In one Georgia classroom, students sucked on a lifesaver, rewrapped the candy and then were told to put it back in the bag so that someone else could eat it. In a New York classroom, a boy chewed a strip of gum, and then was told to spit that gum out so that someone else could use it next. And in Pennsylvania, students were asked to eat an Oreo cookie, gargle with water and then spit into a cup.
These aren’t science class demonstrations about the digestive effects of saliva on food. Rather, they are health class demonstrations about what it’s like to lose your virginity.
Gina Tonello’s daughter recorded part of this abstinence education presentation, delivered by a crisis pregnancy center, in November 2017.
In classrooms across the United States, crisis pregnancy centers — faith-based organizations that try to counsel women away from abortion — have branched out, entering public schools to encourage teens to remain abstinent until marriage. And these virginity demonstrations, which compare the “ick” factor of being faced with someone else’s chewed-up food to having sex with someone who has previous sexual partners, are drawing the alarm and ire of a growing number of parents.
Sex education that stresses the superiority of abstinence isn’t new, and neither is the practice of faith-based organizations entering public schools to make the case for abstinence until marriage. But increasing awareness of the role CPCs play in the reproductive rights debate, along with the debut of Generation X ― who are less politically conservative and more sexually liberal than previous generations ― as the parents of teenagers, has created a new clash with school districts over this issue.
These parents are pushing back on what they perceive to be pseudoscience and regressive sexual values inherent in abstinence education, at the same time that CPCs are rising in influence under the Trump administration, which has increased investment in abstinence curriculum and awarded grants to CPCs for teaching it.
CPCs began operating in the U.S. in the late 1960s in states that had already allowed abortions before Roe v. Wade legalized the practice nationwide. They offered free prenatal and postnatal services like pregnancy testing and counseling for women with unexpected pregnancies. And since the 1980s, CPCs have entered public schools to encourage children to take abstinence pledges as a way to drive down the abortion rate, according to Laura Hussey, a researcher at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who has studied CPCs since 2010.
There is no federal mandate that requires schools to teach sex ed, and there are no federal standards for what appropriate sex ed looks like. It’s up to states to regulate that curriculum, and decisions about what to teach are often made at the school district, school or even classroom level. This means that CPCs who want to enter public school classrooms have a low bar to clear.
Most of them are funded by individual donors and churches, but the Trump administration has invested more money into abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum, and select CPCs are getting ever-increasing grants from the federal government for help teaching the material.
CPCs have faced criticism for the way they try to counsel women against abortion because of their willingness to mislead women about the cost, safety and availability of the procedure. Some have even been caught lying outright to women seeking an abortion, claiming that the procedure would cause cancer, future infertility or mental health problems.
This same distorted interpretation of public health data appears to be a hallmark of their abstinence presentations in school, said Andrea Swartzendruber, a reproductive health epidemiologist at the University of Georgia.
“From the research that I’ve done in Georgia and have read, we know that crisis pregnancy centers often are providing misleading and inaccurate health information, but it’s in line with an abstinence-only based curricula,” she said. “We know that they often provide a lot of misleading information about the risks of abortion [and] discourage condom use and contraceptive use.”
Rachelle Dunn, a 37-year-old mother of a teen student at Deer Lakes High School in Cheswick, Pennsylvania, grew concerned last November when she saw a pamphlet her daughter had received in her health class from TryLife Center, a local CPC. One section of the pamphlet said that “self-sex,” or masturbation, could interfere with a future marriage because it redirected bonding “neurochemicals” meant for a future spouse toward the self. Another section described vasopressin, a hormone released during a man’s orgasm, as a bonding chemical that may diminish with too many sexual partners. To back this last claim up, the passage cited research conducted in prairie voles, not human beings.
Both of these claims are “bogus,” said Dr. Dudley Danoff, founder of the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center Tower Urology Medical Group and author of the book, The Ultimate Guide to Male Sexual Health.
“Most young teen men, before they’re married, are masturbating multiple times a day,” said Dudley, who has more than 40 years of experience as a urologist. “They grow up to be loving husbands and loving fathers.”
Dunn approached both the school and district administration about her concerns and eventually secured a promise from the administrators that the CPC would no longer give abstinence presentations at Deer Lakes.
A recent transplant from Colorado, Dunn thought she had been alone in her quest to stop the CPC from giving another presentation at the school. Dunn said the school told her, repeatedly, she had been the first parent in 15 years to complain about the presentations. But another parent, who asked not to be named for fear of professional retaliation, complained as well after her 15-year-old daughter ― who was set to get her first IUD the next week ― sat through a presentation during the same semester that offered a similar level of misinformation about IUDs.
The CPC presenter told the class that there was still a high risk of pregnancy with IUDs, the parent said, and that they could cause a spontaneous abortion. In fact, public and women’s health experts say that IUDs and other long-acting contraceptives are the most effective forms of reversible birth control available, and their growing popularity is one of the main reasons that teen births have continued to drop in the U.S. and are currently at an all-time low.
The pair brought their concerns about the IUD to the daughter’s OB/GYN, and ended up sharing what the CPC had told students at the health class.
“[The doctor] was blown away by what the school had portrayed as a sex ed class, and that it was taught by somebody who was not a health care professional because the information was so wrong,” said the parent.
TryLife Center did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The Deer Lakes School District administration directed requests to legal counsel, who then did not respond.
But this issue is not unique to the Deer Lakes School District. Parents throughout the country, including Jaime Winfree, a 41-year-old woman in Snellville, Georgia, and Gina Tonello, a 48-year-old woman in Baldwinsville, New York, have all approached their local schools or school boards after hearing about CPC abstinence presentations going on in their respective districts.
Winfree and Tonello have never met in person, but they connected through social media over the issue. The two moms have since banded together with parents from Texas, Ohio, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia, Missouri and California to form the National Coalition for Advancing Sex Education, aimed at helping parents remove CPCs from schools and demand comprehensive and medically-accurate sex education from their local school boards.
Heartbeat International and Care-Net, two large umbrella networks that organize CPCs in the U.S., did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the way abstinence-only education fits into their larger mission.
Like Dunn, other parents in the coalition have encountered both surprise and resistance from their local school districts regarding their efforts to kick CPCs out of the classroom.
Tonello successfully got her local CPC banned from the district and has started to pressure surrounding school districts to end their relationships with the CPC as well. One other school has dropped the CPC since the beginning of Tonello’s advocacy, which has included starting a website called StopTheShaming.org, which keeps track of the local effort to stop CPCs from visiting schools.
Unlike Tonello, Winfree could not convince the board of Gwinnett County Public Schools, the largest school district in Georgia, to stop the CPC visits. So she encouraged a local coalition of parents and concerned citizens that she had formed to back two school board candidates who supported comprehensive sex education and personally helped campaign for both.
“Instead of trying to change the school board’s mind, we’re focusing on the school board elections,” Winfree said. On May 22, one of those candidates won the primary election. He now faces off against someone who wants to maintain the abstinence-only status quo on sex ed in the Nov. 6 general election.
“My generation is the one that got the best sex education, and probably had the best reason to take sex education seriously.”
It’s no surprise that parents have become activists about sex ed, said Lisa Wade, a professor of sociology at Occidental University and author of the book American Hookup: The New Culture Of Sex On Campus.
The most recent presidential election served as a “wake-up call” for progressive Americans, Wade added. As a result, she said many different activist movements ― from the Me Too movement to teachers strikes and immigration issues ― have either taken root or blossomed as a wider swath of the electorate has become more actively involved in local politics to achieve their goals.
But a core reason for this parental activism around sex ed relates to the parents themselves, Wade said. They are all members of Generation X, a cohort of Americans who became sexually active during the AIDS epidemic.
Because of the fear around HIV/AIDS, which at that time was a rapid death sentence for anyone who contracted the virus, national political leaders, including Surgeon General C. Everett Koop who issued a groundbreaking report on AIDS in 1986, recognized that sex education in public schools was a national priority. Gay rights activists also launched a widespread and effective public health campaign to normalize condom use among gay men, which also had a knock-on effect of promoting condom use among straight Americans.
“My generation is the one that got the best sex education, and probably had the best reason to take sex education seriously,” said Wade, 44.
That rang true for Tonello, who grew up in a small, blue-collar farming town in Phoenix, New York, and graduated with a high school class of only about 120 students. But as remote and rural as her childhood was, she still vividly remembers the sophisticated sex education she received from her local public school.
It was graphic, practical and realistic about the possibility that high school students would grow up and have sex. Tonello remembers discussing different forms of birth control and practicing how to use a condom on a model penis. She remembers a frank explanation about how HIV is transmitted during sex, as well as explanations on why and how students should get regularly tested for HIV once they started having sex.
But in an age where medical professionals know even more about sexual health and there exists a wider public discourse about things like sexual consent and pleasure, many parents wonder why teens are still being taught to value virginity and pledge abstinence at the expense of learning about public health standards.
“The sex education I remember from my class in high school in 1986 was much more progressive and advanced than what my children had,” said Tonello. “My daughter is graduating with 450 people in a couple of weeks, and they never had the kind of sex ed I had.”