JUST DON’T DO IT: Plano-based Aim For Success hasn’t had much when it comes to reducing teen birth rates. photography by Chris Korbey

The Problem With Abstinence Education

In theory, abstinence is fail proof. But Texas spends the most on abstinence while achieving one of the highest teen birth rates in the country. What does that mean for Plano-based Aim for Success, the country’s biggest promoter of chastity?

Amy Corless doesn’t want her sixth-grade daughter to have sex. Not now, not any time soon. So last September, an abstinence presentation sponsored by the T.C. Marsh Middle School PTA sounded like an okay idea. The event was a production of Plano-based Aim For Success, which bills itself as the largest provider of abstinence education in the country and is the dominant voice of abstinence in Dallas’ private and suburban schools. But Corless had never heard of the group. A preview showed her jazzy PowerPoint slides about sex, condoms, and long-term goals. Corless was skeptical of the abstinence-until-marriage message—around the Corless home, it’s more like abstinence-until-adulthood—but was reassured by the Marsh mom network. “Everybody was like, ‘Well, it doesn’t hurt,’ ” Corless says.

Then her daughter came home from school one day reporting that condoms don’t work 98 percent of the time. Aside from the spurious statistic, Corless was uncomfortable with the analogies her 12-year-old recited, some of which seemed judgmental toward women and even contradictory. Virginity is a gift that a girl can’t ever take back, her daughter said, but if a girl has already had sex, she still can reclaim her status as a virgin. “It seemed like a backward thing to be teaching,” Corless says. In the upcoming vote on next year’s PTA budget, she plans to suggest a different use for the $1,600 that went to Aim For Success.

These are shaky times for the abstinence business, and Texas is Exhibit A. Critics like to point out that our state boasts the largest amount of spending on abstinence while achieving one of the highest teen birth rates in the country. (Mississippi took the No. 1 ranking earlier this year.) In fact, health authorities just reported that birth rates among American teens rose for the second consecutive year in 2007, ending a 14-year decline that began in 1991. And let’s pile on the bad news while we’re at it: in February, Bristol Palin, the most visible face of teen pregnancy in the country, deemed abstinence “not realistic.” Even the editorial page of the Dallas Morning News, not known for leaning leftward, recently concluded that “an abstinence-only health curriculum fails our children.” All this, while Democrats suddenly control the wellspring of abstinence funding. A state budget analyst has already predicted that abstinence money will evaporate under the Obama administration.

So it’s understandable that Marilyn Morris sounds battle weary. The former pregnant teen began her career two decades ago with an unpaid talk at her daughter’s school and founded Aim For Success in 1993. “We feel we’re under attack,” she says—from the media, from liberals, and especially from Planned Parenthood, which is “on a rampage to destroy abstinence.” But unlike almost every other abstinence program in the country, Aim For Success has never drawn its lifeblood from federal funding. The group’s annual revenue—about $700,000—is almost entirely supplied by schools that dip into their own budgets or PTA funds. In short, the future of Aim For Success will not rest on one sweeping vote in Washington, but on lots of little votes in places like DISD’s Marsh Middle School.

As Amy Corless discovered, though, objecting to Aim For Success is an awkward undertaking. Even a group of smart moms who work well together, like the moms at Marsh, can find themselves divided on the question of abstinence education. Oppose the idea, and you get a little self-conscious that other parents will think you endorse wanton sex in adolescence and favor handing out condoms in school hallways. Corless wants the abstinence message first, last, and always—but also wants her daughter’s class to get a better impression of contraception and disease protection than the fact that it can fail. It’s also hard to answer this question: if not Aim For Success, then what? Aim For Success makes everything so tidy. Corless tried Googling “sex ed” and got a paralyzing 6 million hits covering hundreds of options. Which ones are any good? Which ones are appropriate for which age? Which comply with state laws that say abstinence should be emphasized? “Nobody has time for that kind of research,” she says.

For a school like Marsh, these decisions are especially stressful. About three-quarters of the student body comes from low-income homes, but the school also has a nucleus of devoted, middle-class parents who choose to send their children to Marsh when they could afford private school—parents who cite a belief in public education, an impressive principal, and the fact that their children are genuinely happy going there. But given the school’s demographic reality, the PTA does well to bring in $20,000; some suburban PTAs easily clear several times that amount. Every dollar in the bank at Marsh represents some parent’s hours of organizing and running a fundraiser, and every budget item is a triage of what the school needs most. Parents like Corless will say, If you’re going to spend $1,600 at Marsh, you’d better make darn sure it’s worth the money.

No doubt, some parents think so. “If there’s something we could better spend our money on, I would like to see it,” says Katie King, another Marsh parent. She was skeptical of Aim For Success, she says, until she saw the program, which combines the seriousness of The Sex Talk with the pizzazz of a game show. “Once I heard the presentation, it turned me around,” she says. “I was pleasantly surprised about the revelations they made about STDs.” Like Amy Corless’ daughter, King’s son also came away from the Aim For Success presentation saying that condoms don’t work. But in King’s view, that’s not so bad, at least in middle school. “In sixth grade, you tell them don’t do it, and you tell them about the diseases,” King says.

Susie McMinn, though, worries the Aim For Success approach is too steeped in the negative. Her sixth-grader came away believing that if she had sex before she got married, she might die or be left unable to have children. McMinn, who has a son and daughter at Marsh, does not want her children to have sex before they are grown, but neither does she want them to develop a destructive view of disease protection. “At some point, they are going to realize these are idle threats,” McMinn says. “Some of their friends are going to have sex, and they won’t drop dead.” And years from now, when the time arrives for her son or daughter to have sex, she doesn’t want them thinking that condoms don’t work, so no point in fooling with them.

PTA president Melissa Higginbotham inherited the annual program from previous leaders, but remains firmly in favor of Aim For Success. “I believe it is important information for them to remain healthy, happy, successful students,” she says. She doesn’t mind that Aim For Success talks about the failures of condoms more than the benefits, and she believes the tone is appropriate for younger adolescents. “They need to know what the potential consequences of sex are when they have that first boyfriend or girlfriend and begin thinking about sex.”

But when kids are considering having sex—and in middle school, 30 percent of Dallas public school children have had intercourse—is there any evidence that Aim For Success will give them pause? Generally speaking, data don’t support abstinence education. Very few programs, including Aim For Success, have been subject to the kind of evaluation that withstands scientific rigor. This is not really Marilyn Morris’ fault; these kinds of studies are expensive and logistically difficult to conduct. Students do fill out questionnaires after her program, and Morris says these come back with glowing reviews. At Marsh, for example, one girl wrote, “Everything was great. You have changed my future.” About 95 percent of the students say the hour-long program is either “good” or “excellent.”

All you can conclude from those survey numbers, says Doug Kirby, a California researcher who recently reviewed data for all sex ed programs for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, is that 95 percent of kids enjoy themselves for 60 minutes. “Students’ immediate response to something is not a valid indicator of their future sexual behavior,” he says. Most programs require a serious time investment. In his review of data for both comprehensive and abstinence education, he found no school programs less than about 11 hours long that could have any lasting effect on behavior. A general rule of thumb, he says, is the larger the group, the more time you have to spend with them to see an influence.

For her part, Aim For Success’ Marilyn Morris agrees that a single hour will not change a kid’s life. What she does say is that the issues presented should be springboards for continuing discussion with parents and in schools. Among other things, she provides monthly e-mail tips for parents to talk to their kids without being squeamish. “We believe parents need to be the sex educators,” she says. On that point, the parents at Marsh, and even supporters of comprehensive sex ed, agree.

Whether they will agree to keep Aim For Success is up to the Marsh PTA—and the more than 150 school districts in Texas alone that hire its services. Morris points out that she was here long before the government got interested, starting with only an evangelical spirit of abstinence and a mission. That message will continue, she says, as long as there are schools that want to hear it.

Laura Beil is a Dallas freelancer who has written for the New York Times and Newsweek, among others.