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.

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.

Some class members sign the pledge, while others refuse.

"I can't say I won't have sex until I'm married," says James Lamoree, who has been married three times and has five children. He says he doesn't know the names of three of them, who were born out of wedlock. "In all honesty, I love a woman's body. If a good woman propositioned me, I would think about it."

Roy Kruger says the class didn't have a profound effect on him, or anyone else. "It would be a good class, but not for us.

"There's guys in here with AIDS, Hepatitis, STDs," he says. "I've had STDs. I've had Hepatitis B. You're not going to change what we've already done. Our course is pretty well set."

Sexual temptations can be hard to overcome, especially among men whose lifestyles have been anything but Puritan, Manchester acknowledges. But she says she's had some success asking students to stay abstinent, at least for a little while, by setting their own time frame for going without sex.

Like Alcoholics Anonymous, the class, called "Healthy Relationships," discourages participants from getting involved in a relationship during the first year of recovery. But Healthy Relationships is mainly a course about values, telling addicts about the importance of attitude, maturity, self-love, boundaries, STDs, commitment and chastity.

Manchester and her boss, Elizabeth Holman, say they got the idea for the program while seeing people from the Salvation Army at their clinic. Many of the patients had sexually transmitted diseases and children out of wedlock, but appeared to know little about their bodies or health prevention.

When class begins every Monday, the adult students take a pre-test, answering questions about their attitudes toward relationships and their own sexual behavior. Squirming in their seats with pencils in hand one Monday evening this year, one student leans over to ask another what "contraceptive" means.

Like the other instructors in taxpayer-funded abstinence programs, Manchester is not allowed to talk about contraceptives, except to point out their rates of failure in protecting against STDs. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, calls condoms "effective in preventing many STDs, including HIV infection," and it recommends that people use a condom if they are having intercourse with someone who has an STD, or who may be at risk of having one.

Originators of the abstinence program, Republican congressmen and the conservative Heritage Fund, were adamant that funding be tied to the message of abstinence-only, fearing that talk of contraception would encourage sexual activity. In return for increased Title 10 funds for reproductive health care to poor families, the Clinton administration added abstinence education to 1996 welfare reform legislation, making block grants available to states willing to spread the abstinence-only message.

In Arizona, lawmakers latched onto the program, agreeing to the required one-third match from the state of $670,000. Plus, they threw in another $2 million in welfare dollars.

The funding windfall made it possible to reach beyond the teen population, to groups like the at-risk adults in the Salvation Army program. But officials from Planned Parenthood, which refuses to participate in the abstinence program, say funding to deliver only an anti-sex message deprives people of contraceptive information they need to protect themselves. The Salvation Army's program, which serves a risk-taking population, is a perfect example of this, says Joseph Feldman, director of education and counseling for Planned Parenthood of Central and Northern Arizona.

"I don't have a lot of faith that sexually active adults will stop being sexually active adults because of a program at (the Salvation Army)," Feldman says. "If you really wanted to help people, expose them to information and prevention strategies."

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