September 2008

The Nation Reviewed

Saving yourself

By Benjamin Law
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In the library of Inglewood State School - a three-hour, sleep-inducing drive west from Brisbane - Jim Lyons discusses Scarlett Johansson with students from years seven and eight. He shows them a laminated newspaper article featuring Johansson's photograph. The headline is unfortunate: ‘Bush Bashed On Sex'. Jim paraphrases the story for the students: Johansson is outraged that the Bush administration has poured millions of dollars into abstinence education; she argues that it takes women back to the dark ages; she gets tested for HIV regularly; she urges every young woman to do the same.

"What can we learn from this young lady?" Jim asks. "What does this tell you about Scarlett Johansson?" In the back row, a skinny girl with spectacles puts a hand up. "That she's safe?" she says. Jim raises his eyebrows. "She's safe?" he asks sceptically. "What else?" To the side, a year-eight boy mumbles something. "She's sexually active," Jim repeats, so the rest of the class can hear. "Well, some would say she's very sexually active."

Jim Lyons and his wife, Faye, are abstinence teachers. They founded Straight Talk Australia, a Toowoomba-based travelling sex-education program that teaches children to save themselves for marriage. Since 1997, the Lyons have travelled all over Australia's east coast, as well as to New Zealand, Tonga, the Solomon Islands, Norfolk Island, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu. "We haven't come to your school today to tell you what to do with your life," Faye says to the students. "That is not why we're here. We care about you as young people. We care about your future."

Like most Australian states and territories, Queensland has no standardised sex-education syllabus. Education Queensland's recently released Health and Physical Education guidelines for years three, five, seven and nine offer recommendations on when issues of sex, reproductive health, sexual identity and relationships might be embedded into essential learning areas. But it's up to individual schools to develop their programs, and many use a range of organisations to provide sex education.

Inevitably, these groups clash. Family Planning Queensland teaches kids how to use contraception, while Queensland Right to Life (a friend of Straight Talk) argues that some forms of contraception, like the pill, are not only medically and spiritually dangerous, but constitute abortion. Despite these disagreements, the organisations can, and often do, visit the same school in consecutive years.

Straight Talk's presentation makes many references to God and one to the Devil. Jim and Faye Lyons are dedicated Christians. About a decade ago, they flew to Los Angeles to attend a Christian youth conference, where a session about young people and sex caught their eye. In it, a young American named Pam Stenzel captured the audience's attention with a frank talk about how STIs were ravaging the nation's teens, and how this was a result of an erosion of Christian values caused by discussions with young people about sex. Faye and Jim were blown away. "At the beginning, I had no idea about all the sexually transmitted diseases," Faye tells me later.

The Lyons invited Pam Stenzel to Queensland in 1998, and made a DVD of the resulting school tour. The Price Tag of Sex is the core of Jim and Faye's presentation at Inglewood. Stenzel, despite looking a little dated (she is wearing high-waisted jeans that rise above her navel), is aggressively charming. She speaks with that irresistible American mix of authority and mocking disbelief. Throughout the DVD, there are clear-cut rules she shoots out. "Absolutely no genital contact of any kind - none!"; "Keep your pants on - simple!"; "If you are not married, don't do it. If you are married - go for it!"

"God wants you to have a great sex life - he does!" Stenzel says. "He wants you to have awesome sex!" She compares sex to fire. Back in Minnesota, fire warms her home when it's snowing outside. But she wouldn't want a fire on her living-room floor. "It'll burn our house down and hurt my family! It's got to have boundaries." For sex, that boundary is marriage. One of Straight Talk's central arguments is that the spread of STIs among young people is a direct result of sex outside marriage, the transgression of a rule clearly set out in the Bible.

Inglewood's curriculum co-ordinator, Ricky Johnson, is an Anglican, but jovially admits he hasn't been attending church as much as he should. He invited Straight Talk to Inglewood, and doesn't see a clash in a Christian organisation teaching sex-ed at a secular school. "Absolutely not," he says. "We're not about ramming Christianity down anybody's throats. We're giving them the information, and letting them make decisions for themselves."

That information is laid on thick. And the statistics are shocking, albeit slightly confusing, as they are sourced from different countries and use different timeframes: we're told that 200,000 Australian teenagers will get an STD this year; 12,000 American teens contract a sexually transmitted disease in a single day; condoms are only 50% effective against STIs; condoms have a failure rate of between 1% and 30%. "We're talking about a frail piece of latex here," Jim says. "We're not talking about a tractor tyre."

At the end of the 90-minute session, Faye offers the students various flyers and magazines to collect on the way out. A lot of the material has been provided by an Adelaide-based abstinence organisation, True Love Waits. Faye and Jim have also made their own Straight Talk Australia brochure, a bright-green leaflet called ‘101 Things to Do With Your Boyfriend or Girlfriend, Instead of IT!' Alternatives to "it" (which, Faye helpfully explains, is what young people call sex) include: "learn yo-yo tricks", "fix lunch for some elderly folk" and "pick a bunch of dandelions for your mother". Other recommendations seem outright suggestive: "feed each other sushi"; "play army"; "make a candlelight dinner"; "have a water fight".

There are also feedback cards for the students to fill out. Did the session help make sense of your future? Would you recommend it to your friends? You can tick a box next to which states: "Yes, I prayed and asked God to forgive my sins and start anew." At the bottom is a perforated section to fill in, sign and mail to Straight Talk. Respondents will be sent a business card reminding them of their commitment to their future husband or wife. "Believing that True Love Waits," the pledge says, "I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, those I date, my future mate and my future children to be sexually pure until the day I enter a covenant marriage relationship." A lot of the 12- and 13-year-old girls at Inglewood fill in these virginity pledges.

After Jim and Faye have loaded their DVD players, projectors, microphones and pamphlets into their Ford Territory, we drive out to have lunch at a roadside café. When we get there, Elvis looms over us, in the form of a life-sized cardboard cut-out. As we wait for our meals, the Lyons admit that initially they found it difficult to talk to their kids about sex. "Our parents never spoke to us, and we struggled talking to our own children," Jim says. That's before they met Pam Stenzel. Jim says the DVD helped a lot in discussing sex with his sons.

I mention an article I came across recently. In 2007, the New York Times reported that for the first time since 2001, funding for American abstinence programs was being reviewed and, subsequently, cut: there was no evidence that teenagers were having sex later in life because of abstinence education. Jim shrugs. He believes he's simply presenting kids with an option, and it happens to be the best one.

For a sex-education program, though, there are some obvious omissions. Perhaps not surprisingly for an organisation called Straight Talk, homosexuality and masturbation - the two topics my friends and I asked about at school - aren't mentioned, and the Lyons leave little time for questions. How does Straight Talk address these topics when kids raise them? "We say they're lifestyle choices people make," Jim explains. "It mightn't be our lifestyle choice, but it's theirs." Considering that the Lyons advocate abstinence, isn't discussing masturbation important? I bring up the old joke, that masturbation is the safest form of sex, as there's no risk. Jim and Faye purse their lips. "Well, there is," Faye says. "Psychologists are telling us now," Jim says, "that long-term, people get married, keep masturbating, it does damage to their marriage. I've been picking up different articles on the internet. There's all sorts of studies on anything."

When I get back to Brisbane, I phone Faye and ask her to send me one of the pledge cards, even though I haven't signed the pledge. As always, she is friendly and happy to oblige. She's efficient, too: the pledge card comes in the mail the next day. Now, I keep it as a bookmark. Every time I open a book, there is a silver and blue card facing me, telling me that true love waits. It also reminds me that I'm worth it.

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law and the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal. He also co-hosts Stop Everything on ABC RN.


Cover: September 2008
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