The latest salvo in the morality freighted battle over sex education landed this week, giving a boost to the beleaguered abstinence-only camp.
When it comes to getting young adolescents to delay sex, classes stressing abstinence may work better than other modes of sex education, according to a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. It's been billed as the first real evidence that "Just Say No" stands a chance against the raging hormones of adolescence.
Tens of millions of federal dollars have been spent on abstinence-only programs in the last decade. But academic studies -- and real life -- have pronounced the effort a failure. New data released last week shows that sexual activity, pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases are increasing among teenagers.
This new study may re-energize the debate. But chastity zealots might want to hold off on the celebrations.
The curriculum studied didn't rely on "I'm Saving It for Marriage" pins or make a prize out of virginity.
It was designed to be "not moralistic," its authors said. Aimed at sixth- and seventh-graders, it stressed the health risks of sex and taught students how to resist peer pressure.
That strikes me as a common-sense approach for kids so young they can imagine getting sick better than they can envision getting pregnant.
What shocked me most was not that abstinence classes helped delay the start of sex -- but that it was too late for so many of these middle-school students.
I don't think I'm out of touch. I've raised three daughters. I've seen "Juno," and "Precious." I've watched more episodes of "16 and Pregnant" on MTV than I'd like to admit.
Still, I was shaken to discover that among the study's 12-year-old subjects, 1 in 4 were already sexually active before the abstinence classes even started.
That finding, however, can't be broadly applied. The subjects of this study were all low-income African Americans attending urban public middle schools in Northeastern states.
Still, other research I found into the sexual practices of preteens suggests that 12% to 20% of middle-schoolers around the country are sexually active.
These are kids who just finished those embarrassingly blunt fifth-grade classes about penises and ovaries, egg and sperm, body odor and underarm hair. Now, we find out what they really need is information about oral sex, pregnancy and HIV.
Markham Middle School counselor Margaux Williams has counseled dozens of students at the Watts campus who are wrestling with the fallout of early sex. She told me that kids "understand the mechanics. . . . They know how to do sex, but that's about it."
"They don't know about sexually contracted diseases, how they can affect you, how they're spread. About the emotional process, the feelings involved, what happens when he doesn't want to be with you anymore," she said.
Williams has counseled the brokenhearted girls who stopped coming to school because a sexual partner dumped them and the promiscuous children excited by changing bodies and surging hormones.
"Somebody needs to explain to them the pros and cons, the big picture, the long-term effects," she said. "They only think for the here-and-now. We need to play the 'What if . . .' game with them."
A game, I think. Because they're 12 years old.
Even the study's author was a bit unnerved by what he found.
John B. Jemmott III is a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has spent years studying adolescent sex. He's also the father of two daughters, ages 11 and 13.
He expected that abstinence classes, properly constructed and taught, could help prevent adolescent sexual involvement. And in fact, one-third of the middle-schoolers taught abstinence hadn't had sex two years later, compared to more than half of the students enrolled in other sex ed classes.
That's considered success, he said. "But when we began with these young adolescents -- sixth- and seventh-graders -- 25% of them had already had sex," he said. "That means you have to start younger . . . and I'm having a hard time imagining what an intervention would look like for fourth- and fifth-graders."
And I'm having a hard time counting as a victory getting a 12-year-old to put off sex until ninth grade.