Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

I wonder what the Bush twins think of their father’s sex-education policy.

After promising as a candidate to promote teen chastity from the Oval Office, President Bush has come through. His 2003 budget proposal increases funding for abstinence-only sex-education programs by 33 percent, to $135 million.

Abstinence-only sex education is just what it says. It teaches no intercourse before marriage. No oral sex (which many teens, following in Bill Clinton’s footsteps, conveniently do not consider sex). And bye, bye, American Pie: Even self-pleasuring is discouraged.

Moreover, no alternatives are offered; discussion of other means to avoid pregnancy or reduce the risk of disease is forbidden in programs that take abstinence-only federal money.

Isn’t it just like a baby-boomer dad to hold the kids to standards he could never meet? Today’s teens must be used to it after years of being under lock and key at school and under cell-phone surveillance the rest of the time. In abstinence-only programs, sex education meets zero tolerance, the brainchild of boomer policymakers who live in terror that their children might behave as they once did.

Throughout the ’90s and into this decade, abstinence has received greater stress in sex education, although the majority of programs across the 50 states are “abstinence-plus,” combining the advice of “Don’t do it” with information teens need in case they do. This does not satisfy abstinence-only advocates. As one told CNN.com, “Schools teach ‘No smoking’ and ‘No drinking.’ Why should sex be treated differently?”

One could argue that anyone who can’t distinguish between a bad habit and a basic human urge needs a little sex education of his own. Yet advocates of abstinence-only insist that muddying the issue with birth-control information only sends a mixed message.

But if it’s mixed messages the policymakers are worrying about, I’m afraid the cat is already out of the bag. Consider 40 Days and 40 Nights, an up-to-the-second romantic comedy about abstinence.

Josh Hartnett plays dot-commer Matt Sullivan, a stud so devastated by his gorgeous girlfriend’s defection that he can no longer savor casual sex. The cure for what ails him, he decides, is to give up sex for Lent. His struggle against temptation reduces him to a hollow-eyed, twitching wreck, yet it also makes him a wiser, more deeply feeling human being. Better yet, the best sex of his life is waiting for him at the end of his ordeal—just what the wait-until-marriage advocates promise teens in abstinence-only sex-education class.

But hey, this is Hollywood. The movie’s pro-abstinence message is, of course, nothing more than an excuse to obsess about sex. Matt’s love interest even spells out the ploy when she says to him, “If I tell you not to think about the color red, what will you think about?” And just in case you aren’t thinking about it, there are bare-midriffed, spaghetti-strapped, miniskirted co-workers sticking tongues in each other’s mouths, plus bra-less street candy and bathroom-stall masturbation to remind you.

While Matt fights off his lust—even calling on the Bible in his hour of need—the audience is invited to indulge theirs. As Britney Spears, that walking, dancing, singing mixed message, has already demonstrated, abstinence makes sex seem hotter.

With its R rating, 40 Days is ostensibly not for teens. Nonetheless, at the screening I attended, at least half the audience consisted of parentless bands of under-18s who squealed in delight at the boner jokes. Like most R-rated sex farces, the movie captures the sensibility of the average high school sophomore. In their total obsession with doing it or not doing it, the movie’s characters sound like nothing so much as the inhabitants of a teen sex chat room.

Despite the Bush administration’s willingness to invest more money in abstinence-only sex education, there is no evidence that it works (although a new study is now under way). Indeed, there is not a great deal of evidence that any kind of sex education works, if by working one means teens abstaining. We do know that teen pregnancy rates dropped 20 percent between 1991 and 1999, but we don’t really know why.

And yet reams of market research do uncover one truth: that teens want nothing more than to be treated with respect. They crave straight talk and demand the chance to make up their own minds. It’s hard to have high hopes for a program that ignores that.

Hollywood knows teens much better. Which is why most of them will continue to get their sex education at R-rated movies.