By Linda Lutton
For decades adults have fought like cats and dogs over what to teach young people about the birds and the bees. Now a group with its own controversial past has stepped into the fray. The Moonies are teaching sex ed in Chicago public schools.
Make that “abstinence” ed. Last year, Pure Love Alliance, a national group that was started in 1996 by three members of Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church and in Chicago is largely staffed by volunteer youth members of the church, gave semester-long courses in abstinence education in 61 Chicago public schools. That’s 58 more schools than the PLA began with in March 1999 when it entered the Chicago area.
The Pure Love Alliance denies any formal connection to the Unification Church. “The PLA is not used as a front for the Unification Church and it’s not used to witness to people for the Unification Church,” says 29-year-old Chicago PLA director Steve Schneider, a member of the church since 1996. “Those are two things people have made a beef about in the past.” But it’s not cult watchers who are calling the PLA curriculum “dangerous” and a “time bomb.” Advocates of comprehensive sex education say that teaching kids that abstinence is their only option could undo gains realized by years of work in AIDS and pregnancy prevention.
The Pure Love Alliance is one of a growing number of abstinence groups that package traditional values in presentations oozing with pop culture. In April, Project Reality, an abstinence-only education group based in the northern suburbs, held its annual rally at the UIC Pavilion. Ten thousand middle and high school students watched skits, heard testimony from sports heroes and a former Miss Black California, and jammed to hip-hop music that all said the same thing: wait for the wedding bells.
This week 400 youths from around the country will converge on Chicago to kick off Pure Love Alliance’s monthlong international tour. Schneider admits that many are children of Unification Church members, but he doesn’t see why that matters. The PLA will hold a lunchtime rally at the State of Illinois Building next Wednesday, July 19. Alderman Shirley Coleman, who has asked the Illinois Department of Human Services to fund the PLA’s teaching of its curriculum in the public schools, will speak, as will state representative Monique Davis. After three days in Chicago the group will take its abstinence-until-marriage message to seven other U.S. cities, holding rallies and doing service projects at each stop, then will go on to Europe. Schneider says kids have a good time promoting abstinence. “We mix it up a lot. There’s a lot of fun things that we do. What we’re trying to promote is not just ‘Don’t have sex until you’re married.’ It’s more of a lifestyle that we’re trying to promote. It’s a lifestyle that has to do with living for the sake of other people. We try to demonstrate that through service projects, through publicly serving the community. We try to set an example in everything that we do. That’s kind of a misunderstanding that people have about abstinence in general. They think it’s just simply a sexual issue, and it’s not.”
Appealing to the rebelliousness of youth, groups like the PLA are pitching purity as countercultural. “The Pure Love Alliance is a nationwide movement of young people who believe love and sex are too precious to be given away freely, and who’ve decided to prepare wisely before experiencing that aspect of love in marriage,” says the PLA’s Web site. “But we don’t just think that way–we get loud about it. A unique classroom education curriculum and our annual summer tour are just a part of our determination to show other young people, and our parents and teachers, what our generation is capable of doing.”
In a school district such as Chicago’s, where 58 percent of the high school students say they’ve had sex and 18 percent say they first had sex before they turned 13, and where teen pregnancy is the number one reason girls drop out of school, one might think the PLA’s counterrevolution would be welcomed by all. “It’s kind of ironic, because the values that we’re teaching are so fundamental and so natural that you’d think that everyone would agree with it, but that’s not the case,” says Schneider, who in the past year has gone from local school council to local school council promoting the PLA. “A lot of the stuff that we teach is basically just plain old values, normally what you would learn from your parents as you grow up. But the way that the family situation is in the society right now is pretty bad. There’s a lot of breakups, divorces, what have you. So a lot of young kids are not getting this kind of education from their parents. In a way, we’re trying to give them the education that they should have received at home. We’re trying to give kids as best a head start in life as we can.”
Jenny Knauss, executive director of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, thinks curricula like PLA’s, which are growing rapidly as political support grows for abstinence-only education, will have grave consequences. “What they’re saying is that you shouldn’t even talk about condoms. If kids are going to be abstinent, that’s great. But if they stop being abstinent they need to know how to protect themselves. Young people need to learn both things. After being in abstinence-only education and no comprehensive health education for a couple of years, when kids finally decide to have sex they don’t know how to use a condom properly. It’s a very big policy issue.”
Knauss says the Pure Love Alliance curriculum–which the PLA calls CLUE 2000, for “Creating Love and Uplifting Esteem”–is “the worst of its kind.” She says it not only provides information that’s medically inaccurate but also portrays single parents negatively, teaches kids to accept rigid gender roles within the family, encourages unquestioning obedience to authority, and discourages critical thinking.
“The family with two parents, a father and mother, works best,” says the CLUE 2000 teachers’ manual. “The father with his deep voice and tall, muscular stature is more naturally suited to set the rules. The mother with her understanding heart, soft voice and skin is more easily identified with unconditional love.” The manual does add, “It is important to note that the position and roles may vary in each family.”
The manual, whose extensive footnotes often lead to publications put out by other abstinence-only groups or by conservative think tanks, says that “incorrect and inconsistent usage causes condoms to fail between 12 to 70 percent of the time” (Consumer Reports said in a 1999 review of condoms that “among less conscientious condom users, there may be 14 pregnancies per 100 women”), that after the common cold and the flu, sexually transmitted diseases are the most common diseases in America (the World Health Organization says they’re “among the most common causes of illness in the world”), and that AIDS is the leading killer of Americans between ages 25 and 44 (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this is true of African-Americans, but overall, accidents are the leading cause of death within the age group and AIDS is number five). Depression and suicide are listed as “unavoidable psychological effects” of sexual activity, as are emotional stress, fear, loss of self-respect, and regret and rage. “The overall effects of out-of-wedlock births and divorce are all negative,” says the manual, quoting an official of the Heritage Foundation.
An activity suggested by the manual is to ask students which they would rather do: live in an island paradise complete with yacht, sports car, mansion, and swimming pool, but with no social contact with anyone ever, or leave the island (presumably to return to their current lives) with no hope of ever going back. The conclusion students are to draw? “No one wants to live alone. Everyone wants to live with a successful marriage.”
Another activity involves giving students cups of water. They’re asked to sip the water and spit it back into the cup. Some students do this after munching Cheetos. Next the students pour their water into each other’s cup. “Ask them after exchanging all their fluids with all different people if they would be willing to drink out of their own cups.” The Cheetos represent sexually transmitted diseases.
“It’s basically about fear and shame,” says Laura McAlpine, policy director of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health. “It’s fear, which is all that misleading medical information, and then it’s shame–it’s all this very heavy moral preaching about how you’re failing society, you’re failing your family, and you shouldn’t be doing this.”
Knauss says, “We see abstinence-only as being really a negative in that it doesn’t really teach young people how to think for themselves, how to make their own decisions. It sort of says, ‘Do this, don’t do that.’ It doesn’t say, ‘If it comes into your mind that you might want to do this, what are the questions you need to ask yourself?’ If you’re really going to talk about sex to kids, you need to talk about it in a broad context–not just ‘say no’ or ‘say yes’–because the answers aren’t ‘say no’ or ‘say yes.’ They’re much, much bigger than that. A thousand things go into young people’s decisions whether or not to have sex. They did for all of us.”
Schneider argues that the PLA’s ten-week course does encourage critical thinking. “One of the main things that we try to emphasize in the curriculum is that freedom always comes with responsibility,” he says. “It is true that you are free to make any choice you want to make with how you want to behave. And you may be free to choose whatever you like. But you’re not really free to choose the consequences of your actions. So you have to be critical, you have to be discerning, you have to see the larger picture. It’s not good enough to make a decision on something as important as sex in the heat of the moment on a Friday night while the guy’s breathing down your neck.”
Schneider can’t understand why anyone would want to educate youth about condoms. “It’s encouraging a form of behavior that’s destructive,” he says. “It depends on your whole viewpoint of mankind in a way. The comprehensive point of view is just talking about the individual. The individual should have the freedom to choose whatever they want to do. ‘If a young person wants to have sex, let ’em have sex. What’s the problem?’ But that’s really missing the point. They’re not taking into account the context in which we live. We live in a society with many people around us. So anytime you’re just making decisions with just yourself in mind or just the individual in mind, at the exclusion of other people involved, then you’re going to get into a lot of destructive behavior, especially when it comes to sex. People don’t really take that into account. Promoting abstinence takes into account a much more holistic view of society and people than the comprehensive view. It’s not on individual rights–it’s more based on the rights of everyone.”
The idea is that sexual immorality, broadly defined, leads to the breakdown of the family and the breakdown of the family leads to the breakdown of society. “The breakdown of the traditional two-parent family has had an impact on every aspect of life in America,” says the CLUE teachers’ manual. “It is easy to understand that family breakdown is the biggest problem facing this nation today when you consider the amount of resources we spend on welfare, school safety, STD epidemics, divorces, sexual criminal offenders, and juvenile violence.”
The Pure Love Alliance didn’t pull its curriculum out of a hat. It follows, at times nearly verbatim, an eight-point abstinence-only-until-marriage provision tucked into the 1996 federal welfare reform bill. The legislation allocated $50 million a year for five years to groups teaching “abstinence education,” which it defined as educational or motivational programs that taught, among other things, “that a mutually faithful monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity,” that “sexual behavior outside of the context of marriage is likely to have harmful psychological and physical effects,” and that “bearing children out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parent and society.” Congress must reauthorize the bill in 2002; the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, along with groups such as Planned Parenthood, is organizing to oppose reauthorization.
The Pure Love Alliance applied for funding under the 1996 legislation, but Schneider says it did so too late to share in the state’s allocation of federal funds–a little over two million dollars a year. Twenty-nine Illinois groups have received funds, 11 of them in the Chicago area. The Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health has looked at all 29 groups and found things that it likes. The YWCA, for instance, uses its abstinence-education funding to teach kids how to avoid sexual assaults. A downstate community college runs a program geared toward helping kids think about and prepare for careers. “Some people have managed to turn this money around and do good things with it,” says Knauss. “You don’t have to do the overmoralistic, limited kinds of stuff that some of the others do.”
The Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health acknowledges that the PLA’s curriculum sends some of the right messages. “There are certainly elements of their program that should be in any comprehensive sex ed program,” says McAlpine. “Like character development, and ‘Wait until you’re ready,’ and really knowing who you are as a person before you start having intimate relationships, and being comfortable with just yourself, and you don’t have to get your self-esteem from a relationship or from sex–I think those are all great messages. But I don’t think the other messages are appropriate at all.”
The federal legislation stipulates that students in a funded program who receive an abstinence-only curriculum must receive only that curriculum. “We are not really clear that the parents of all of those children understand what this is about,” says Knauss. “When you say you want to have an abstinence curriculum it sounds like a good thing. But at the same time, even if they’re not actually funded by this money the tendency is for a school to pick this up and to drop its comprehensive health education.” She says the legislation has bolstered even groups like the PLA that aren’t federally funded. “It’s legitimized that kind of health education, and in a sense that has also delegitimized comprehensive health and sexuality education. And of course that is exactly what the people who developed this wanted to happen.” Research done by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found abstinence-only curricula in place in a third of all American school districts.
Both sides of the debate say research backs up their positions, but the weightier institutions–the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization–seem to side with proponents of comprehensive sex education. “Abstinence-only programs are characterized by limited evaluations,” says a 1999 statement issued by the AMA’s Council on Scientific Affairs. “Evaluations of safer sexuality education show inconsistent but promising results. School-based condom availability programs do not hasten the initiation of sexual intercourse, are viewed favorably by students, and usually demonstrate increased condom use.”
Chicago’s public schools adopted a comprehensive sex education program in the mid-60s–it was one of the country’s first big-city school districts to do so. Kids in the seventh and eighth grades are taught what condoms are; high school students get demonstrations on how to use them. Yet throughout the 70s and 80s the teen pregnancy rate and the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases continued to rise. The pregnancy rate, both locally and nationally, has been going down since 1991, but the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases is still rising. And while the percentage of sexually active Chicago students dropped some in the mid-90s, it did increase slightly last year.
This raises the question: are kids listening to anything?
“I hope they are,” says Robert Kos, a social studies teacher and coordinator of a peer group counseling program at Curie High School, on the southwest side. “I’m looking for some kind of balance,” says Kos, who essentially builds his own comprehensive sex ed program by inviting in groups with different perspectives and approaches.
Pure Love Alliance has presented its curriculum at Curie for the last two years. Kos says that one thing students seem to like about the PLA is its focus on ideals. “Some of the discussions we had were kind of like, ‘What would you hope you could have? What would you like to have in your life? If you could have it your way, would you like this kind of relationship?’ I don’t think they get those discussions very often.
“Then there are some kids who really relate to that philosophy of abstinence, and they need that affirmation. The [PLA] students that come in, they say, ‘We’re closer to your age, we’re not like your old teacher here.’ But then they have a much more conservative viewpoint on sexuality than I do, so they could be actually my grandparents when they’re talking. But that’s OK. If I only did abstinence education, it wouldn’t be any good. But for a while we were getting a lot of programs that wouldn’t even mention abstinence. You’d have to say, ‘Well, could you please mention abstinence?’ And it was like, ‘Oh, well, if you want us to.'”
Since the creation of local school councils in 1989, each CPS school has been allowed to make its own decision about what health curriculum to use. The PLA has targeted predominantly African-American schools on the south side, which Schneider says are most receptive to the PLA’s message. To Knauss, that’s even more of a cause for concern, because “the figures on HIV-STDs in those communities are the highest. So the kids who are most likely to get sick are the ones who are the least likely to get the kind of health education which will show them how to use prevention.”
The Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health also raises questions about the qualifications of PLA teachers. Schneider says the average age of these volunteers, 19, is one of the group’s advantages–kids can relate to PLA teachers because they are young people too. But some schools officials are concerned that PLA volunteers have no background in education and might not be trained to deal with a sensitive subject like sex. “That to me is not good educational judgment on the part of principals,” says John Frantz, the public schools’ officer for curriculum, instruction, and professional development.
“There’s a number of programs out there that schools choose to use in addition to ours or instead of ours, which they have a right to do,” says Frantz. But he contends that the Chicago schools’ own family life program, augmented by a brand-new abstinence-first component, is the best way to go. “This is a free country, and [the PLA curriculum] is not endorsed by the Chicago Public Schools, but I don’t think we’re in a position at this particular time to say schools cannot participate in this because it violates something. It isn’t violating anything. It just may not be the best educational decision, and we have to come at it from that standpoint.”
With PLA, there’s also the question of a separate agenda. About half the PLA teachers are on a yearlong service project for the Unification Church’s Collegiate Association for the Research of the Principle. “The World CARP Special Task Force (STF) has become a proud tradition of the Unification Movement,” says the church’s Web site. “Through STF, the Second Generation makes a precious collective offering each year to our True Parents”–who are Moon and his wife. This statement goes on to mention recruitment aspects of the program that PLA leaders have repeatedly denied exist: “STF members are at the core of the PLA activism, which is having such success for God and America, and they bring in new members through witnessing and teaching….STF members have taken major roles in the development of the Pure Love Alliance in the past 4 years including the launching of the 1997, 1998 and 1999 PLA tours and the breakthrough in public school purity education in Chicago and other places.”
The PLA also recruits local college students to teach in Chicago’s public schools, and there’s some indication that these students are targets for recruitment by the Unification Church. A graduate student in public health who’s working as an intern for the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health said she attended two training sessions to become a PLA instructor. When she announced that she’d decided not to teach, PLA recruiters began calling her as often as five or six times a day. A message left on her answering machine invited her to a retreat.
Schneider and some PLA instructors live near the University of Illinois at Chicago campus in a building that also houses CARP. In 1997, the NBC-TV affiliate in San Francisco aired a report on CARP members who set out tables at Bay Area colleges to promote the Pure Love Alliance. “What is CARP really doing?” the station asked a former Unification Church member they called Michelle. “Getting people to join Reverend Moon,” she told the reporter.
The Pure Love Alliance also maintains an apartment and an office near the University of Chicago campus, and has posted flyers looking for volunteers on the DePaul, Loyola, and UIC campuses. “Sometimes we advertise on the campuses,” says Schneider. “We’ll put up a book table or something for a day and see if people are interested. Actually there’s a lot of people out there that believe in abstinence and practice abstinence. But in a lot of cases they’re just isolated individuals, and it’s something good for them to volunteer for.” One way the PLA raises money is by going door-to-door asking for donations.
As for whether the Moonies are recruiting public school students, teachers who have hosted PLA instructors say no way. “Their message is totally unrelated to any church organization or affiliation or message,” says Kos. “When they speak to my students I’m always with them, and they’ve never, ever said anything about outside meetings or organizational groups or anything like that. They just present their message, lead a discussion, and that’s it.” Their religious affiliation in and of itself does not matter to Chicago’s public schools, says Frantz. “The CPS has ties with hundreds of different churches in this community of various persuasions. Does the public school system have a problem with the fact that a curriculum may be supported by a church? No. When it’s a problem is if they’re recruiting kids who are going into our classrooms unprepared to answer questions, haven’t gone through our family life professional development, and aren’t qualified to teach family life. Yeah, we have a problem with that.”
Schneider says he gets sick of people trying to make connections between the Pure Love Alliance and the Moonies, who operate an international network of businesses that include the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, the Washington Times, and now the United Press International news service. “The whole purpose of the [Pure Love Alliance] tour is to draw attention to the abstinence movement. But somehow the issue of the Unification Church comes up and then people want to know about that more than they want to know about the abstinence things,” he says. “If this was the Baptists going around, no one would bat an eye. But because it’s the Unification Church, it becomes this news story. It’s kind of ridiculous to me.”
The Pure Love Alliance’s president and founder is Robert Kittel, who’s a Unification Church member and clearly understands what’s at stake in maintaining a wall between PLA and the Moonies. “The PLA is not to be used to proselytize or witness for church activities or membership,” he insists, in a letter found on the Unification Church Web site. This letter, on the “Pure Love Alliance and its relationship with the Unification Church,” declares that “the PLA has…been successfully teaching in public schools. It is absolutely imperative that we maintain our non-sectarian status in public education. Because we are teaching in the public schools parents, teachers and administrators will likely be unwilling to invite the PLA into the classrooms if it has a hidden agenda of religious conversion.”
Such an agenda could derail the Pure Love Alliance from reaching the objective it states on-line: “CLUE Curriculum to be taught in 10 states in America and in 5 foreign countries in the Year 2000 and in all 50 states and in 40 foreign countries in the Year 2001.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik.