By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
A POLITICAL FARCE IN FOUR ACTS
CUE MUSIC: A sultry jazz trio playsa smoky, seductive ballad. The saxophone's tone is breathless, the acoustic bass moans lewdly.
CUE BACKGROUND NOISE: A chaotic mix of car horns, grinding engines, shouting.
ZOOM IN ON MOVIE HOUSE--ANYTOWN, U.S.A.: Except for the headlights speeding past, the theater's art-deco marquee is the only light over this urban streetscape. A few moviegoers stand in line for tickets. A police car crawls by on watch. One-sheets promoting John Wayne's newest flick hang in the windows. Scott, a preppy high school senior in an argyle sweater and shiny penny loafers, lingers on the sidewalk with his buffed buddy Nick, who is fitted in a varsity letter jacket. All rosy cheeks and bright eyes, the two scan the pedestrian traffic: a slump-shouldered merchant stumbles to the corner trolley stop, a single woman swings a fresh bottle of milk at her side.
Two teenage girls saunter into focus. Bullet-bras thrust skyward, ankle flesh flashing between bobby sox and whisking poodle skirts, they bat their long lashes and curl their painted lips into come-hither smiles. As they sashay past, they whisper a word or two into the boys' ears. Nick smirks. Scott looks startled. The girls giggle.
ZOOM OUT ON A CONVERTIBLE PARKED ACROSS THE STREET: The four characters trot across the boulevard, dodging a Studebaker. The girls fling themselves into Nick's ride. Nick slaps Scott on the back and winks. Scott, uncertain, flashes a puzzled look as he slides across the front passenger seat's lily-white vinyl.
MUSIC: The jazz trio speeds up, a snare drum snaps to life, and the group's languid pace is replaced with a menacing groove. The car speeds off into darkness.
The first three minutes of Innocent Victim, a sex education docudrama produced by the Kansas State Board of Health in 1954, is both a cornball cliffhanger and a sociological marker. The boys' guileless curiosity; the big-city Lolitas, with their viscous lipstick and insatiable eyes; the primordial pulse of juke-joint bop invoke seminal scenes in cult favorites like Reefer Madness, Dragnet, even a few choice episodes of Leave it to Beaver. But the film also serves as a reminder that, especially when it came to sex before marriage, black-and-white wasn't just a filmic color scheme in post-World War II America. It was a state of mind. And the lessons were clear.
As it turns out, Scott and his buddy should've opted for a quiet evening watching the Duke rustle bad guys instead of following the lead of those bad girls, who were after one thing only. Because once they got it, all the boys were left with were two nasty cases of venereal disease. "You took a risk by doing something society condemns. Perhaps you didn't realize some of the penalties involved," a doctor who could double as Ward Cleaver tells Scott as he delivers the bad news--and the movie's principal moral. "Now that'd be a lovely gift for the girl you love, wouldn't it? To find out she had syphilis on her wedding day?"
Reel forward to the late 1960s, when the Sexuality Information and Education Council for the United States (SIECUS) released Parent to Child About Sex, a straightforward, 20-minute tutorial. While a string-laden soundtrack swells in the background, talking heads sporting crew cuts, with spectacles perched studiously, replace Innocent Victim's melodramatic clips with a science-based, comprehensive curriculum. Although stilted by today's standards, the film makes no mention of chastity and references marriage only once. Subjects such as menstruation, masturbation, and penis growth through puberty are dealt with matter-of-factly. There are even anatomically correct diagrams. "If the child is trained to believe sex is bad," viewers are warned, "they will grow up to fear something that is supposed to be natural."
In hopes of keeping pace with the decade's now vaunted, often demonized sexual revolution, SIECUS concluded that one way to reach Nixon-era youth was to reeducate their repressed parents. (To illustrate the point, a grandmother recalls her youth, when even the mention of sex was taboo.) Thorough knowledge about what goes where, how, and to what result was to be the best weapon against the day's most dangerous social disease--free love.
Since both pieces of archival footage are so stylistically dated, it's tempting to dismiss them as nothing more than quaint, even comedic artifacts. Yet in 1999, as "sex and violence" becomes nearly synonymous with "mass media," the philosophical differences between Innocent Victim and Parent to Child About Sex make up the molten core of a cultural war being fought in school districts and state legislatures across the nation, including Minnesota.
As the millennium approaches, social conservatives, now more apt to utter the loaded phrase "pro family" than "pro life," have lit a grass-fire movement to stop educators from teaching safe sex to students in public schools. Requiring these classes, they believe, is simply the continuation of a failed experiment based on the fatalistic assumption that a majority of teenagers will have intercourse before they're married, no matter what, and therefore should be schooled on how to use birth control.
The statistics, they say, are horrifying: The most recent Minnesota Student Survey, conducted in 1997 by the Minnesota Department of Children Families and Learning, found that by the time kids reached their senior year in high school, exactly half reported having had heterosexual intercourse. And while teen birth rates in the state have actually fallen (14 percent) since 1991, along with incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in outstate Minnesota, the numbers still, say those opposed to current sex-ed programs, demand drastic action. In 1997, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, 1,918 girls in the state between the ages of 15 and 17 gave birth, along with another 3,664 young women between the ages of 18 and 19. Close to 2,500 females between the ages of 15 and 19 had abortions. One in five Minnesota teens reported having contracted an STD before leaving high school. Kids in the Twin Cities were four to seven times more likely to contract a venereal disease than their out-state counterparts. And, according to the Minnesota AIDS Project, 40 percent of newly reported cases of HIV and AIDS during the past year in Minnesota have been among young people in their teens and twenties.
By replacing comprehensive sex ed with classes that teach abstinence and only abstinence until marriage--or, at the very least, a curriculum giving parents that option--a growing minority of vocal parents, Christian activists, and conservative politicians have come to believe they can save the nation's children from falling victim to their own promiscuity.
On the other side of the sexual divide, teachers' unions, health educators, publicly funded organizations such as SIECUS, and the like-minded Minnesota Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Prevention and Parenting (MOAPPP) argue that the public schools' health curricula first need to be uniform (in Minnesota, for instance, no state-level mandate exists requiring any sex education at all). Beyond that, a "comprehensive" program is in order, one which would educate students about their options, including abstinence, so that no matter what they decide, there will be safeguards against unwanted pregnancies and STDs. They say teaching kids to be scared of sex, as circa 1950, or telling them to "just say no" may seem like common sense, but scientific study suggests otherwise.
In 1997 the World Health Organization reviewed 35 sex-ed programs and found that those most effective in changing young people's risky behavior not only addressed abstinence, but taught contraception and discussed STD prevention in detail. The National Institutes of Health's Consensus Panel on AIDS concluded in February 1997 that the abstinence-only approach "places policy in direct conflict with science and ignores overwhelming evidence that other programs are effective." In particular, those in favor of comprehensive education stress that it's the kids who are most at risk (inner-city youth, minority kids, and gay teens) who would most likely be left unprepared if abstinence were the sole message delivered in the classroom.
As with most social issues of the day, from abortion to affirmative action to gun control, there is a middle ground. In this debate, though, gray isn't part of the color scheme. The battles over sex ed, now being fought at school boards and among lawmakers across the state, are between white hats and black hats; left and right; righteous and wrong-headed. And no matter who is left standing after round one, there's sure to be a sequel.
Act One: Condoms in a Candy Dish
Eyes blurry, squatting and standing like a big-league catcher stretching his legs, Bob Tracy is running on fumes. Still, after spending a ten-hour day lobbying legislators for funding in the wide marble halls of the state Capitol, the director of community affairs and education at the Minnesota AIDS Project feels compelled to testify at tonight's marathon school-board meeting in St. Paul. Besides being tenacious, Tracy, dressed in blue blazer and gray pants, is also gay--which, in the eyes of a majority of this crowd, marks him as it would Hester Prynne.
Two days ago, in the April 18 edition of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Minnesota Lawyers for Life, the Catholic Defense League, the Archdiocese of St. Paul, Total Life Care Centers, Knights of Columbus (the Roseville Council), and the Minnesota Family Council took out a three-quarter-page advertisement encouraging right-minded parents to pack the school district headquarters on Colborne Street for this meeting. And so they have. "Your Rights Are Being Ignored," the notice read. "On Tuesday evening, the St. Paul Board of Education will take a final vote on the proposal to begin dispensing birth control prescriptions and contraceptives on school grounds--once again without parental consent or knowledge....Speak out for your right to protect the moral and physical health of your children!"
Health clinics in Minneapolis schools began distributing condoms and birth-control pills directly to students a year ago, to little fanfare. The St. Paul schools' desire to entertain a similar strategy, coming near the tail end of the 1999 legislative session, has become a cause for conservative lobby groups and religious activists who believe standing up for abstinence can be a powerful, across-the-board consensus builder, a representative rallying cry akin to "No new taxes!"
"The culture is shifting in this area," Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, says. "The whole safe-sex message in areas of sexuality is an abysmal failure. It's left nothing but sickness, death, and unhappy people in its wake. What's most striking is how parents have been cut out of the process. There's an elitist attitude at work out there."
Although the buzz in the halls of the Capitol earlier today was that the school board would give the nod to distribution of contraceptives on school property, advocates for the change were worried that angry rabble-rousers might cause the board to catch a case of cold feet. So a few of them, like Tracy and MOAPPP's co-executive director, Nancy Nelson, have shown up to keep board members focused on the fact that the schools already give students vouchers to get birth control at community clinics, but 80 percent of the boys and 30 percent of the girls did not redeem them, either because, school officials surmise, it was considered too embarrassing or too inconvenient. "What with the recent violence in the schools and the sense that we're losing control of our kids, people are becoming more conservative," Nelson says later. "It's understandable, but it's an authoritarian, knee-jerk response. We're not listening to the kids. We're not paying attention to the facts."
Of the more than 150 people on site to offer public comment before the board makes a final decision, only a couple dozen are fighting for Health Start Inc., the nonprofit group that runs clinics in St. Paul's seven high schools and would be empowered, with a yes vote here, to dispense the Pill, spermicide, and condoms. Tracy, Phillips, and a handful of public health advocates stand in the back of the room. Everyone else has come to just say no.
Despite the uneven numbers, board chair Mary Thornton Phillips, a teacher's teacher whose exacting demeanor indicates little patience for chaos, makes sure each side is given a fair hearing. For well over an hour, those for and against the status quo speak alternately, as if Thornton Phillips were presiding over a debate club.
A junior from St. Paul Ramsey High School, her voice made shaky by anger: "This proposal is an insult to teenagers. Do you really believe we're not smart enough to get birth control on our own? This is an insult to the teenagers who are choosing not to have sex."
The crowd thunders its approval. A few people stand as they clap.
A retired nurse, wagging her finger at the school board: "There are children out there who are going to have sex. Give these young people a safe haven. This is an ethical decision. Have the courage to do the right thing."
The minority strains to register on the applause meter. Tracy's public policy programs coordinator, Jeremy Hanson, a 26-year-old lobbyist, lets out a lone whoop.
A nurse with five children, three of whom are in the public schools and one of whom was born when she was still in high school: "We have to say no to sex. Having contraception will only make the temptation greater."
Another long, loud roar. And on it goes, back and forth, those opposed to birth control in the schools breaking into cheers, those in favor doing their best not to look discouraged. At one point, the proceedings begin to resemble an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, when a young father leaps up and shakes his fists as he lambastes the liberal establishment. "I'm getting really, really tired of things being misplaced," he spits. "You want to give your kids condoms, put them in your candy dishes at home! But leave my kids alone." As the room erupts, Thornton Phillips--facing the assembly--peers over her glasses, lips pursed into a tight, bemused smile. You get the sense that were this her homeroom, there'd be hell to pay.
Eventually, Tracy makes his way to the lectern. Later in the evening, Thornton Phillips will reference his speech, adopt its central argument, take up its plea for kids who will ultimately fall through the cracks of an absolutist agenda. In a polished, passionate oratory that silences the room, she will push the board to its 5-to-2 vote in favor of birth control in the schools. At the moment, though, it's not clear that a yes vote is inevitable. So Tracy comes to the podium, identifies himself as gay, then spins a personal anecdote about a friend whose usually responsible teenage girl decided to have sex. Because she was cautious and used condoms, he says, she managed to weather it without getting pregnant or contracting an STD. He talks about kids with parents who are abusive or who have neither the time nor the inclination to reinforce an abstinence-only curriculum. He talks about health organizations that unequivocally support a lesson plan that teaches responsibility, whether or not a student decides to become sexually active. He reminds the crowd about AIDS--that it kills, that it can be prevented.
As Tracy walks down the center aisle to his spot at the back of the room, the room bristles as it shifts. The whispers make up a hiss. Two men near the back exit clench their teeth while jutting their wagging chins in disgust.
Tracy, avoiding the aftershock with a hard, high stare, falls back into a squat. He rests his head in his hand and breathes deeply.
Act Two: Mother Knows Best
The reputation that precedes them conjures a caricature. Conservative commentators such as Katherine Kersten, director of the Center of the American Experiment, in Minneapolis, and frequent contributor to the Star Tribune's op-ed page, paints them as moral revolutionaries, the praiseworthy antithesis to America's "knowledge class" and the American Civil Liberties Union. Pundits perched on the left wing portray them as zealots clad in blinders, automatons following marching orders handed down by the Beltway's religious right. Before meeting them face to face, you might expect these (in)famous women to be wearing tea-length skirts with their hair in tight buns, banging oversized editions of the King James Bible.
To four of the 30 mothers who were influential in the suburban Osseo School District's January decision to unveil a two-track sex education program this coming fall, these characterizations are as befuddling as they are amusing. Self-described "die-hards," Jeri Gort, Cindy Bailey, Judy Peterzen, and Vicky Johnson claim no larger agenda than "choice," no other motive but concern for their children's physical and emotional well-being. Indeed, in person they are neither ravenous nor inflexible. With pictures of grinning kids buttoned to their handbags, their contemporary clothes bought off the rack at the nearest department store, they're as average as a gang of suburban soccer moms could be.
Gort is a churchgoing community activist with a graduate degree in social work; Bailey a soft-spoken businesswoman who typically votes Independent and has an affinity for crunching numbers; Peterzen a level-headed registered nurse and school-board member. "I don't even go to church. So what does that make me?" Johnson, a medical lab technician, quips sardonically.
What they've managed to accomplish, though, is a national first--a citizen-driven coup that has stirred up politicos on both sides of the civic divide. (Dr. James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, a militant think tank located in Colorado Springs, now holds Osseo up as a paragon of hope in his monthly newsletter.) After two years of strategy sessions, committee meetings, and one school-board election, Gort and Co. managed to force the district into offering Osseo parents a choice--between the comprehensive sex education curriculum already taught in the district's four junior highs and three high schools, and an abstinence-until-marriage track, which, Gort says, can function as a kind of "club" for teens who believe sex is best left for later. Birth control will be addressed in the abstinence-only format, but only in terms of its low success and high failure rates. "There will be no discussion of the mechanics of birth control," Peterzen says of the new curriculum. "It might weaken the resolve of some students." The origin of AIDS and other STDs will also be covered, but again, abstinence will be presented as the sole path of resistance to the infections. Dialogue about homosexuality and abortion will be off-limits.
"Condoms are not the panacea we once thought they were," Peterzen says, recalling the STD tragedies she has seen as a nurse. "All you end up doing is reducing the risk to an 18 percent failure rate. That's not good enough for my children."
"Over fifty percent of these kids are abstinent through graduation, despite their exposure to mixed messages on TV and in music videos," Gort enthuses. "With this new track, we're giving our kids a consistent message at home, in church, and at school. But MOAPPP, Planned Parenthood, and SIECUS think we're too stupid to make our own decisions. Who makes them the judge?"
Waid Johnson, a health educator at Common Health Clinic in Stillwater, maintains he's not in the business of judging or condemning parents who are active in their children's lives. He agrees that an abstinence-only message is appropriate for students in the primary grades and is often successful through puberty when it's also emphasized at home. When it comes to kids in junior high and senior high, though, he says the data on programs that include a safe-sex emphasis is undisputed. "There are empirical numbers that prove children who receive comprehensive sex education will delay sexual intercourse," he reasons. "To me, it's scary we even have to have this conversation. In Europe, kids get sex ed from kindergarten through secondary school. It's mandatory. And they have much lower teen birth rates."
Johnson is particularly worried about the kids who might be put at risk if placed in an abstinence-only class: kids scared to tell their parents they're sexually active or gay or both; kids who might be on the receiving end of sexual abuse and incest.
"Will some of our students fall through the cracks? Yes," Gort responds. "But what we're saying is that the schools aren't responsible for that. The parents are. After all, they're the ones who have to live with the ramifications."
MOAPPP's Nancy Nelson stresses that messages about abstinence are crucial to any comprehensive program, which, she says, should also include alternatives for kids who choose to have sex no matter what; course material that's racially, ethnically, and culturally nonbiased; and an overall theme that encourages healthy sexual relationships, not fear. "What's ironic is that kids in Minnesota schools aren't getting anything close to comprehensive sex education in the first place," Nelson adds. "We've never done a good job of developing a holistic approach. That's what we should be fighting for. The Osseo plan is based on misinformation."
Gort's group balked when asked if there were statistics available to back the claim that if schools teach adolescents about birth control they'll become more promiscuous--an argument central to their philosophy and deemed ludicrous by groups such as SIECUS.
While preparing to lobby the Osseo School Board, though, Cindy Bailey did extensive research on the effectiveness of condoms, and found studies conducted by Planned Parenthood that show condoms fail between 18 and 20 percent of the time in preventing pregnancy. She also dug up persuasive data about STDs such as genital herpes, chlamydia, and the human papilloma virus (HPV)--diseases that can be contracted even during sex with condoms and can lead to sterility, cancer, and, in very rare cases, death. Mary Jo George, an advocate for the Minnesota AIDS project, points out that data on condom failure rates are linked directly to misuse, and insists that no one in favor of comprehensive sex ed believes birth control is a "panacea." It is an option, though, of which she believes many sexually active kids need to be fully aware.
Gort and her cohorts say they couldn't agree more. That's why they've worked to forge the new two-track program, even when it looked like they had the school-board votes to get rid of comprehensive sex education altogether. Asked whether one day they plan to pursue an abstinence-only program for all students, they uniformly insist on just the opposite. "To me, this is about choice," Vicky Johnson says. "That's why I got involved, period. The support we've gotten from groups like the Minnesota Family Council didn't come until just a few months ago. We've been at this for years."
"We're not stupid," Gort insists, over and again. "The beauty of this is that it addresses everyone's values. There are classes to support kids who choose not to be sexually active, and there are classes to teach you everything you need to know if you choose to be sexually active. It's a win-win situation. No one's ever done this before. What if it works? We'll never know until we try. Believe me, if in ten years the statistics tell us differently, we'll all jump over to the other side."
Forty-two percent of Osseo's junior high students and 31 percent of those in the senior high schools have signed up for the abstinence-until-marriage course that is set to begin this fall.
Act Three: Nailed to the Goal Post
When they purchased their $35 advance tickets from Ticketmaster, most of the 500-plus self-proclaimed conservatives at this evening's rally for the Minnesota Family Council had never heard of Littleton, Colorado, or Columbine High School. Just 48 hours before this April 20 gathering, though, that latch-key community--hauntingly familiar to a bulk of this suburban-based, Suburban-driving crowd--became a bellwether for special-interest groups across the spectrum. Gun-control advocates, gun enthusiasts, civil libertarians, media watchdogs, movie censors, and misfits of every stripe found a foothold in its aftermath. Members of the religious conclave in attendance tonight count 15 lives sucked into the moral void that is our lost youths' collective soul.
"We live in very troubled times," MFC president Tom Prichard tells the crowd, who've assembled at the State Theatre in downtown Minneapolis for an evening of inspiration. "When family crumbles, society crumbles. Judeo-Christian values must be our foundation."
The congregation's master of ceremonies, Chuck Knapp, a Promise Keeper and radio personality for the Roseville-based Christian radio station, KTIS (900 AM), follows Prichard's lead with a precursory prayer. "Lord," he purrs sorrowfully. "We don't understand the madness." A bass-chested man in the front row moans in agreement.
The tragedy will emerge as one of the evening's many themes, all intertwined, all parts of a holy whole. To be pro-life, against homosexuality, and for abstinence is to be for the children, about the future, true to the evening's subject, which is projected on a towering screen suspended behind the stage: "Taking a Stand: Defending the Family."
Phil Keaggy is in the house. A middle-aged singer-songwriter with a pleasant, tenor voice, he has come to sing of love for God and country, and self-respect. Between tunes with lyrics like "I only want to spend my life with you," he tells autobiographical tales, about the day he and his sister found God back in the early '70s, about the child he and his wife Bernadette lost to premature death.
At that, Knapp hands the Family Advocate Award to Barb Anderson, a teacher and writer from Anoka who, as he puts it, has served the "pro-family" cause by uncovering the lies being taught to the youth in our public schools. While accepting the honor, she tells the faithful not to trust the system. She tells them abstinence until marriage is the only way to put kids "back on track": She spins true-life horror stories about HPV. "If it weren't for AIDS," she claims, "HPV would be on the front page. There is no safe sex for teenagers." She applauds the mothers in Osseo. She calls them the "Kitchen Militia."
"It's just like those kids in Colorado," Anderson says a few days later. "They needed adults to give them guidance. The abstinence message will also affect teen suicide rates, because it affects self-esteem. We have to teach teens that sex is a part of their life they should value and not give away so freely."
Megan West, Miss Minnesota 1998, is the evening's warmup speaker. Dressed in a modest business suit and sensible black heels, she delivers a canned speech about her work promoting abstinence throughout the state. "So many things are bringing our children down, such as Marilyn Manson," she deadpans, referring to the salacious and transgressive glam rocker. "We need to teach our children absolutism."
Finally, at a few minutes before 9:00 p.m., the big ticket, the reason everyone is still in downtown Minneapolis at this ungodly hour, Reggie White, takes the stage to testify. The All-Pro football star, the onetime spiritual leader of the hated Green Bay Packers, "The Minister of Defense": Reverend Reggie White.
Held up for ridicule by the media when he spoke to the Wisconsin Legislature a year ago, White has become a kind of folk hero among those who abhor political correctness. Never mind that he said black people like to dance, Asians can turn a TV into a watch, Native Americans know how to sneak up on people, and kids--his included--sometimes deserve to be whupped. He speaks from the heart, and doesn't care how it sounds.
White plays to his reputation. Dressed in a rumpled brown suit, his shirt collar open, he paces the stage, thinking out loud, channeling the word, improvising--a preacher through and through. He makes the call, the crowd responds.
"Jesus had a hard time going to the cross. But Jesus was no wimp."
"Satan's next big move will be against our youth."
"The problem our children have is spiritual....We depend more on education than our relationship with God."
"Now don't get me wrong, I got nothing against education. But it's not helping us with our morals. Most of these universities are teaching us their beliefs, removing God."
The sermon is nondenominational, born-again. In the Greek alphabet, White says, X is the first letter of Christ's name. The letter X is a cross. Our children are the children of Malachi. Generation X. Our children are going mad. He quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He rages about how we've turned into a country of rights instead of a country of righteousness. And in the presentation's most inexplicable twist, he calls the media to task for letting women reporters in the locker room to interview pro athletes.
Outside the theater a gaggle of protesters has been organized by the PrideAlive program, a gay and bisexual men's support group sponsored by the Minnesota Aids Project. They form a small circle, peacefully carrying signs urging MFC to "stop the lies." Endorsed by other local and national gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender organizations, this counter-punch is as much about the Minnesota Family Council as about Reggie White. Bob Tracy says the politically active conservative's ability to synthesize issues, from sex education to school violence, is not only disturbing but effective. He says it's all part of a legislative push that in 1999 has resulted in abstinence-only amendments on a number of bills, an attempt to reverse St. Paul's decision on contraceptive services, and the adoption of language that would nullify a 1988 law requiring public schools to provide AIDS education (see "Sex and the Single Issue," page 16). "It's all part of the same old right-wing religious agenda," Tracy warns. "And it's shrewd. After all, who in their right mind would be against something like abstinence?"
By the time White is done speaking, most of the demonstrators have cleared out. ("I know they're sincere," MFC board chair L. David Henningson tells the crowd inside. "I also know they're sincerely wrong. It tells me we're making a difference. We're making them nervous.") As White wraps up the night's sermon, though, a few gay men are still milling around under the State's marquee, handing out flyers that read, "We are living proof that you can change." When White's entourage wanders out the front door a few minutes ahead of the crowd, he absent-mindedly grabs one of the leaflets. Thirty yards down the sidewalk, he glances at the literature. He stops, pivots, and returns at a quick step; not to scold, but to congratulate. Neglecting to read the fine print, White mistakenly thinks these young people are Christian missionaries trying to save homosexuals from themselves. When he realizes the literature was put out by an organization called Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays, he retreats.
Considering the conclusion to White's address, the exchange is either funny, sad, or both: "If no one's calling you a homophobe or a bigot, check yourself," he'd shouted to a chorus of alleluias. "Because you're doing something wrong."
Act Four: The Kids in the Hall
When Katie Gozola was confirmed at Bloomington Baptist Church in the ninth grade, she was presented with a "purity ring"--one lone pearl set into a thin gold band. She plans to wear it until she's married to a man like her current boyfriend, a Christian with his priorities in order. "I believe sex is a gift from God. It's meant for marriage," the polite, well-spoken student says. "It's like holding hands: The first time you do it, your heart pounds. Then it gets mundane. If you have sex before you're married, it won't be as special. It will become mundane."
A 17-year-old senior at Jefferson High School, Gozola is sitting at a table at the Caribou Coffee Shop in Lund's grocery store on 98th and Normandale in Bloomington. She's joined by her friend Ben Olson, a 16-year-old sophomore from Bloomington's Kennedy High School and their twentysomething youth-group leader from church, Laura Smythe, who also works as the assistant director of New Life Family Services, a nonprofit abstinence resource center and adoption agency. While Smythe takes notes and nods encouragement, Olson and Gozola reflect on questions about temperance, sex education, and the awkward task of coming of age in the late 1990s.
"I thinks sex was meant to be between one man and one woman," Olson says, soberly searching for just the right words. "That was the original plan of God. It was the best idea."
"The thing is," Gozola chimes in, "in the sex education classes I've taken, they don't teach you about the pressure. I've learned more about saying no from Laura."
"Almost every client who sees us and learns about having a second virginity gets tears in their eyes," Smythe says. "Because they didn't know they had a second chance. They're never told they have a choice."
Saying no. Purity rings. Encouraging those who've "strayed from the path" to seek forgiveness, to ask God for a "second virginity." Among a growing number of adolescents, most of whom are white, middle-class, and raised by conservative, churchgoing parents, these seemingly square sentiments are becoming a kind of fad. William Mattox, a conservative columnist who frequently contributes to the Washington Times, takes encouragement from a recent study completed by the National Center for Health Statistics that found the number of high school guys who believe themselves to be "sexually experienced" dropped from 61 percent to 49 percent between 1990 and 1997. This, he says, combined with NCHS data showing a similar, but less pronounced, decline in sexual activity among like-aged girls, has led him to believe the nation could be in the early stages of a major shift in youth sexual behavior--at the threshold of, as Tom Prichard puts it, a "new sexual revolution."
Anecdotally, at least, the signs are there. There are popular books on the subject, such as Joshua Harris's I Kissed Dating Good-bye, which has become a bestseller among evangelicals. Church groups nationwide have initiated campaigns like "True Love Waits," which Mattox says have convinced hundreds of thousands of kids to sign cards promising abstinence. Last June, more than 350 socially conservative activists and sex educators met to trade information at the first National Abstinence Conference at the Airport Hilton in Minneapolis. Smythe's group, New Life Family Services, sends speakers out to public schools to spread the message. "If it were up to me, I'd have abstinence education for everyone," she says. "If we teach kids about condoms, it's like we're giving them permission."
Gozola agrees: "In school, they show us everything you can do with birth control. And I think maybe that puts ideas in people's minds. It encourages people to have sex."
"The real problem," Olson concludes, "is that they don't talk about the social and emotional consequences of sex before marriage."
While the two teens get motivated in their church group, where recently they said a "prayer for prom," St. Paul Central juniors Anna Smith-Lindall and Baron Tisthammer and sophomore Leora Maccabee have been lobbying their classmates to speak out in favor of their school board's plan to hand out contraception. Photocopying handmade flyers, printing pieces in the school newspapers, even delivering speeches at board meetings, the three believe sex is best left for later. They worry, though, that if some of their classmates aren't taught how to have protected intercourse, there will be more teen mothers walking their halls than ever.
"I just think (handing out contraception) is a necessary evil," Smith-Lindall says. "Like it or not, this is how our culture and our schools have evolved. If you take away comprehensive sex education, the system will break down. This is the last time to reach everyone and teach them what's safe. After graduation, people just scatter."
"My parents are Roman Catholic, so they aren't very comfortable talking about sex," Tisthammer notes. "I have to depend more on school and reading. For people to get it, the information needs to be everywhere--if not at home, then out in the community or in school."
"Look," Maccabee asserts, "if this is an issue driven by your religion, send your kids to private school. You have to accept that other people are different. They're going to make different decisions. It's just sad that some people only think about themselves."
Now that the St. Paul school board has made its final ruling on the matter, the three friends, gathered at a coffee shop near Macalester College, are in a reflective mood. Tisthammer, who watched the vote go down, says the guy who talked about condoms in a candy dish really angered him. That meeting, he remembers with distaste, was "hysterical." Maccabee talks about lost innocence. "My nine-year-old sister is debating marijuana in the classroom," she says. "Times have changed."
It's Smith-Lindall, though, who seems to innately understand what adults on both sides of the abstinence issue too often forget in the fray. "I looked around the room that night, and there were so many different people at that meeting. And they all came from a different walk of life, a different point of view. That's what it's like in our schools today. Why don't people see that? Why don't they understand?"