Friends know Susannah Petrie as the Virgin Queen. You'd never know it by looking at her. A statuesque blonde with an air of certainty, she would have no trouble getting laid -- if that were her thing. Yet at the ripe age of 28, she remains chaste.
Petrie decided when she was 13 that she was going to wait until marriage. "I just always thought, 'I'm not giving this body to some random dude,'" she explains.
At times, she wondered whether she was missing out. But the fallout from friends' high school romances cemented her choice. One got pregnant and opted for an abortion. Several sweated through disease scares. At a low point, one confided: "I wish I was you."
"I just remember thinking, 'This safe sex is not so safe after all,'" Petrie says.
Today, she's a professional virgin, delivering lectures at Cleveland schools for Operation Keepsake, a nonprofit organization that encourages abstinence until marriage. It's a movement that's built a sizable following in Ohio, thanks to a flood of federal funding. In late September, the Ohio Department of Health hosted the state's first taxpayer-financed abstinence conference in Columbus, bringing 300 true believers from as far away as California to hawk merchandise and swap strategies.
But if the conference ratified the movement's rapid growth, it also provoked pointed criticism. Detractors complain that the state is using tax money to promote a religious tenet under the guise of public health. They argue that the movement puts more stock in faith than in science, excludes gays, and leaves kids dangerously ignorant.
"It's about science versus ideology," says Earl Pike, executive director of the Greater Cleveland AIDS Task Force. "Do you respond based on the reality of the human condition? Or do you respond based on how you think humans should behave?"
The abstinence conference feels like a flea market mated to a job fair. Vendors offer an array of anti-sex trinkets, from temporary tattoos saying, "I'm Worth Waiting For," to plastic virginity pledge cards reading, "A.T.M.: Abstinence 'Til Marriage." One display borrows a line from junk e-mail, shouting, "LEARN HOW TO HAVE THE BEST SEX . . . by waiting till marriage!" Apparently sex even sells chastity.
The flashiest booth belongs to Operation Keepsake, where a TV screen serves up a parade of proud virgins, each attractive enough to land a role on The Real World. Staffing the booth are kids so well-scrubbed they could pass for J. Crew models. One rebel sports a lip ring, as if to advertise that this isn't just a field trip for a Baptist Bible-study group.
Brock Lutz, 28, with a goatee and a shorn head, strikes up a conversation with a reporter. The patter is refreshingly free of moralizing. He hardly mentions sex at all, focusing instead on his love for Cleveland graffiti. Only later at the hotel bar, where he declines a beer, does he explain his devotion to abstinence.
It began when he was 15 and got a girl pregnant. Lutz never mentions how the story ends, but the moral is clear: Sex carries harsh consequences. So he opted for "secondary virginity," a seeming oxymoron that allows believers to reclaim their virginity by vowing to go sexless until marriage.
His wife, Jen, also works for Operation Keepsake, as editor of an eight-page booklet titled Represent. Think Teen Vogue for virgins. A typical issue finds Jen tallying the sex partners for each fictional character on Friends.
"If Friends writers were really honest," the article concludes, "they would have tried this for a final episode: all six 'friends' sipping coffee at Central Perk, discussing the various STDs they've been exposed to . . ."
For the first year of their courtship, Brock and Jen didn't so much as make out. "We got engaged and we kissed for the first time, and it was amazing!" Brock says.
Now they have a happy, healthy sex life, untroubled by jealousy over previous partners. "In her mind, I'm the best sex in the world, because she has nothing to compare it to," Brock says.
They're the new face of abstinence -- cool kids with a conservative message, a Trojan Horse against Trojan condoms. And this isn't your mother's chastity lecture. One presentation finds students answering game-show questions to win such fabulous prizes as syphilis.
"Kids really like to hear from people like them," says Cheryl Biddle, director of Abstinence the Better Choice Inc. in Akron. She encourages individuality in her instructors: "No T-shirts matching. We want them to totally be themselves."
But one rule is not negotiable: No premarital sex. Biddle keeps an eye out for warning signs.
"We let them know that if their behavior changes, we would love to help them regain abstinence," Biddle says. "But if not, they have to leave the program."
A year ago, Biddle's daughter, Amanda, returned from her honeymoon with her husband, Pete. He had a question for his new mother-in-law: "Are you the one I give this to?"
He held an abstinence pledge card, the one Amanda signed as a teenager. Pete was redeeming it, a symbol that Amanda had indeed waited until marriage.
"I was just tickled to death," Biddle says. "It was just so neat."
In the mid-1980s, Biddle was among the first in Ohio to take up the abstinence charge. The anything-goes mind-set of the '70s had given way to a new era of simple solutions to complex issues, such as the Reagan administration's "Just Say No" campaign. Biddle was working at a crisis-pregnancy center, where she saw another problem at ground level: an overwhelming number of young girls in trouble.
"My own faulty way of trying to handle the situation was to take them all home," she says.
Abstinence the Better Choice Inc. was born. "When we first started going door-to-door, people were like, 'Yeah right, that's not going to work,'" she says.
Two decades later, Biddle's group lectures at 80 Akron-area schools each year. In Cleveland, Operation Keepsake reaches 125 schools. Together they see almost 50,000 kids a year.
Yet it's hard to say whether the movement's growth is attributable to results, or simply to the fact that it has friends in high places.
Abstinence funding got its start as part of the Welfare Reform Act signed by President Clinton, but grew by leaps and bounds under George W. Bush, reaching $140 million a year.
Ohio receives a handsome chunk of that -- $7.1 million last fiscal year, the fourth-highest sum received by any state. And state taxpayers kicked in almost $500,000.
The Columbus conference set the high-water mark, as Bernard Schlueter, a senior policy adviser at the Department of Health, noted in his opening remarks.
"We have come of age!" he proclaimed.
To hear the horror stories, middle schools have become miniature Sodoms. Teenagers hold "rainbow parties," where boys vie to see who can get the most shades of lipstick on their dicks. Thirteen-year-olds are having anal sex. And no one cares, as long as the kids use protection.
The culprit, of course, is conventional sex education.
"I think they have a fatalistic approach," says Mary Ann Mosack, executive director of Operation Keepsake. "They capitulate to the lowest common denominator: 'Kids are going to have sex, and therefore they need to use condoms.' That's really the driving force: 'By all means, we have to get latex between them and the next partner!'"
If her employees understand the power of playing to the street, Mosack is their polar opposite, a central-casting moralist who radiates defensiveness. She's suspicious of the media and hostile toward "the academic elite" -- scientists and professors ensconced in the ivory towers of leftwing groupthink. She's a woman who feels under attack.
"We're more than 'Just Say No,'" she says. "It's absolutely ludicrous that the other side tries to paint us with that brush."
Mosack argues that kids really want to abstain; they just don't know how to resist peer pressure. "We try to empower them with assertiveness skills," she says. "We try to connect them with the fact that decisions do determine destiny."
It's not all sunshine. The crux of the pitch is that rubbers don't work -- at least not as advertised. A brochure distributed at the conference claimed that condoms "still allow a relative risk of infection of approximately 50 percent or more for most STDs."
One would be wise to take the data with a grain of salt; it comes from a scientific-sounding institute that's actually a group opposed to sex ed.
As for other birth-control methods, Operation Keepsake prefers not to talk about them. "We think it's counterproductive and sends a mixed message," Mosack says.
Some say it's a blind man's approach to sexuality, that preaching abstinence-only ignores hard truths. Mosack says that's nonsense.
"They're so sold on the premise that latex is the answer that I question their ability to be objective on any kind of scientific research," she sniffs. "You know the game; people use their statistics to get whatever results they want."
To make her case, she points to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The federally funded study examined a host of programs and found that virginity pledges delay the age of sexual initiation by as much as 18 months.
"That's significant," she says. "Is it ideal? No. But it could be the difference between finishing high school or not. It also reduces partners, which is the number-one risk factor in getting a sexually transmitted disease."
But that glowing appraisal ignores the study's inconvenient facts. The authors also found that virgins who broke their vow were one-third less likely to use protection.
So Mosack pulls another report from her arsenal, this one by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that surveyed 10 smaller studies to prove that abstinence programs are effective.
Yet Dr. Douglas Kirby, a national expert in adolescent sexuality, says the report is based on bogus science. "The truth is, there's a lot of very weak studies of abstinence-only programs."
All of which isn't to suggest that abstinence doesn't work. Researchers just don't know yet.
"There is science happening," says Dr. Elaine Borawski, who's conducting her own study at Case Western Reserve University. "It's just slow. It takes a while. And people really need to be patient."
Patience plays no part in politics. Even before Bush took office, Ohio's conservative legislature was stiff-arming traditional sex ed. In 2000, legislators turned down $1 million in federal funding for disease prevention. Their beef: A small portion -- 10 percent -- was earmarked for HIV education that included condom instruction.
Legislators also enacted one of the nation's strictest sex-ed laws, requiring school boards to emphasize abstinence. Small wonder that some see it all as a power play by the religious right.
Columbus does little to disguise the movement's Christian underpinnings. Valerie Huber, Ohio's abstinence coordinator, makes no secret that religion infuses her mission. "Anyone who thinks that one person can't do much forgets that God makes any battle or undertaking a majority!" she was quoted as saying in one profile.
Yet there remains that pesky question of science -- whether the state is spending its money on something truly effective or just an expensive way to placate conservatives.
"My primary concern is that taxpayer dollars are being used to support presentations that emanate from a distinctly far-right ideological perspective," says Pike, of the AIDS Task Force. "We have programs that work and programs we're not sure work. Why are we funding experiments? Why aren't we putting money behind programs that have a proven impact?"
Then there's the problem of those most at risk of HIV: young gay men. In the world of chastity ed, they simply don't exist.
Abstinence the Better Choice and Operation Keepsake share the same approach: Homosexuality isn't discussed.
"I don't think it even remotely reaches that at-risk population," says Mikell Nagy, who does outreach for the AIDS Task Force. "Their message of no sex until marriage doesn't even apply to me."
The Columbus conference only amplified the complaints. Richard Aleshire works in the Ohio Department of Health's HIV section. When he received an invite, he was shocked: The speakers included representatives of the Family Research Council.
The group's rhetoric is not just firmly on the fringe; it seems to beg for psychiatric intervention. The council claims that "one of the primary goals of the homosexual rights movement is to abolish all age of consent laws and recognize pedophiles as the 'prophets' of a new sexual order." President Tony Perkins calls homosexuality a "death-style."
So Aleshire and other department employees complained to higher-ups, who assured them that the group wouldn't discuss homosexuality. That hardly made him feel better about the state's new friends.
"Being gay, it was very much a slap in our faces," Aleshire says. "Inviting the Family Research Council was akin to inviting the Ku Klux Klan to speak at an ODH-sponsored conference."
Gays weren't the only ones offended. The department held the seminar on the weekend of Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays.
"The myopic scheduling of the event -- which is religiously no less insensitive than scheduling a conference for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day -- means that I and other Jews have been excluded," wrote Pike in a letter to ODH Director Nick Baird.
As a final insult, pork was served for dinner. The message couldn't be more clear: We're all Christians here.
Huber professes to be unaware of controversy. "We value diversity here in the Ohio Department of Health," she says. "The conference was open to anyone who wanted to attend."
As the event was drawing to a close, Huber offered a rallying cry: "Together we're going to make a difference here in Ohio and across the country!"
With that, the attendees walked out to a lobby bustling with men in tuxes, women in satin dresses, and tables heaped with flowers and gifts. Someone had booked a wedding reception at the same hotel. If the chastity crowd was looking for divine affirmation, it didn't get better than this.
Yet that wasn't the only group sharing the hotel. Upstairs, gay men frolicked at a pool party. For the most part, conference attendees ignored them.
It wasn't the first time.