The call came at 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday night. "Miss Cathi," the teenage boy said, "I called you because I really need help. I really want to have sex, but I know I shouldn't."
Cathi Woods recognized his voice and knew the boy was calling from a "good Christian home." He had just returned from a date with his girlfriend and was terrified that their passion was getting out of hand.
"Both of us are Christians," the boy explained, "but we went too far. We didn't sleep together, but I'm worried about next time. You're the only person I can talk to."
Woods quietly walked the boy through an hour of phone counseling. "You know how bad you feel right now?" she asked.
"If you go all the way, you'll feel a hundred times worse."
"I can't imagine feeling any worse than I do now," the young man confessed.
Woods proceeded to lead this young man through a litany of practical, real-life suggestions. By the end of the call, the boy was crying but extremely grateful.
"Thank you, Miss Cathi," he said. "You may have just saved my life."
Cathi Woods was the architect of what Rhea County (Tenn.) High School principal Pat Conner calls "a remarkably effective" abstinence program. In just one year, Rhea County dropped from being number one in teen pregnancies per capita in the state to tenth; during the second year, they dropped from tenth to forty-sixth and then, one year later, to sixty-fourth. Nothing else was done differently either in the school or the community, except for Woods's program. "I was quite surprised at the success," Conner admits. "Normally, one program doesn't have such an impact."
The program was so successful that when the state received federal money under a Title V federal grant, the entire $35,000 made available to Rhea County was awarded to Woods's program. Despite her outspoken Christian underpinnings, Woods was asked to spearhead an adolescent pregnancy council in Rhea County. Woods herself has since moved on to Boston to work with the Daybreak Pregnancy Resource Center, but the successful program she launched in Rhea County continues under the direction of her successor, Mona Coffield.
The need for such programs is acute. Although the rate of teen pregnancies has been decreasing in the 1990s, about one million teens become pregnant each year in the United States, according to the Medical Institute for Sexual Health; one-third of these pregnancies result in an abortion. Of the children carried to term, about 72 percent are born out of wedlock. This social devastation is exacerbated by an alarming health crisis among young people. In 1996, five of the top ten reportable infectious diseases—including the top four—were sexually transmitted. Adolescents (10-19) and young adults (20-24) are the age groups most at risk for acquiring a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
Local and federal governments have been throwing dollars at the problem without seeing much success. Every year, a staggering $10 billion is spent on fighting major STDs and their preventable complications, and this figure does not include AIDS-based programs.
Is it possible that a program that teaches abstinence is able to succeed where $10 billion has failed?
Where the Bible Belt buckles
Rhea County is home to Bryan College, named after the fiery William Jennings Bryan, best known for his defense of creationism during the famous Scopes trial. It is an extremely conservative county, where almost all identify themselves as Christian. Some might wonder: If Rhea County is so "religious," why did they have such a problem with premarital sexual activity?
Principal Conner offers a suggestion. "Some folks do not like the idea of discussing—sex. Some people think, 'If you don't talk about it, it doesn't exist.' That leaves an open door for young people."
During their term as the state's worst problem area for teenage pregnancies, Rhea County used "Sex Respect," an abstinence curriculum used internationally. The program was very unpopular among the students, mostly because of the way it was taught.
"Kids thought it was a joke," Woods reports. Two of the oldest teachers in the school taught it, and neither teacher was entirely comfortable even mentioning the word sex, much less talking about the issues going through students' minds. What Cathi Woods was able to accomplish shows why programs alone will fail unless partnered with caring, capable people who dare to communicate with adolescents.
Woods, then director of the Women's Care Center, a local crisis-pregnancy facility, thought the problem could be addressed with a more straightforward approach where kids could ask anything and everything. She set out to schedule an appointment with the school superintendent. With the tenacity of a John Grisham heroine, she found out where the superintendent ate lunch, and then showed up for casual conversation over the course of several months. Having built a relationship, she soon had an appointment.
County executive Billy Ray Patton says he was ready to be approached. "I had sat on the school board for 13 years," he recalls, "and every year the teenage pregnancy rate kept getting higher and higher—almost 40 percent. We were racking our brains trying to find out what we could do to decrease this."
What Patton saw happening locally was also happening nationally—kids were becoming sexually active at an increasingly younger age. Lynn Bisbee of Care Net, a Christian prolife ministry, notes, "My focus when I first got started in abstinence education  was in the high schools and at some colleges. But now, to be really effective, we have to reach students in junior high."
Congress has recognized the crisis of teenage sexuality as well as the relative failure of the "safe sex" approach and in 1997 appropriated new funds under a program called Title V, which distributes grants for abstinence-based education.
"Title V had a tremendous impact on the whole issue," Bisbee relates. "It turned the discussion into a national debate."
In conservative Rhea County, Woods's Christian background was not an impediment. Administrators didn't fear Woods's faith so much as her intention to be very direct about sexual issues.
"I have to be direct," Woods explains, "because the kids aren't hearing about it in church." Conner remembers being extremely wary when approached about Woods's program. He expected tremendous negative reaction from people, most of whom would rather "sweep the problem under the rug" rather than face the fact that there was a serious problem of premarital sexual activity.
What won Conner over—or wore him out—was Woods's persistence. "She wouldn't let it die," Conner laughs. "Visits, calling, whatever it took." Neither Conner nor Patton felt Woods was simply after a job (she wasn't paid) or promoting a political agenda. Both felt confident that she wanted to reach out to kids. What Patton and Conner didn't realize is that Woods's concern was born out of personal travail.
As part of her preparation to develop her own program, Woods polled hundreds of sixth to ninth graders, asking them why they were having sex. Surprisingly, only one student answered "because I'm in love." Seventy-nine percent said they engaged in premarital sexual relations to "fit in or be cool." The second most-popular answer—among males, not females—was "because it feels good." (Interestingly, not a single female chose this answer.)
Student Laura Cowden speculates that teens have sex because "they feel like they don't have any other choice. If they want to stay with whoever they're with, they have to go on to another level."
Rachel Held, another of Woods's students, points one finger at the media. Popular teen magazines such as Seventeen and YM teach "safe sex, safe sex, safe sex. They never even mention abstinence." These magazines are passed from student to student at school and greatly affect students' views.
Heidi Seera, a junior from a strong Christian home, suggests absent and overly permissive parents have something to do with kids becoming sexually active. "Some parents let their kids do whatever, and [they] hang around the wrong kids."
A comrade in the struggle
Part of Woods's appeal to the students was that she addressed them as a fellow struggler. At 36, Woods is attractive, gregarious—and a single mother. Her child was conceived before she became a Christian, and she freely shares her own battle to maintain sexual purity. "A woman in her midthirties is at her sexual peak," Woods told her students. "And my hormones are just as active as yours are."
This explains why it wasn't unusual for Woods to receive five calls a night, especially if she had recently been in the schools. Many began with, "Okay, Cathi, tell me what you do."
Because this program was for the public schools, Woods couldn't spout Bible verses. But Woods argued with pastors who suggested that abstinence doesn't work "without the Lord." "I beg to differ," she says firmly. "Non-Christian people get married as virgins all the time." Her approach was consistent with biblical values without using biblical arguments.
Though Woods didn't use Scripture or "God talk," Christian students like Rachel Held were still encouraged. Explains Rachel, "[Woods's class] helped me realize that all these laws and rules God put in my life weren't there to rob me or take me away from an experience; they were there to protect me. That actually strengthened my relationship to God to know he's not just [legislating] a bunch of rules."
Woods took an approach that worked for her even before she became a Christian—the fear of disease. "There are at least 25 sexually transmitted diseases out there," she points out. "When I started practicing abstinence, I did so out of fear of diseases. I was scared to death of what was out there, especially since I knew two people who died of AIDS. That was enough to make me say, 'Is sex worth it?' No."
When asked about this program, students most often remembered the section on STDs.
As Woods taught more and more on the dangers of a sexually promiscuous lifestyle, she realized that she needed to get tested herself. "I found out that my son's dad has hepatitis B, which is an incurable sexually transmitted disease. Now, I don't have it, but I could have gotten it. The woman you see standing before you could very well have contracted a fatal disease."
Woods had the students' attention when she described waiting for the results of her AIDS test. "You have to wait two weeks," she says. "I had a really good life, but when I thought back on all the 'good times,' I asked myself was it worth it if the good times had given me AIDS? No!"
In addition to capitalizing on the kids' fear of disease, Woods was very honest about her own past failures and how they have affected her, particularly how her search for "father love" led her to get involved sexually before she was married. Heidi Seera said she felt Woods's personal struggles made the other students more willing to listen. "You knew that Cathi knew what she was talking about. She could put a lot of feeling into it."
While freshman Laura Cowden has chosen to remain abstinent, she knows of friends who were sexually active while going through Woods's program. "Cathi hit some heart strings. People I talked to who were sexually active said things like, 'Man, she understands how I feel about this, the pain and all the psychological consequences.' " Held says that "by the end of the class, people who were sexually active felt so dumb they wouldn't tell anybody," adding, "Now I can hold my head up high. Yeah, I'm a virgin."
Woods's program wasn't magical or even particularly unusual. One of the factors working in her favor was Rhea County's willingness to give her two weeks. Often schools will limit the presentation to three days (one hour a day).
Day one begins with Woods's personal experience. Cowden calls this the most helpful part of Woods's program. The classrom usually becomes absolutely silent when Woods says, "If God came up to me and said, 'Cathi, I'll give you one wish in the entire world; what is it?' My one wish would be that I could be a virgin again. I can't think of anything more wonderful than being a virgin on my wedding night."
During the second and third days of the program, Woods discusses the practical nature of sexual progression and the personality differences between men and women. Woods also asks students to describe their "ideal" mate. Students are often shocked when they hear other known-to-be sexually active students proclaim, "I want to marry a virgin." "At least 75 percent of the students include this in their profile," Woods says, "and it really opens up the other students' eyes."
During the next few days, Woods splits the boys from the girls and discusses Dr. Joe McIlhaney's slides on STDs and other topics such as puberty and pregnancy. Day eight is a discussion of AIDS and the showing of Focus on the Family's Sex, Lies, and the Truth video.
The ninth day includes a discussion of individual goals and dreams. Students are encouraged to consider where they want to be one, five, and ten years from now. Woods also uses several games to emphasize the consequences of premarital sex.
Day ten is left open for the students to ask Woods any question that may have been left unanswered. The questions are written on cards so the students can ask them anonymously. This is where earlier abstinence teachers often failed, as the questions can get personal and embarrassing. Seera says Woods "was loose and didn't seem embarrassed one bit, and that really helped open up the class."
While Woods is clear that no question is out of bounds, she is also outspoken that sexual activity outside of marriage is harmful. This no-exceptions approach doesn't appear to turn most students off. Woods has found that "kids are hungry for boundaries."
Woods's abstinence program, though successful, was not without its difficult days. Woods recalls one afternoon when the class was being unusually rowdy. The kids whooped and hollered and laughed about every innuendo in the discussion. It was getting out of hand when she finally stopped and said, "You know, guys, I don't get paid a dime for doing this, but I do it because I know if I can change one person and keep one person from making the same mistakes I did, it'll be worth it."
Woods turned back to the blackboard to hide her tears, and at that moment the bell rang. She let the students file out, still turned toward the blackboard, when she felt a tap on her shoulder. Woods turned and saw one of the school "jocks," a very popular, athletic male, who said, "Miss Cathi, you've already changed my life."
Woods cried all the way back to the center. "You know, God," she said, half-laughing through her tears, "you can use a donkey, and you can use me."
Her relationships with these kids made it extremely difficult for Woods to leave Rhea County. "I still feel so connected to those kids," she says. Even though she has been gone for several months, she still gets long-distance phone calls late on Friday and Saturday nights. This is a thing of wonder for Woods. "Here I am, an old, middle-aged woman, and these kids want to talk to me!"
Though the results of Woods's program were dramatic, working with teens virtually guarantees less than perfect success. Woods recalls a young girl who started dating when she was just 14 years old. Her boyfriend was pressuring her to have sex, and the young girl occasionally called Woods with updates.
"He said he'll leave me if I don't have sex with him soon."
"Then he doesn't love you," Woods tried to convince her.
These calls went on for months, until late one night, Woods received another desperate call. "I finally gave in a couple weeks ago." There was a long pause. "And now I'm late."
Woods urged her to come in and get a pregnancy test. As soon as her boyfriend had found out she was late, he left her. The pregnancy test was positive, so Woods referred her to a doctor, which yielded an even more devastating revelation. In that one sexual encounter the young girl not only became pregnant, she also contracted herpes, which she will now have to live with for the rest of her life.
Safe sex versus no sex
Despite its success, Woods's abstinence-only approach is controversial. Many groups, including Planned Parenthood, argue that abstinence should be presented as an option, but that teens should also be instructed about the proper use of contraceptives. Most of these programs also work toward providing free contraceptives, especially condoms.
Congressional passage of Title V may have swung the debate more toward the abstinence side. "When we first started talking about abstinence," Bisbee relates, "the safe-sex proponents downplayed and dismissed it, thinking we were unrealistic asking kids to be sexually abstinent. Some even said it was dangerous."
In April of 1998, the fight over contraceptive or abstinence-only sex education broke out anew after a study suggested that students who have access to free condoms at school are no more sexually active than those who don't. The L.A. County study was published in Family Planning Perspectives by the Alan Guttmacher Institute (the research arm of Planned Parenthood) and is expected to be used to lobby state and national policy makers for a vast expansion of condom-distribution programs.
The National Coalition for Abstinence Education (NCAE) immediately countered that "this study is not honest research—it is number twisting for the exclusive purpose of asking for more tax funding." Besides pointing out basic flaws in the research procedures, the NCAE also argued that numerous disturbing findings were not reported. For instance, a greater number of female teens significantly increased a wide variety of other risky sexual behaviors, such as oral sex and anal intercourse. The number of males engaging in unhealthy same-sex anal intercourse doubled.
Woods explains her commitment to abstinence-only programs this way: "Even if you ignore the fact that there are at least 25 active sexually transmitted diseases out there, and even if you ignore teen pregnancy, you can't take out the fact that every time you have sex with someone and they leave you, there's a broken heart. These girls are struggling with a broken heart, crying in my office, and that's the time I tell them, 'Do you want to be here again?'
"I suffer from a broken heart because of this," Woods confesses. "The true empowerment of women is teaching abstinence, because abstinence gives women control of their bodies."
The teens interviewed for this article were unanimous in their opinion that sex education should be taught in the schools. "Especially the abstinence," Held added, "because I'm really tired of this safe sex stuff."
Premarital sex in the church
It's not just non-Christian students in the schools who need abstinence education. Unfortunately, Woods has found many pastors and Christian parents who think sexual activity isn't happening with their young people. "Christian kids are having sex," Woods warns.
Recently, she spoke with a 13-year-old girl who had signed a "True Love Waits" pledge card and was ostensibly committed to sexual purity. She sat in church with her parents every Sunday morning, but what her parents didn't realize is that she was routinely sneaking out of her house on Friday and Saturday nights, occasionally performing oral sex on older boys.
"I didn't know that was wrong," the girl told Woods. "I just thought we weren't supposed to have sex."
Woods has seen so many kids from "strong, Christian homes" become sexually active—even if they're not engaging in actual intercourse—that she thinks every Christian parent should be seriously concerned and watchful.
"Are you absolutely sure your kid is not sneaking out of the house at night?" she warns. "Ninety percent of the young girls we see—those under 16 years old—are being preyed on by 17- and 18-year-old boys. They'll tell them, 'Sure, I signed the card too, but this isn't sex. It's just touching.' If the girls haven't been told otherwise, and they really want to belong and to be loved, they'll buy it and set themselves up for the heartbreak of their lives."
While Woods encourages teens to go to their parents, she is realistic about the difficulties for both parents and children. "I could have never talked to my parents about sex," she confesses, "and they were wonderful people. There's just this fear about even addressing these questions with your parents."
Many parents and kids simply never talk about sex. "When kids talk in class," Woods says, "I'm surprised at the number who say, 'My parents don't have sex; no way.' "
Even more difficult than facing parents, for some teens, is the daunting task of facing a church. Woods recalls that when she became a single mother, "the most rejection I got was from the church."
This may explain why Woods believes "more Christian teenagers choose abortion because they're afraid to go to their parents, and they're afraid of condemnation from the church."
Woods attempts to counter this by changing the students' perception of God. "Kids have an image of God sitting in an Abraham Lincoln chair waiting for them to do something wrong, thinking, 'I don't want you to have sex because I don't want you to have any fun.' "
"The truth," Woods tells her students, "is that God is sitting there with tears coming out of his eyes, saying, 'I don't want you to have sex [outside marriage] because I know it's going to break your heart, and when your heart is broken, my heart is broken.'"
Gary Thomas is a freelance writer from Bellingham, Washington.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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