"From here down," says Cally Leighton, pointing to her chin while standing in front of a classroom of students at Federal Way High School, "your body doesn't know if it's married or not. It's just this physical thing that's supposed to cha-cha-cha and have fun."
Leighton, a former cheerleader with three grown kids, is in Federal Way to deliver a lesson on sex eduction, preaching that intercourse should be reserved "for the uniqueness of the marriage relationship." She tells the students about a class of all boys she taught last year in Kent. When asked how many of them wanted to marry virgins, "100 percent of those boys flew their hands up," says Leighton.
"I thought it was pretty amazing," says Leighton after class, referring to the preference the Kent boys expressed for virgins. "It may be an old, archaic, '50s thing, but it's still hanging around."
But some people think what's archaic—and inaccurate—is the kind of sex education Leighton and others like her are delivering to public school districts. Leighton belongs to a Kirkland-based group called SHARE (Sexuality, Health and Relationship Education), a subset of the Christian organization Life Choices, which offers pregnant women alternatives to abortion. Among the concepts SHARE teaches: that the failure rate for condoms is higher than usually believed; that men get aroused by French kissing while women don't get aroused until the petting stage; and that women who engage in French kissing may leave themselves vulnerable to date rape.
The Seattle School District has rejected using SHARE because of concerns over accuracy and gender bias, but SHARE speakers have nonetheless lectured in the Renton, Issaquah, and Lake Washington school districts. And sex-education speakers from all over the country come to SHARE's Kirkland offices for training, according to director Lisa Merrifield.
Partly in response to curricula offered by SHARE and several similar groups around the state, a coalition of organizations— including the local chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, NARAL, Pro-Choice Washington, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington—is pushing for a bill this legislative session that wouldn't require districts to offer sex education, but would mandate if they do that instruction be "medically and scientifically accurate" and include teaching on both abstinence and contraception.
Currently, the state requires that students receive at least one lesson on AIDS prevention every year beginning in the fifth grade. By law, the curriculum must stress abstinence. Most districts choose to offer additional sex education, but the curriculum "varies significantly from one place to another," according to Pam Tollefsen, health program coordinator for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).
According to a survey commissioned by the aforementioned coalition, dubbed the Healthy Youth Alliance, whose results were to be released this week, 20 percent of 200 schools that responded from 125 districts statewide teach an "abstinence-only curriculum" that offers no information about contraception. Within that 20 percent, the majority of schools instruct students to remain abstinent not just until they're older or out of school but until marriage.
On the wall of Meredith Zeltner's Federal Way High School classroom are numerous posters warning kids about the dangers of sex. "Sex with one partner can still be group sex," proclaims one. "Forty-eight teens were inflicted with HIV today," says another. A family and consumer science teacher, she spends about four weeks per year on sex education. She discusses birth control and brings in speakers from Planned Parenthood and public health agencies. To discuss abstinence, she relies on SHARE.
That is how Leighton came to be standing in front of Zeltner's class on a recent Tuesday. "We get to talk about sex today—woo-hoo!" Leighton begins. She comes across as the mom who's a little bit corny but also the one who takes all her kids' friends out after a school game.
Sex is like a prom dress that you keep in the closet, she says. You don't drag it out for any old occasion. If you did, you risk the possible consequences of not only sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy but damage to your ability to form healthy relationships in the future. On an overhead projector, she flashes information about condoms. One bullet point: "20 percent of teens under 18 using condoms get pregnant over a period of a year."
"Women and men are wired very differently," she tells the class again and again. "Men are kind of like a lightbulb. You turn a lightbulb on—ta dah!—it's on. Women are like a curling iron. You plug a curling iron in . . . it takes a while to warm up."
To illustrate the "progression of sexual expression," as it is labeled on the overhead projector, she tells an elaborate story about a hypothetical Billy Joe Bob and Mary Sue, who run through all the stages. First they meet, spend time together, hold hands, and engage in a simple kiss. Then they move into a prolonged kiss (nicknamed "prune" by SHARE because you pucker you lips together as you say the word) and French kissing (nicknamed "alfalfa" because you use your tongue to pronounce it).
At this stage, she says, Billy Joe Bob is aroused, though Mary Sue is not yet. They start petting. Now Mary Sue is aroused. The inevitable result, she says: intercourse.
Leighton then asks the class: If you've made the decision to be abstinent, at what stage do you think you should draw the line? There's a brief silence. "Prolonged kissing?" ventures one boy. "Does that seem about right?" she asks the students. She notes that her daughter used to draw the line at French kissing—until she almost got raped after doing so on a date.
SHARE's written curriculum makes the point more explicitly. It provides an anecdote about a college girl who French kisses on a first date. It then gives two questions to ask: "How might this situation make her vulnerable to date rape?" and "Is it safe for her to participate in preparing his body for intercourse when she does not know him very well?"
"How are people allowed to come into the classroom and say that?" wonders Helen Walsh, a health-education specialist for the Seattle School District, listening to a description of SHARE's language around date rape. "That's just a scare tactic, and scare tactics are not effective."
She also questions whether boys today really want to marry virgins. "There's clearly a value being taught," Walsh says of the context in which the question was asked of boys. "Kids are going to say what you want them to say." And she feels that the "progression of sexual expression" is not accurate, contending that girls may get aroused as quickly as boys but show it differently.
Pamela Hillard, the district's supervisor of health education, explains that a few years ago, a number of Seattle's health educators visited several SHARE presentations to judge whether the group should be allowed in Seattle's schools. "We felt there was a bias," Hillard says. "The girls were charged very clearly with taking more responsibility that things didn't go too far sexually."
Furthermore, both Walsh and Hillard cast doubt on the condom statistic SHARE uses stating a 20 percent failure rate among teens. According to SHARE, the figure comes from a 1986 article in the journal Family Planning Perspectives. "We would never, ever use a statistic [from 20 years ago]," Hillard says.
It is possible, however, that the condom figure is not that far off. Elizabeth Reis, a health educator for the county health department, consults a widely used reference book called Contraceptive Technology. According to the latest edition, while the condom failure rate assuming perfect use is only 2 percent, the failure rate for "typical use" (not as consistently or correctly) among people of all ages is 15 percent. Still, she says it's important for kids to know that the failure rate for condoms is much lower than the chance of getting pregnant from intercourse without any protection at all—85 percent.
SHARE director Lisa Merrifield defends her program. There are sexual differences among men and women, she says. Statistics may look old but are based on longitudinal studies that don't come out very often. She initially objects to characterizing SHARE as saying that French kissing makes women vulnerable to date rape, but when asked about the language in her curriculum, she says: "To look at things in terms of risk, you have to look at things slightly differently."
"Most things we teach come from a value system," she adds when asked about SHARE's. "We're not a complete curricula for schools. We're just a supplemental program."
The Seattle district's position on sexual values is different. Says Walsh: "When it comes to issues we have a diversity of opinion on"—like having sex before marriage—"we teach that there is a range of beliefs in our community."
Seattle uses an extensive county- developed curriculum called Family Life and Sexual Health, known as F.L.A.S.H. (metrokc.gov/health/famplan/flash), that doesn't so much preach abstinence as explore the topic. "Just as people have sex for a million different reasons, some of which you probably think are great and some of which you probably think are lousy, people also decide to abstain from sex for a million different reasons," reads a script from a F.L.A.S.H. lesson plan for ninth- and 10th-graders. The lesson plan notes that teens are more likely to adopt abstinence if it is cast as a legitimate choice for people of all ages.
Another lesson plan, on birth control for seventh- and eighth-graders, suggests this way to begin: "Some people have intercourse in their teens. For them, knowing about birth control is important. That's one reason we're studying it. Other people choose not to have intercourse in their teens, but almost everyone—even those who wait until marriage or who are gay or lesbian—will have intercourse at some time in his or her life."
Seattle teachers typically start bringing in condoms for kids to look at in middle school. High-school health clinics, run by outside organizations like the Group Health Co-operative, make condoms available for students to take.
Leighton's own kids have used the F.L.A.S.H. curriculum in the Renton district. She says the only problem she had with it was its stress on sex in "monogamous relationships." "What is that?" she asks, noting that serial monogamy is not the same thing as a lasting marriage. Other abstinence teachers, like Brad Henning of Puyallup, rail against such comprehensive sex education as "paying lip service to true abstinence." The state superintendent's office and Department of Health endorse abstinence but, like Seattle, remain neutral about how long kids should wait to have sex. "Abstinence until marriage is a good choice for most people," says Tollefsen of OSPI. But, she says, "A lot of kids in our school have parents who are in a relationship who are not married."
Most people might not be aware, however, that abstinence until marriage is pretty much official federal policy. When welfare reform came about in the Clinton years, the feds started making millions of dollars available to states and community groups for abstinence-only education. The government defined eligible programs as ones that teach a variety of precepts including that abstinence outside marriage is "the expected standard" and that "sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects."
Washington's state Legislature requires the state Department of Health to apply for such funding. Up until now, the feds have insisted not that grant recipients teach every precept but that they not conflict with any of them. This year, however, the administration has started requiring recipients to "meaningfully represent" that message and all the others it outlines. Meaning that, in at least some respects, the state may soon be broadcasting a message not all that different from SHARE's.