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Kate Tsubata is not your typical abstinence advocate. She wants you to choose one person to have sex with for the rest of your life, but her fidelity to the movement’s traditions ends there. She refuses to draft no-sex pledges, forge promise rings, stage purity balls, or cite scripture. She doesn’t care if the sex you’re not having is straight or gay. She likes sex, actually, as long as you only do it with one person ever—no wedding required. The stakes are lower, too. In Tsubata’s abstinence movement, sex won’t lead you down a road of eternal damnation—all it will do is kill you.
As the leader of the Washington AIDS International Teens group—or, the T-shirt-perfect “WAIT”—Tsubata, her three children, and a team of youth activists teach young adults to abstain from sex solely to stop the spread of AIDS. The encouragement comes via performance: a teen-friendly program of beat-boxing, break-dancing, and sober Powerpoint presentation in the name of waiting for “the one.” In steering a middle course between the anti-AIDS and anti-sex sets, Tsubata may be ensuring that her cause never, ever gets any money.
WAIT’s prevention strategy of lifetime fidelity to one person is too idealistic for most AIDS activists, who prefer to tout the benefits of lifetime fidelity to the condom. WAIT has also proven too practical for the abstinent, whose AIDS work is often colored by moral prescriptions against fornication, homosexuality, and other at-risk sins. The division between the groups has blocked a possible solution to the AIDS crisis. Forget daddy-daughter dances and abstinence-themed jewelry; these days, only an incurable epidemic that threatens to wipe out entire populations may succeed in convincing teens to keep their legs crossed.
The latest ravages of this incurable epidemic have jolted people into action. Within days of the release of striking new AIDS figures placing D.C.’s AIDS epidemic on par with West Africa’s, WAIT fielded dozens of requests for WAIT performances, in which a vanload of teens channel unused sexual energy into back-flips, one-armed headstands, repurposed hip-hop songs, and other chaste stunts. Then, an hour-long Powerpoint presentation details HIV’s causes—-intravenous drug use, sex, and in very rare occasions, deep kissing; and effects—-rare bulbous skin cancers, tuberculosis, or simply wasting away. Only at the final slides does WAIT arrive at its recommendation: Better not to do it.
Tsubata, who also serves as co-director of the Washington AIDS International Foundation, WAIT’s parent group, knows it’s a radical conclusion in a city where an e-mail to email@example.com can bring a shipment of 1,000 government-funded “Durex Enhanced Pleasure” rubbers. But she says that rough times have benefited WAIT’s unorthodox abstinence approach. “Everyone is just so desperate for something to work, for something to help people, that I think they’re ready to try anything,” she says.
Everyone, that is, except the D.C. government, which has denied WAIT’s repeated requests for funding since the program started up in 2002. In that time, WAIT has staged at least 120 performances a year in 20 states and 15 countries, and been rejected for a dozen federal and local grants. Tsubata, who works closely with more generously funded locals like Planned Parenthood and Metro Teen AIDS, says the renewed interest in the AIDS crisis will only reinforce the AIDS cash status-quo. “Since I have never received a penny of it, it doesn’t matter to me,” says Tsubata. “But the lack of funds is not from lack of trying.”
Tsubata is quick to insist that she doesn’t need government cash to be effective, but the numbers are dire enough to test even the most committed of charity workers. In 2007, the Washington AIDS International Foundation collected $225,975 in donations from individuals and corporations like Wal-Mart, and zero from government sources. That doesn’t leave a lot of money to support its skeleton staff: In 2007, Tsubata raked in $18,480 from her work with the group; her eldest daughter, Lan Lee, collected only $569 for her efforts. Compare those numbers to two of D.C.’s more readily classified youth nonprofits: Metro Teen AIDS, which takes a comprehensive prevention approach, received $968,015 in government funds in 2007; the Best Friends Foundation, an uber-abstinent education initiative, received $1,520,759. The highest-paid workers in those groups made $59,129 and $96,750, respectively.
The problem is a funding strategy based on a strictly segregated sex-ed cash flow. The D.C. government will cough up cash for comprehensive HIV prevention. It will allocate federal funds for right-wing abstinence. But it rarely funds anything in between. The D.C. Department of Health does cite “abstinence” under in its HIV prevention strategy as “the only absolute fail-safe way for preventing HIV infection”—-it’s just listed second to “condoms.” D.C.’s HIV/AIDS Administration allocates more than $70 million each year to local AIDS workers, and all must satisfy the District’s full approach. “The District believes in a comprehensive sexual health approach for young people, which does include abstinence,” says Michael Kharfen, the bureau chief for “capacity building and community outreach” in the HIV/AIDS Administration. Though WAIT’s program is comprehensive enough to include advocating for widespread testing, access to antiretroviral drugs, and condom use between HIV-positive lifetime partners, the group is not comprehensive enough for the D.C. government. “The HIV/AIDS groups that we partner with provide an array of services, including HIV and STD testing, contraceptives, working with youth,” says Kharfen. “Many also include abstinence in their approach. But none of them are exclusively abstinence-only.”
Abstinence-based AIDS groups are instead forced to compete for the small amount of federal funds allocated to “abstinence education” in Title V of the Social Security Act. The District receives “less than a million dollars” from that pot, Kharfen says, which is then distributed to groups based on a host of traditional abstinence criteria—-almost all of which WAIT fails to satisfy. Federal abstinence criteria focus on preventing “out-of-wedlock pregnancy”; that “a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity”; and that “sexual activity outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects.” The federal funding, in other words, is dedicated to supporting the abstinence movement’s reputation as an impractical, preachy, and partisan expenditure.
Tsubata puts it more delicately: “The abstinence people who get funding have to teach all of these things we’re not interested in teaching,” she says. “Sometimes people will even scold us after a performance and say, ‘Your presentation was great, but I wish you had talked about the Bible. I wish you had some message from scripture,’” says Tsubata, who says WAIT entertained only a brief flirtation with fundamental funders. “I walked out on a meeting with a person high up in the Bush government because he basically said, ‘If you go and help Planned Parenthood, and you work with these other organizations that aren’t pro-abstinence, you’re making them look good. We’re not going to do anything for you unless you come over onto our side,” says Tsubata. Other WAIT rejections have been more subtle. Tsubata remembers receiving one returned grant application that scored WAIT highly in all categories—-scores that were then crossed out and downgraded in order to give the grant to another group. But Tsubata insists WAIT has “never, ever, ever considered changing our message to get a grant,” invoking a very non-abstinent word to describe what that move would make her.
To Tsubata, ideology—-and the government funding that follows it—-has little to do with on-the-ground success. “Frankly, there’s a lot less division among those who work with AIDS than people might like to think,” says Tsubata. “We know abstinence is good. We know sexual integrity is good. We know condoms are necessary. Why do we get into these stupid little territory fights and worry about who’s right and who’s wrong? Who cares about the damn funding?”
Photos by Darrow Montgomery