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The birds. The bees. The boys. Turning ignorant boys into wise guys

by Amy Kingsley

From his office on the second floor of the Bardoff Building in downtown Greensboro Rick Brown can peer out a plate glass window, past a lamppost and onto sidewalks that 10 years ago supported more weeds than pedestrians.

Now, three blocks north, the squat Governor’s Court stands as a humble monument to the tentative beginnings of the urban condominium invasion and the Kindermusik headquarters next door serves as a pastel beacon to the creative class. Brown, for the 10 years he’s occupied this office, has had a front row seat to the transformation of this Southern cityscape. All of which, one supposes, makes for good theater.

But the migration patterns of Greensboro’s young professionals aren’t the kinds of population trends to which Brown devotes his working hours. Instead he serves as the director of Wise Guys, which bills itself as a male responsibility program and might be better understood as sexuality education for boys. Or, as Brown puts it, a “male health program.”

“[Wise Guys] is the first place that developed a systematic intervention program for young men aimed at reducing the number of adolescent pregnancies,” he said

For the most part, Brown measures his program’s success with negatives: the declining number of adolescent pregnancies, the number of months students aren’t having sex and the sexually transmitted diseases doctors don’t diagnose. There is at least one positive development Brown can safely claim: For the last 16 years, the vast majority of Guilford County’s 19 middle schools have hosted a Wise Guys program, and they have done so based on its success not only as a best practice model, but also because the class – in a battlefield subject so often split solely into “abstinence” and “comprehensive” camps – charts an ideological truce.

In its merger of the two sides, the men of Wise Guys have developed a system that satisfies schools, students and parents and causes measurable attitude changes among the young men it serves.

Sixteen years ago, the students sitting in a plain schoolroom at Allen Middle were little more than 23 gleams in their daddies’ eyes, that old cliché being, of course, much less accurate than the scientific information instructor Jim Burchel will impart to them over the next four weeks.

Burchel, dressed in a Polo shirt, khaki pants and sandals, bears a sartorial resemblance to his school-uniformed charges. But his face is the one of few white ones in a room filled with diverse ethnicities. It’s the second day of Wise Guys, and Burchel takes a red marker to the dry erase board for an exercise; he draws a simple T-chart like the kind used to track dart scores. On one side, the heading reads “Men” and on the other “Boys.”

“In our culture, what separates the men from the boys?” Burchel asks.

“Ummm’… puberty?”

“When we get to be a man we look different from when we were a boy.”

“Sex?”

Burchel takes a break from writing down the students’ suggestions to ponder that last offering.

“Okay, so you say sex,” he says. “Now, not everybody always agrees with that, but there is probably some truth to it.”

Wise Guys is more than a sex education course, Brown says, and it is funded through the United Way, Wesley Long-Moses Cone and Guilford Community AIDS Partnership. The program has units on self-esteem, fatherhood, dating violence and communication. This exercise in defining manhood, though, is a standard and critical part of the curriculum.

“The place where Wise Guys has the strongest impact is in helping guys look at their understanding of masculinity,” Brown says. “In our culture there’s not sort of an accepted standard. Manhood is being stronger than somebody else, it’s about how much you acquire and sex is seen as part of that status and conquest.”

At Allen, Burchel has only four weeks to impress an alternate vision of manhood upon his young charges, many of whom indulge in a media culture rife with unhealthy images of masculinity. Brown chooses instructors with the qualities he hopes the students will emulate: good communication skills, emotional honesty and confidence.

Burchel, a former youth pastor, draws upon his experience and the curriculum to influence the boys’ behavior without condemning their beliefs.

“One thing that really hasn’t changed since we started this is that we treat the boys with respect,” Brown says, “give them a safe space to talk about this and don’t wag your finger at them.”

In 1990, when Wise Guys began, the notion that young men would be interested in their role in teen pregnancy prevention was treated with skepticism. Adolescent pregnancy was at an all-time high in the early 1990s, and community leaders convened to evaluate gaps in programming. The most notable, according to Brown, was that all the teen prevention programs in Guilford County were geared toward girls.

“It might seem kind of obvious,” Brown said, “but we kept saying, ‘You know these girls aren’t getting pregnant by themselves.'”

The Family Life Council, which had a program for teen moms called Good Beginnings for Teen Mothers, offered to formulate a pregnancy prevention program geared toward young men. They tinkered with the curriculum and the name (Guys on the Rise emerged as an early choice but was shot down as potentially counterproductive) and the class debuted in 1990 at the Greensboro Boys and Girls Club.

“Initially there was some doubt that boys would be very interested in talking about sexuality and what it means to be a man,” Brown said. “But we found out that they have lots of questions they want to ask.”

By the end of that first summer more boys were attending Wise Guys than had started the program. A rough formula for the program emerged: Anatomy and sex would be talked about honestly and accurately and integrated with discussions about decision-making and masculinity. It’s important to note that Wise Guys is abstinence-centered, but not to the exclusion of information that can reduce the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection among teens who are already sexually active.

Not long after the program started, people involved with Wise Guys started to develop a curriculum for public school use. They were approved as a class for small, select groups of seventh and eighth grade boys who attended the class either as part of an elective or because they were hand-picked.

Then, in 1995, members of the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law mandating an emphasis on abstinence-until-marriage in public school sex education classes. Individual school districts could bypass the requirement by holding open meetings, but by 2006 only 17 out of 117 systems had chosen that path. Around the same time, and about a year before Brown took over, a group of Guilford County parents launched an unsuccessful push to remove Wise Guys and its female counterpart Smart Girls from public schools.

Wise Guys and Smart Girls are not part of the Guilford County Schools official Healthy Living curriculum, but inside school walls they must abide by North Carolina legislation. Instructors can discuss contraception, but they cannot demonstrate proper condom use or talk about abortion.

The way the issue is politicized is that it’s positioned as abstinence versus comprehensive,” Brown says. “But that’s not really accurate.”

Some members of the abstinence-only crowd have read North Carolina’s law as a mandate to teach that abstinence until marriage is the expected norm, with discussions of contraceptives limited to their failure rates. And among those pushing for more comprehensive sex education, there are people who would have instructors list abstinence as one of several options for preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease without pushing it as an expected norm.

The topic is contested, but the data are not. The rate of teen pregnancy is down from a high of 119 per 1,000 teen girls aged 15-19, to 81 per 1,000 in 2004. Some abstinence-only advocates declare the numbers a victory, noting that the decline coincides at least partially with the increase of federal abstinence education funds in 1996.

Research from the Guttmacher Institute, a family planning think tank, paints a more complicated picture. The Institute cites evidence from the Centers for Disease Control that attributes about half the decline in teen pregnancy to an increase in the number of teenagers choosing to delay sexual activity. The other half, the report says, comes from more effective contraceptive use.

“We’ve found that when kids know all their choices,” Brown says, “a lot of them are going to chose not to be sexually active.”

When boys are in seventh and eighth grade, they tend to be concrete thinkers, Brown said. When Wise Guys instructors teach about contraceptives, they conduct an exercise designed to appeal to and impress upon those kinds of minds.

“Alright listen up guys,” Burchel says. “Today is the contraception unit.”

He’s back at the dry erase board, drawing a horizontal line with the same red marker. At one end, he’s written the words “Very Effective,” which is followed by “Somewhat Effective” and “Not Effective.”

For the first exercise, Burchel wants to boys to ponder which birth control methods work best in preventing pregnancy; after that they will redo the assignment with the prevention of sexually transmitted disease in mind.

“Who’s going to go first?” he asks, proffering a box of index cards, each of which has the name of a birth control device printed upon it.

The boys’ hands shoot up. By the time Burchel has started talking about the process and effectiveness of hormonal contraceptives, even the group of boys in the corner that had been talking and shooting rubber bands are paying close attention.

“All of our hormone methods, they are very, very, very effective against pregnancy,” Burchel said.

The boys have been placing their chosen cards somewhere along the continuum; Burchel picks them up, explains what the words on the card mean, and then replaces them on the board. When he gets to condoms, Burchel’s effectiveness explanation gets complicated.

“When it is properly used, a condom is about 98 percent effective,” Burchel says. “But the typical use effectiveness, which means how it’s used by most people, is 85 percent.”

He pauses the exercise and picks up a condom, pointing to parts like the receptacle tip and explaining how the prophylactic can be misused.

“What do condoms have in common with milk?” he asks and selects a specimen from his grab bag. “What letters are right there?”

“E ‘…X ‘…P,” reads the student.

“And what does that mean?” Burchel asks.

“Expiration!” comes the answer, almost chorus-like from the boys.

What Burchel and Brown hope the students take from this exercise is a dual awareness of the benefits of abstinence, monogamy and – at the very least – risk reduction. Evaluation of the program, which is conducted with a standard battery of pretest, posttest and six-month follow-up, demonstrates that the message is getting though.

“The guys who are not yet sexually active tend to not be sexually active six months out,” Brown says. “And the guys that are sexually active have increased their contraceptive use. That’s a big thing because studies show that teen guys usually decrease the consistency of contraceptive use over time.”

Wise Guys students communicate better with parents, other positive adults and female friends better than their control group counterparts. Adult communication is critical, Brown says, because parents and family are the students’ primary sexuality educators. As for female communication, it can be a critical component in teen pregnancy prevention.

“Two of the most common things we hear from teen parents is ‘it just happened’ and ‘we didn’t really talk about it,'” Brown says. “It’s much easier for a teenager to use lines and make moves than it is for them to actually talk about a relationship.”

The numbers for Wise Guys have been positive enough to make national organizations like the Urban Institute, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and the Moses Cone-Wesley Long Community Health Foundation sit up and take notice. Sales of the curriculum to community groups around the country have become an important source of income for the Family Life Council, which has so far had a hand in training 350 groups in more than 30 states.

Depending upon state laws regarding sex education, educators can cherry-pick the curriculum. Despite the contraception component of Wise Guys, some programs funded with abstinence-only education dollars have even integrated parts of the curriculum.

Abstinence-only education has come under increasing fire in the last two years, after almost a decade of ascendance within the nation’s executive branch. President Clinton allocated federal funds for abstinence-only education in Section 510 of the blockbuster Welfare Reform Act of 1996. The original bill earmarked $250 million in such programs to last for more than five years.

Federal spending on abstinence-only education has grown exponentially under the leadership of President Bush; he and Congress appropriated some $170 million toward abstinence programs in 2005, according to a report commissioned by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). In that same report, Waxman revealed that 11 of the 13 most commonly used abstinence-only curricula contained factual errors and major distortions of public health information.

The Pro-Choice North Carolina Foundation repeated Waxman’s investigation in the state’s 117 school districts and found that several of the programs Waxman found troublesome were also used in North Carolina school districts.

Waxman and the foundation undertook their investigations out of a concern that falsely inflating the failure rates of condoms and other contraceptives might convince sexually active teens that protection doesn’t work. That’s an impression Wise Guys educators try to avoid conveying, even as they stress the benefits of abstinence.

“If you teach about contraception, you have to teach that it can fail,” Brown says. “What you don’t want to do is give the kid the impression that its not even worth trying.”

An instructor from the Guilford County Health Department is conducting a Smart Girls class in the room next to Burchel’s inside the Allen Middle School’s cafeteria annex. Like their male counterparts, Smart Girls instructors stress self-esteem, communication, peer pressure avoidance and decision-making skills alongside discussions about abstinence and contraceptives. Theirs was another program targeted with Wise Guys for popular eviction from public school classrooms 11 years ago. Despite the past battles, Guilford County Schools have always been proactive in finding ways to provide the information to their students, said Smart Girls director Jean Workmen.

“I’m very proud to live in Guilford County because they’ve always been a leader,” Workmen said. “From day one after the abstinence-until-marriage law passed, they said we want to do more.”

Back when the abstinence-until-marriage law passed, Guilford County had to do more. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Guilford had the highest teen pregnancy rate of the state’s most populous counties. By 2005, the only urban county with a lower teen pregnancy rate than Guilford was Wake County.

Tips about teen pregnancy prevention aren’t the only kinds of facts Wise Guys participants learn. During the first week of classes Burchel engages his students in a discussion about abuse, and they linger on a definition of sexual harassment. When Burchel starts talking about the ploys middle school boys use to cop a feel, some of the boys start to giggle. He calls it the “oops factor,” when students pretend to trip so they can lay their hands on verboten body parts.

“Listen up,” Burchel gets serious and knocks on the wall. “Next door there is the Smart Girls class. There is not a single girl in that room who ever wants you to do that.”

He switches seamlessly to a discussion about rape, and asks the class to pass judgment on two cases based on real-life events. The 23 boys return a split verdict, and after a brief discussion, Burchel explains the legal definition of consent.

“Does silence equal consent?” he asks. “The answer according to the law is absolutely not. If you don’t open your mouth and have a conversation about it, you’re putting yourself in danger of being guilty of rape.”

He tells the students that men commit 98 percent of rapes, and that 98 percent of victims are women.

“This is a male problem,” he says. “And you can be part of the solution.”

Although Burchel addressed his comment to sexual violence, the same philosophy has driven Wise Guys since its inception as a program aimed at engaging young men in adolescent pregnancy prevention.

In addition to navigating the political waters, Wise Guys has also adapted to changing demographic trends and altered its classes to fit into a school year dominated by high-stakes testing.

“We like to have at least ten weeks with the students,” Burchel says, “but a lot of things have happened with schools in the last few years. They have a lot more pressure on them now. We still have a lot more time than many programs, and that’s a big triumph.”

The Family Life Council unveiled a Spanish language version of Wise Guys a few years ago called Jóvenes Sabios, with a counterpart for females called Jóvenes Sabias. The program, in addition to providing instruction in Spanish, tackles some of the specific cultural barriers that keep men from the Hispanic community from becoming involved in family planning.

Because adolescent girls who become pregnant often have older partners, the Family Life Council introduced a program called “Wise Guys: The Next Level” that targets men between the ages of 18 and 29. Wise Guys has been increasingly targeting drug treatment and juvenile detention facilities because of research that shows a link between sexual activity and other high-risk behaviors.

Resistance to the Wise Guys message is now more often confined to parents who think that their seventh grade sons are too young for the program. Brown makes himself available to parents worried about the curriculum, and allows them to examine worksheets and exercises.

“[The parents] may be entirely right that their son is not interested in girls or sex at this age,” Brown says. “But they may also not know how much he does think about those things.”

Parents who don’t want their sons in the program have become increasingly rare over the years. These days, Brown takes more calls from parents who want to make sure their sons are included.

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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