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Opportunities in Abstinence Training | The Nation

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Opportunities in Abstinence Training

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If things are not working out as planned, you might want to consider a career in the expanding field of abstinence education. The need is staggering: four out of five random people I surveyed on the street thought abstinence training is something you do with your mid-section in the gym. Plus, unlike any of the rest of the coaching industry--career coaching, life coaching, sales training, etc.--this form of training is generously subsidized by the federal government, and has been since President Clinton signed the welfare reform bill of 1996, which provided abstinence training for impoverished women (though not, alas, for him.)

About the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author, most recently, of Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has...

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It's not rocket science, either. In fact, there've been men in my life who were naturals at abstinence training without the slightest formal preparation: One renounced dental hygiene; another developed a passion for Frank Sinatra--leading me in each case to embrace abstinence without any regret. In yet another case, marriage alone was enough to induce that sanctified state. Most people, though, require a bit of training to get into the abstinence training business, so I went to the website of WAIT Training to look at the sample curriculum for an abstinence course. The suggested syllabus contained a lot about love, marriage and STD's--none of it terribly technical--until I got to the part about how to explain the difference between the sexes, where the following demonstration was suggested:

Bring to class frozen waffles and a bowl of spaghetti noodles without sauce. Using these as visual aides, explain how research has found that men's brains are more like the waffle, in that their design allows them to more easily compartmentalize information. Women's minds, on the other hand are more interrelated due to increased brain connectors.

Maybe my spaghetti brain wasn't up to this challenge, but it did seem to imply that sex would involve a mixing of waffles and pasta, probably with syrup and tomato sauce thrown in for juiciness. Well, maybe that's meant to be a surefire recipe for abstinence. My next step was to call Joneen Mackenzie, executive director of WAIT (which is an acronym for Why Am I Tempted?) to further pin down the requirements for becoming an abstinence trainer. Her program admits only college-educated people, but they can be of any age or sex.

"Do they have to be abstinent themselves?" I asked. Not at all, she assured me, proudly confessing to being "like an animal" with her husband. How about gays? Well, yes, they could teach abstinence to gay teenagers. So--no barriers at all, and you can become a Certified Abstinence Trainer after only two days of training. There is, however, one shadow hanging over the abstinence training industry. A study commissioned by Congress revealed in April that abstinence training doesn't work: Students exposed to such training turn out to be no less likely to have sex than those who are not, leading some to question the over $100 million the federal government spends on it annually.

Mackenzie dismissed the study out of hand, saying it had been undertaken before serious abstinence training really got off the ground. But there's a deeper problem with abstinence training as currently conducted: It's being wasted on kids. What better way to make sex a big deal than to tell a kid they can't have any for years, and then only after spending $25,000 on champagne and bridesmaid dresses?

Furthermore, kids have become more sophisticated thanks to programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), the Web site of which currently proclaims that "Cannabis can double chances of psychotic illness" and "Just one cigarette can lead to addiction." If you've known honor students who smoke marijuana, why should you believe that teen sex leads inevitably to heartbreak and oozing genital sores?

Here's my advice for the abstinence training industry and any novice abstinence trainers: First, leave the teenagers alone and focus on the vast neglected demographic of middle-aged and elderly people, including the married. Many of them have thought they just weren't getting any, so imagine how happy they will be to see their lifestyle affirmed as a noble, pro-active, choice! Think of the market for silver chastity rings in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities!

Secondly, and I realize that this may be more controversial: The abstinent training profession should be restricted to abstinent people. Would you undergo computer training with someone who hasn't touched a computer since 1987? Would you hire a flabby, out-of-shape, personal fitness trainer? No--nor do I think you should study abstinence with someone who behaves "like an animal" in bed.

Abstinence may be easier to achieve than you realize. Contrary to the assumptions of the framers of welfare reform, poverty--or at least sudden downward mobility--can lead to the rapid exit of significant others. You should welcome their departure and, if you are heterosexual, take it as an opportunity to withdraw into your own gender-appropriate Tupperware compartment--spaghetti or waffle.

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