The Lowell

Abstinence-only Sex Ed Programs Leave American Teens in the Dark

sex graphIf you feel that using the word "contraception" or "condom" is necessary to comprehensive sex education, don't move to Charlotte, North Carolina. The city's public school guidelines prohibit students, teachers and administrators from uttering these words within the walls of a classroom. The tendency to evade discussion and education about sexuality may be why the United States claims the top spot in birth, abortion and sexually transmitted disease rates among teens in the industrialized world, significantly exceeding rates in European countries. This startling discrepancy prompted the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Advocates for Youth, a non-profit organization that aims to help young people make informed decisions about their sexual health, to sponsor annual summer study tours to France, Germany and the Netherlands to explore why adolescents in Europe handle sexuality more responsibly than adolescents in the United States. Study tour participants -- policy makers, researchers, youth-serving professionals and youth -- spend two-and-a-half weeks in the three countries examining the European approach to teen sexuality by visiting schools and talking with youth, families, sex educators, ministers and government officials.

The United States has 13 times the teen birth rate of the Netherlands, 25 times the gonorrhea rate of Germany and three times the teen abortion rate of France, according to the 2001 National Vital Statistics Reports. American teenagers begin having sex at around age 15, an average of two years earlier than their European counterparts. Why are rates in the United States drastically higher than in European countries? "In general, young people in Europe are respected and seen as important to society -- people who contribute and add to the culture," says Barbara Huberman, director of education and outreach at Advocates for Youth. In the United States, "teens are viewed as delinquent, disorganized and deficient." Huberman also pointed out that since Europeans respect teens, they support the rights of teens to contraceptive services and access to sex information. As a result, sex discussion can take place without censoring essential information or pushing for abstinence until marriage. "The French minister even stated that the state has no right to tell teens that they can't have sex, and that teens do have a right to accurate information, services and access to resources."

President George W. Bush has responded to the nation's high STD and birth rates among teens by cracking down on sex education, proposing a 2003 budget that sets aside $135 million for "abstinence-until-marriage" education programs, according to the California Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League Web site. The sum is a $33 million increase over the funding for 2002. No federal funding is currently allocated for comprehensive sex education.

Yet San Francisco Stop AIDS Project communications director Shana Krochmal believes that comprehensive sex education is a crucial means for preventing STDs. "It's important for us to be realistic about what teens will do," Krochmal says. "Although abstinence is the only 100 percent effective protection against AIDS, there will still be teens who choose to have sex. Because of this, we need to arm them with the tools that they need to be safe." According to Krochmal, a rise in AIDS rates among young gay men makes abstinence-only programs particularly problematic. "Teens will be taught that abstinence until marriage is the best choice, but what about the case of a 17-year-old gay boy?" Krochmal says. "He will never be allowed to marry another man, and it leaves him with even fewer skills of how he could have safer sex."

Junior Jack Jia, who visited France on a home-stay last summer, feels that Bush's attempt to control teen sexual activity with abstinence-only programs is flawed and dangerous. "To push a program like this is unreal," Jia says. "It's putting a law on human nature. The [teen sex] rates won't go down; they'll go up out of ignorance."

In 1988, only two percent of public schools taught abstinence as the only way to prevent pregnancy and STDs according to an Alan Guttmacher Institute study. In 1999 that number rose to 23 percent, and today the number stands at 33 percent. Most of these programs forgo any discussion of contraception outside of failure rates. Teen Aid, a pro-abstinence organization based in Spokane, Washington, that publishes some of the most widely distributed abstinence-only textbooks, cites the Holy Bible as a "medical reference" and defines abortion as "an intent to kill the unborn," according to Alan Singer's review of the textbook Sexuality, Commitment, and Family on the Rethinking Schools Web site. San Francisco Bible Church pastor Henry Tam says he believes that God made man and woman to come together in marriage, and that abstaining from sex until marriage would please God. "God designated sex to be enjoyed by married couples as one of the many joys that are part of a marriage," he says. Although Tam advocates abstinence until marriage, he does not believe that an increase in pro-abstinence education programs will decrease teen STD and birth rates.

California, the only state to reject the current federal funds, piloted pro-abstinence education programs a few years ago, according to Huberman. "The sex rates didn't change," she says. The state's Education Code does, however, currently require course material and instruction to "stress that pupils should abstain from sexual intercourse until they are ready for marriage" and to "teach honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage. According to Huberman, "European educators do not stress abstinence until marriage and instead are tolerant of teenagers' choices. "In Europe, we asked the instructors if there was anything that they couldn't talk about during class relating to sex," she says. "They looked at us like we were from Mars. Europeans are much more open."

Nicholas Moy, a French American International High School junior who visited France on a home-stay two years ago, noticed that Europeans do not consider sex a taboo the way Americans do. "Sex isn't viewed as a sin in Europe the way it is here," Moy says. "For them, (teens having sex) is universal and pretty much expected after a certain amount of time dating."

Yvonne Wong is a 16-year-old reporter for The Lowell, the student newspaper at Lowell High School in San Francisco.

Unauthorized Adventurers Abound Nationwide


Tristan Savatier peers into a labyrinth of machinery illuminated only by stars. He navigates through the darkness of the abandoned French Renault factory, following his friends into a deserted control room, dusty from years of neglect. Apprehensive that police will break up the expedition, they nevertheless continue, turning the corner to discover discarded gas masks and deteriorating blueprints of a steam-powered generator. After snapping pictures, Savatier and his entourage leave the factory, slipping into the cover of darkness.

Savatier is not your typical intruder; he is an urban explorer, a member of a growing subculture gaining adherents around the globe. From abandoned subway tunnels to deserted mental asylums, urban explorers venture into the most obscure recesses of metropolitan landscapes to discover forbidden settings and photograph their findings.

Savatier said he is interested in the element of mystery prohibited locations present. "If a door says, 'No Trespassing,' there might be something behind it that's interesting," he said.

Urban explorers undertake extreme exploits, fueled by the notion that "off-limits" is an arbitrary term. Urban explorer Julia Solis once hosted a formal dinner for 40 guests in an abandoned underground subway tunnel near the Brooklyn Bridge, according to an Oct. 15 article in the San Francisco Independent. In another adventure, Solis entered the deserted Northampton Hospital in Massachusetts, where she said "the morgue had a stained autopsy table, vials and test tubes. The refrigerator trays for the bodies still had blood on them."

From abandoned subway tunnels to deserted mental asylums, urban explorers venture into the most obscure recesses of metropolitan landscapes to discover forbidden settings and photograph their findings.

While Savatier has climbed a Bay Bridge tower and has broken into an anti-atomic bunker in the Presidio, he especially enjoys investigating the catacombs in his native Paris. "Underground Paris is a gigantic Swiss cheese, a network of quarries and tunnels," he said. "It's a playground for adventurers. It's illegal (to enter them), of course."

Adventurers across the nation

New York City is not without its share of urban explorers, either. Web developers by day, daring urban investigators by night, two New Yorkers who go by the pseudonyms "Lefty" and "Laughing Boy" have scaled the no-access roof of Grand Central Station and infiltrated the maze of New York subway tunnels.

According to Laughing Boy, urban explorers distinguish themselves from common trespassers in their appreciation of the sites they investigate. "I would guess that common trespassers are often trespassing by accident, or as a shortcut to where they're going," Laughing Boy said. "An urban explorer is trespassing deliberately and purposefully, to explore an area that can't be accessed any other way. He or she is looking for something, some kind of knowledge or adventure."

Lefty and Laughing Boy differ from trespassers for another reason: Together, they head, one of many Web sites dedicated to urban exploration. Aiding explorers in their quest to educate themselves and others about historical sites, the internet serves as both a comprehensive archive for documented conquests and a far-ranging meeting place for an international ring of explorers. Urban explorers exchange experiences and photographs, the only mementos they permit themselves to take from a site.

'Urban Exploration is Unsafe'

In their quest for the forbidden and unknown, urban explorers often encounter deteriorating buildings or angry authorities.

Officer Mark Gallegos of the San Francisco Police Department said he denounces urban exploration. "You face criminal penalties," he said. "There are reasons why places are closed."

Despite Gallegos's reprimands, Laughing Boy sees the police as partners, not enemies. "The police perform a vital service to us by keeping off-limits areas off limits," he said. "If just anybody could go just anywhere, we wouldn't have any place to explore."

Savatier said that his encounters with police have been mild. "They asked us questions and took our names," he said. "Usually there's just a fine if you don't steal or break anything. They can't put you in jail for taking pictures, so they let you go."

Gallegos admits that police rarely take extreme measures against trespassers. "Sometimes a trespasser will get put on probation, but most of the time nothing happens," he said. "There are higher priorities."

Though the legal penalties are not menacing, Gallegos hopes the threats of physical danger will discourage potential explorers. "You can die very easily while trespassing," he said. "Some buildings have holes or raw sewage on the floor, and you never know who might be in there."

High school freshman Melek Brooks said she believes that government monitored exploring would reduce the danger. "The government should issue permits to certain people and allow them to explore," she said. "If they were given the right equipment, it would be less dangerous."

Laughing Boy pointed out that urban exploration is inherently dangerous. "We explore against the better judgment of ourselves and society, knowing the risks and choosing to proceed despite them," he said. "No one should get involved thinking he or she will be safe. Urban exploration is unsafe."
"An urban explorer is trespassing deliberately and purposefully, to explore an area that can't be accessed any other way. He or she is looking for something, some kind of knowledge or adventure."

Local Opportunities

For would-be explorers, the Bay Area is host to a number of locations to investigate. Savatier recommended the abandoned factories and buildings in SoMa and Chinatown and nuclear shelters in the Presidio.

For those who find a lawful adventure more palatable, the ghost town of Drawbridge, south of San Francisco and the Nike missile site in Berkeley's Tilden Park offer a glimpse into the past.

Closer sites are available for those with less time or ability to travel. "I would want to explore the train tunnels and take pictures of the graffiti art," high school sophomore Cody Drabble said.

To ensure a successful venture, urban explorers say they strive to blend in with their cosmopolitan surroundings. Laughing Boy considers low-profile attire such as business suits to be effective. "We wear suits and sunglasses as camouflage," he said.

Savatier, however, dons construction worker uniforms to blend in. "The way to get people not to notice you is to be extremely visible," he said. "If you take a shiny yellow worker suit and put cones and a big sign around an area, the police will never question you. If you sneak around, the police will notice."

To complete the ensemble, explorers depend on an assortment of vital tools. Savatier carries a pickax to break down concrete walls, a screwdriver to unscrew locks and a Leatherman for everything else. "You can unroll a key ring and use a screwdriver to make a lock pick, or you can smash locks with big rocks," he said. "Bigger padlocks are easier to pick."

Even with all the proper equipment, urban exploration requires a natural inclination towards spontaneity and an inherent taste for adventure. "An urban explorer is someone who would spend a whole night in a really dirty place and take an incredible effort to go places that other people see as pointless," Savatier said. "You have to be ready to grab your flashlight, your tools, a pair of boots and just go."

Katia Savchuk is a Junior at Lowell High School in San Francisco. She is a writer and editor for The Lowell, the school newspaper where this article originally appeared.