Cut to the Chaste

State-funded sex abstinence classes for adults face financial turn-off

Every eight weeks, Margaret Manchester begins the task of asking about 40 grown men to stop having sex.

Some are already married. Some are thieves, con artists or pimps. All of them are addicts.

They come to the Salvation Army for rehabilitation from alcohol, drugs and other addictions. Most are sent to the broad-ranging program by judges as a way to avoid prison sentences if they complete the six-month program. A few arrive on their own, broke, homeless and waiting at the front door, doubled over from the pangs of withdrawal.

From left, Roy Kruger, James Lamoree, Louis Scott and Ray Kight take their rehabilitation at the Salvation Army seriously.
Paolo Vescia
From left, Roy Kruger, James Lamoree, Louis Scott and Ray Kight take their rehabilitation at the Salvation Army seriously.

The men know they'll have to give up drugs and alcohol or risk being kicked onto the streets again, or locked behind bars. What they don't expect is a required course about relationships, in which, at the end, Margaret Manchester will ask them to sign a pledge of sexual abstinence.

More than 500 men have gone through the course, which is taught on Monday nights in the Salvation Army's South Phoenix chapel. It includes what is believed to be the only abstinence program of its kind in the nation. Most government-funded abstinence programs are aimed at teens who haven't had sex, or at least not a lot.

Now, this unusual program for adults may be at an end. Government funding runs out next year, and instructors for the course, who are nurses for Arizona State University Community Health Services, say it's too time-consuming to continue. Unless workers at the Salvation Army or another contractor pick it up, abstinence education for the adult group will probably be dropped, says Manchester.

Those running the program say it works. Others say that it, like the state's entire $3.6 million-per-year abstinence program, is a colossal waste of time. Students are some of the harshest critics.

"I thought it was kind of hokey to sign something like that," says Ray Kight, who has been at the Salvation Army since November, when a judge sentenced him to rehab instead of more then 10 years in prison for heroin and cocaine possession. "Ninety-two guys have been living here six months. You think they're not going to find some sexy mama when they get out of here?"

The classes, which preach self-respect, self-improvement and sexual self-restraint, are a little-known and somewhat bizarre part of Arizona's abstinence-only campaign, a taxpayer-funded educational program that forbids instruction on contraceptive use. Instead, the message is "Just say no" to sex.

Just how many are saying no is unclear.

Supporters say the goal of abstinence-only education is to reduce the number of out-of-wedlock births, many of which occur in adolescents. (Arizona ranks in the top 20 states for the most teen births.) The hope is that a reduction in non-marital births will relieve the burden on the welfare system, the health care system and other societal safety nets.

Even if the state reaches this goal, proving it will be difficult among teens, and impossible among adults in the Salvation Army program.

By using identification provided by teens in other Arizona programs, evaluators plan to do a vital records check next year to see if participants gave birth out of wedlock. While the check could provide valuable data on females in the program, it likely won't provide meaningful information on males, who would not usually be listed on the birth certificate. About half of the participants in teen programs are male.

More than 70 percent of the adults in the Salvation Army program are men, so a records search would yield little data. The only other way to determine long-term effectiveness would be to follow-up with the men after they finish the abstinence class. Although the state plans to do this with the teens in other programs next spring, officials say they won't do the same with the men at the Salvation Army because tracking them down would be too difficult.

"Their mobility is an issue," says Dorothy Hastings, a health planning consultant for the abstinence education program. "We've made a decision that we're not going to put any resources in that direction." Money for follow-up is better spent on teens, which make up the bulk of participants, she says.

Nonetheless, state health authorities say the Salvation Army program is well worth the money. Statistics show that many of the fathers of babies born to teens are over age 20, and most out-of-wedlock births occur in adults in their 20s, not teens.

But making adult education work within the confines of an abstinence program hasn't been easy.

Manchester, whose pleated skirt and chin-high silk blouse make her look more like a plain-clothed nun than an ASU nurse, has been teaching the course since it began three years ago. Every time a new class begins, she and her colleague, Cheryl Karan, prepare for a tough crowd.

"We've gotten some pretty hostile responses, but I've gotten used to it," says Manchester.

The men, many of them only days clean when they begin the class, aren't always that receptive to giving up sex, she explains, especially while they're forced to give up their favorite drug.

At the end of the course, class members are asked to abstain from sex. If they're married, they're asked to remain faithful to their wives.

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