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Richard Urban says teenagers shouldn’t be having sex, and he’s got the slide show to prove it. Now, if only he had an audience.
Richard Urban has given his slide show presentation “Talking With Teens About HIV and AIDS,” so many times, he can now deliver it almost automatically. The D.C. director of Free Teens, a national nonprofit that promotes abstinence-only sex education, has assembled his portable screen and slide projector in the cramped living room of his Capitol Hill row house for my own informal viewing. But for Urban—who takes teenagers’ sexual activity very, very seriously—this show might as well be the real thing.
“I’m used to standing up when I give this,” he says, rising from his chair. He starts to flip through a slide presentation that encourages teenagers to wait until they’re married to have sex. One early shot features a photo of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who announced he was HIV-positive in 1991.
“And this is where I ask the kids, ‘Can you tell if someone has AIDS just by looking at them?’” says Urban.
He pauses, waiting for an answer. I look at the other two members of the audience: Urban’s wife, Stacey Urban, and their cat, Keado, who seems more interested in climbing into my lap than watching the slides. “Um, no,” I finally answer. Richard Urban flips to the next slide.
Urban, of course, would prefer a much larger, younger group of listeners than the trio in his living room. He and a couple of other Free Teens lecturers have given their speeches in a handful of local schools. But, so far, Urban’s efforts to partner with D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) or the D.C. Department of Health have gone nowhere.
The federal government’s 1996 welfare-reform legislation set aside $50 million a year so that states could create abstinence-only education programs. But even with that money available, abstinence programs haven’t overwhelmed sex education in the District. Most programs still include plenty of information about what to do if you’re a kid and you’re having sex. And most D.C. residents prefer it that way, according to a survey by the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a local nonprofit founded in 1999 to reduce the District’s teen-pregnancy rate.
The mood in D.C., then, is not exactly one that embraces Urban’s conservative, hold-off-on-sex, family-values message. And it’s also not one that takes too kindly to efforts by conservative white guys—be they powerful congressmen or religious volunteers like Urban—to reform the city’s morality.
Urban finds this situation frustrating. He’s a friendly guy, with a sort of John Denver look to him. He has plenty to do with his time—he runs a grocery-delivery business and attends services at the Washington Family Church, founded by Unification Church leader the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
And he sees abstinence-only education as an important way to both discourage premarital sex and lower the District’s teen pregnancy rate, one of the highest in the country.
“Kids don’t respond well to mixed messages. Every program says, ‘Yeah, you should abstain,’ but then they turn around and say, ‘Well, anyway, just in case, here’s how you use condoms,’” Urban says. “Whatever’s been going on, whatever approach they’ve been using, it has been going on for 20 years. If the approach is working so well, why is the pregnancy rate so high?”
Urban spreads stacks of papers out on his coffee table. The letters, time lines, and unanswered proposals, he says, are testament to his years-long struggle to spread the Free Teens message.
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The mission began in December 1997, when Urban first contacted the D.C. Department of Health. The department’s Office of Maternal and Child Health had just received a $120,000 grant from the federal government for abstinence education, as part of the funds set aside through welfare reform.
But “significant change…around new leadership and priority setting” at the Office of Maternal and Child Health meant that staffers didn’t spend the funds for training or other planned activities during the first year, according to a letter that then-Interim Chief Michelle S. Davis sent to Ward 6 D.C. Councilmember Sharon Ambrose in October 1998. In other words: Tough luck, Urban. (Urban contacted a couple of councilmembers, including Ambrose, when he could get no cooperation from the health department.)
Instead, the office had managed only to contract a group called the HELIX Group Inc., to identify and modify an abstinence-only education curriculum, according to Davis’ letter. Health Department officials had plans to award another grant for a public-awareness campaign. Davis promised in her 1998 letter that the office would develop criteria for contracting with outside groups, like Urban’s, starting in January 1999.
By last January, Urban still couldn’t get information on how to apply for funds, nor how to become a part of the District’s abstinence-education program.
Ronald Lewis, senior deputy director for health promotions at the D.C. Department of Health, says that the office has since used the funds—grown to about $240,000 over two years—to create a new curriculum called “I’m Worth the Wait,” which has been used to train staff at schools and community-based organizations. About $39,000 a year also covers the salary of the program’s director, Margaret Copemann.
Lewis says the office has no plans to give the funds to groups like Urban’s. “I’m not aware of any bidding process. I’m not aware of any subgranting process,” Lewis says. “You’re only talking about $120,000 [a year]. That doesn’t go very far.”
No, it doesn’t. In fact, it’s only a fraction of the Department of Health’s $1 billion budget. Lewis says that the department plans to start another abstinence program later this year, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But at the health department, as at other community and education groups in town, abstinence is only part of the package when it comes to sex education.
Lewis touts another of the department’s popular programs, called “What’s the Deal, Yo?,” a radio soap opera for kids that addresses everything from peer pressure to safe sex for teens. The program ran on WKYS about a year ago and will likely run again this year. “It’s not about us putting more emphasis on abstinence or contraception,” says Lewis. “It’s about empowering people to make their own choices.”
Linda Wright, director of the DCPS’s HIV/AIDS education program, which is funded through the CDC, also passed on Urban’s program. She says Urban relies too much on the script and that he became defensive when teachers attending a Free Teens demonstration workshop asked questions.
In a letter to Urban last summer, Wright also said that Urban’s message that two-parent families are ideal was insensitive to the students. “I realize that you have a ‘values’ agenda that you want to advance with the Free Teens program, however, you should allow for divergent viewpoints and lifestyles,” the letter said. “You should know that a majority of our students live in single parent families and may be turned off by a message stating theirs is a less than ideal family environment.”
Wright says that her program is “abstinence-based” but includes information on contraception and safer sex. “We’re saying abstinence is the best policy, but you still have to give them information. I wouldn’t give my son the keys to my car and say, ‘Go drive,’ without giving him the information,” says Wright.
Ultimately, Urban seems unaware of just how revolutionary his program is. There’s a reason abstinence-only programs haven’t been the mainstay of sex education in D.C.: Residents don’t want them. According to the D.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy’s survey, only 7 percent of the 1,600 residents polled believe teenagers should receive abstinence-only sex education. About 90 percent believe that kids should be encouraged to postpone sex but should still be taught about contraception and STDs. Seventy-nine percent believe that is best to make birth control easily available to teenagers.
Urban insists that more people are warming up to abstinence-only sex education, citing evidence that more kids are putting off sex and that pregnancy rates are dropping. He says he’ll continue to pitch his program to individual schools and community groups. After all, the abstinence message, he says, is about more than just sex. “[Sex] is not just physical. It’s emotional, spiritual. People are realizing that more and more,” he says. “So you put that condom on, that doesn’t protect your feelings.” CP