to see the Aspire presentation, but hasn't been able to set up a time that works for her and the district. She also asked for a letter to be sent to parents explaining that the Focus on the Family video was shown in class despite it not being an approved part of the curriculum. Though the video has been shown repeatedly over the years, Coronado officials declined, explaining that Courtney and Bertha were the first to complain.

It would seem that EFL has bigger problems than a pair of outspoken parents: President Barack Obama has said he will phase out federal abstinence funding. And although Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah just managed to restore $250 million of that money, to be spent over five years, within the health care legislation, EFL's grant is still set to expire in September.

Indeed, Foley, preparing for the money to run out, has grant-writing books piled on her desk. Yet while she's uncertain about media campaigns or speaker series funded with federal money, she says the education programs will likely continue.

The American School Health Association's Wiley, who's also a professor of health education at Texas State University, notes that once an outside group gets into a school, "it's really hard to get them out."

(Wiley reviewed a copy of EFL's Aspire script. In an e-mail to the Indy, he writes, "There is nothing in here that remotely resembles the characteristics of effective programs that should be used to positively influence behavior.")

Undoubtedly, D-11 officials remember how painful Planned Parenthood controversies were in the early 2000s, so it's unlikely that many of them are excited to revisit the issue of what's being taught in sex ed. Even Archuleta, of S-CAP, worries that talking critically about how sex ed is handled in schools could jeopardize relationships with teachers and administrators that he's cultivated over long years.

Yet he's also clear that he doesn't believe that Merrifield's 2007 law has changed things: "I just don't really feel that it's being followed."

He knows the sex ed world remains sharply polarized, with people on one side fearing that talking about contraceptives will encourage sex, and people on the other arguing that sex is inevitable. But Archuleta doesn't see the need for the divide.

"We all want the same thing, and that is for the kids to be responsible and not to have sex at a young age," Archuleta says. "But we don't need to lie to them."


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