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You oughta know

Education | This is not your mother's abstinence class: Hard-hitting, fact-based abstinence message, wrapped in MTV packaging, is edging out amoral sex-ed curricula

Issue: "Roe vs. Wade 2000," Jan. 22, 2000

Head about 175 miles south of Duncanville to another class of 9th-grade Texans-this one in Leander, a town northwest of Austin, but also with lots of students dressed in Jnco jeans or cargo pants, tattered hems scraping the floor. The boys in baggy shirts and the girls in tight sweaters slouch into their seats, with cleaner-cut kids up front and slackers in the back. They turn semi-sullen faces toward Kem Haggard, a middle-aged guy in khakis and a Mickey Mouse golf shirt, whose job it is to help students see that they should wait to have sex until marriage.

But those students are in for a surprise because this isn't your mother's old abstinence class. That message is driven home when the students watch a short video, Just Thought You Oughta Know, produced by the Medical Institute for Sexual Health. It's a quick-cut, MTV-style piece that bursts with constantly changing urban images: teens standing around a trash-barrel fire at night, sirens screaming, or a boy and girl against an eerily lit wall, dribbling a basketball, or kids dancing on a set, against the backdrop of giant male and female gender symbols.

In many of the segments five of the teens are giving in short bursts the brutal statistics of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), with numbers punctuated by the constant refrain, "Just thought you oughta know." In rap style they say, "About a third of infertility in women is caused by STDs. Just thought you oughta know. Every day about 8,000 American kids are infected with a sexually transmitted disease...." The video is insistent on truth-telling: "Don't hide the truth from us, show us the way," the teens chant. "Or get out of the way and we'll show you."

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That tough-minded focus on facts has led the liberal Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) to attack the Medical Institute as a "fear-based" organization. SIECUS prefers the rosy picture about STDs presented in Planned Parenthood's prophylactic-pushing website, Teenwire: "Prevent. Test. Treat ... it's pretty easy once you get used to it: Use protection, get tested, and if you need to, take your medicine. It's as easy as one, two, three."

The Medical Institute video doesn't pretend that condoms don't exist and that body organs are unmentionables. "This is a condom," a teen in dreadlocks says while opening a condom package. "It could protect your penis," another teen says. "It might protect your vagina," says another. "It won't protect your mind. It can't protect your heart," they all chime in. "Just thought you oughta know."

The video is a direct attack on the prophylactic empire. For years, under the guise of AIDS education, federally funded programs touted the benefits of condoms. Comprehensive "safer-sex" programs, like those promoted by SIECUS in its 1991 guidelines for sexuality education, urged educators to teach students how to properly use them. Schools in Manhattan and other places began to distribute free condoms to students despite parental protests. Abstinence educators, working on a shoestring, objected to the condom approach but had a hard time countering the data about the necessity and effectiveness of condoms that poured forth from reputable academic journals.

But along came one of SIECUS's worst nightmares, the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, based in Rollingwood, Texas, a suburb of Austin. There, in an old cedar and limestone building tucked away down a dead-end street that winds over a low-water crossing, a staff of 14 labors to provide sound scientific resources to abstinence educators, parents, churches, and government leaders.

Dr. Joe S. McIlhaney Jr., a tall, soft-spoken ob-gyn known nationally in pro-life circles, founded the Medical Institute in 1992. He retired from his medical practice in 1995 because he was becoming increasingly aware of the epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases. "As I talked to physicians and others, most of those people did not realize how bad it was," he said. A third of the cases of infertility that he saw were directly attributable to STDs contracted by his patients without their knowledge.

Dressed in a brightly colored sweater on a cold January day, Dr. McIlhaney has the soothing manner of a long-time physician. He labors in a rabbit-warren of offices, where he has to duck his head as he moves through doorways and into small, cluttered offices. He speaks in measured tones, pausing often to make sure he's being understood, and he stresses the importance of his data. He'll acknowledge that condoms can reduce the risk of AIDS-if they are used correctly 100 percent of the time. He knows that only if his data is trustworthy will he and the Institute be able to influence the debate.

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