Michael Kraus / gdvcom / Shutterstock / Kara Gordon / The Atlantic

Sex Ed Without the Sex

In West Texas, a Christian pregnancy center has grown increasingly involved in reproductive life—including teaching sex ed in public schools.

ODESSA, Texas—Misty Stewart gave the worksheet to every student in the class: “The purpose of sex is for bonding and babies,” it read. Then she stood before a white board and began to tell the sophomores “a little story” about a fictional girl named Sarah and how she’s “affected by having sex outside of marriage.”

Misty, a sex-education instructor, was presenting that day in April at Odessa High School, a mini-mall-sized campus with buildings the color of pie crust. The teens slouched and giggled at the mention of sex. One girl kept in a single earbud, like a diplomat awaiting a translation to teenager-ese.

Sarah wants to remain abstinent until she finds “The One,” Misty says. Yet, she ventures to a party, she drinks too much, and she sleeps with a guy she barely knows. “The next morning,” she says, “he's gone.”

Misty works at an organization called the Life Center, which is headquartered in the neighboring town of Midland. They call themselves a pregnancy resource center, preferring that to the term many pro-choice advocates use: crisis pregnancy center. Across the country, these centers position themselves as alternatives to abortion clinics, counseling pregnant women with the hope that they won’t terminate their pregnancies.

But unlike many pregnancy groups, the Life Center also works in public schools. Each year, Misty and her fellow Life Center sex-ed specialists provide abstinence-based sexual education to roughly 28,000 children.

Over the next three days, Misty would deploy a mix of goal-setting, real talk, and gag-inducing pictures of gonorrhea in an effort to convince her captive teenage audience to save themselves for marriage.

That’s a tall order anywhere, but perhaps even more so in West Texas, where there isn’t much for a young person to get up to beyond church and vice. Midland and Odessa are canonically Texan: remote moonscapes studded with oil jacks and tied together with a 20-mile stretch of highway.

I lived in Midland for much of my childhood. Every year, our class made a pilgrimage to the town’s main cultural attraction, the Petroleum Museum. (Its star exhibit: a floor-to-ceiling tower of household objects made from petroleum byproducts.) When I returned for this reporting trip, my hotel room contained the latest issue of Midland Magazine, whose front cover announced that the Petroleum Museum had seen some recent upgrades. In a place where the answer to boredom is studying hydrocarbons, the abstinence advocates have their work cut out for them.

Misty Stewart teaches the first of three lectures at Odessa High School. (Olga Khazan / The Atlantic)

In this first lecture, Misty, a short, brunette speed-talker, endeavored to show the hazards of trysts like Sarah’s.

“If she had set a boundary that said, ‘I don't want to have sex until I get married, or until I find the right one for me,’ but she had sex, what's going on in her mind?” Misty asked, referring to the worksheet.

“Anxiety,” one boy offered.

“Obsession’s the one I’m looking for,” Misty said. “In her mind, it's this going over and over and over, like: ‘Oh my gosh, are we going to stay together? Will he continue to call me?’ … And then Monday she had a big test, do you think she's concentrating on her test?”

“No!” several kids say.

“What’s going on with her spiritually, in her inner man?” Misty asks. “Restless spirit,” she says, answering her own question, “just with everything going on.”

Over the next few days, Misty would expound the many pitfalls of fornication. Casual sex causes Sarah’s friends to gossip about her and leaves her “enslaved to pleasure and lust.” It can end in herpes and derail a college dream.

“The chemicals in your brain learn what it feels like to have sex, and they want to have sex again,” Misty says. “So it's best to not have it at all.”

When should people have sex for the first time? There’s no right answer, which is precisely the problem. No white papers have been drafted. No wonks have assembled over brown-bag lunches to select a unified virginity-losing age.

Most people would agree that say, 14, is too young. So should you do it at high-school graduation, all buzzed from a single beer? Or should you postpone the deed until adulthood? Why not for The One? And if so, how should you feel if there end up being half-a-dozen “Ones”?

For most Americans, “until marriage” proves too long to wait—at most, only about 5 percent are virgins on their wedding night. Even many Christians now question the idea that premarital sex necessarily taints people. (Joshua Harris, author of the popular ’90s teen abstinence manifesto I Kissed Dating Goodbye, recently acknowledged that his critics have a point.)

But Midland is the kind of place where a father-daughter Purity Ball draws hundreds of participants. Midland and Odessa, which are together home to about a quarter-million people, lie in the second most Republican congressional district in the nation. Many school officials here reject modern sexual practices, like quickie hookups, as immoral.

Spencer Platt / Getty

Like in other cities, some kids do it anyway. Unlike other cities, though, Midland and Odessa lack the parachutes—abortion clinics and free-flowing birth control—that are usually available to sexually active teens. Planned Parenthood is long gone, and both Midland and Odessa are now more than four hours away from the nearest abortion clinic. Plus, there’s a 24-hour waiting period for an abortion in Texas, so women have to take multiple days off work or school to get one. Midland, meanwhile, lacks a single Title X clinic, which would provide birth control to teens without notifying their parents.

Teen pregnancy, meanwhile, is often economically calamitous. Less than 2 percent of teen moms finish college by age 30, and about half of them live in poverty. Teen mothers’ children tend to do worse in school; their sons are more likely to end up in prison. Better and more widespread birth control appears to be almost entirely responsible for the national declines in teen pregnancy since 2007.

Teen birth rates have similarly fallen in Midland and Odessa in recent years. But nearly two decades since the Life Center made its first debut in public schools here, the sexually-transmitted disease, teen-birth, and high-school dropout rates are still higher in Midland County and Odessa’s Ector County than in the rest of the state.

I wanted to know where the young people in my onetime home received, if not actual reproductive health care, at least information about it.

What I found was that the Life Center now touches nearly every part of citizens’ reproductive lives. It instructs public-school kids in sexual mores, intervenes when panicked women find out they’re pregnant, and leads young moms in the ways of Christ-focused parenting. It even functions as a safety net of sorts, doling out baby clothes and diapers to teen moms. In these twin, deep-red desert cities, the Life Center is the state, in many ways, and the state backs the Life Center.

Karen Hildebrand, who ran the Planned Parenthood in Odessa until it became a casualty of state budget cuts, summed up the Life Center’s presence most succinctly: “They're pretty much the only game in town.”

The Life Center’s director is a 62-year-old, former stay-at-home mom and model named Judy Rouse. When I met her at the Life Center’s office in Midland, she still looked photoshoot-ready, her silver hair fanning gracefully across an indigo jacket. She led me to a large map of Texas, its western half scattered with 80 pushpins—one for each school where the center has taught.

In sex-ed programs, “We really emphasize ... how sex interferes with the whole person,” she explained. The message resonates with boys and girls alike, she said, but girls are more likely to put it into practice “because the impact of sex on them is greater.” Women, she said, disproportionately suffer the three negative effects of premarital sex: “STDs, pregnancy, and heartache.”

“A girl bonds with her whole being,” she explained. “A guy can compartmentalize—have sex with somebody he doesn't even know their name and be married and still love his family.”

Dawn Weaks, the pastor of the First Christian Church of Odessa, said that other than the prohibition on premarital sex, Judy’s beliefs don’t necessarily reflect the views of all Christians in the area, nor are they reflected in the center’s programming for schools. (The Life Center presenters don’t, for example, mention God or Jesus in the classrooms.) Still, the center’s philosophy on teen sex seems influenced by Judy’s religious journey.

Sitting with Misty at a table in her office, Judy explained how she decided to help teens learn “how to do relationships.”

She knows from personal experience how difficult single parenthood can be. Her mother died when she was young. Her father had a demanding job in academia and didn’t relate to people well. The kids were often left to their own devices—Judy learned to write checks to cover family expenses when she was 12. She was safe and fed, but she was lonely. She describes her younger self as emotionally needy and unmoored.

Judy headed to Texas Tech for college, but her father would only pay her tuition if she didn’t marry before graduating. As a freshman, she met a handsome senior named Randy Rouse and was instantly charmed by how funny and unassuming he was.

The plan was to wait until marriage to have sex, but she worked a paper route, and it was more convenient to stay over at Randy’s apartment. Eventually, they “messed around,” as Judy puts it.

She was terrified she would get pregnant. “It nearly killed me on an emotional level,” she explained. “I was compromising my morals, and that creates guilt.”

She moved her belongings out of his apartment and swore off any more sex until their wedding night. In effect, she declared “secondary abstinence”—deciding not to have sex again until marriage—something the Life Center encourages sexually active teens to do.

After they graduated and married, Randy worked long hours, and Judy’s insecurities mushroomed. At one point, the 23-year-old Judy couldn’t bring herself to leave a hotel room without Randy by her side. “The brokenness consumed me,” she said. “I kind of shut down.”

Judy sought refuge in God. She was never very religious growing up, but when she moved with Randy to Charleston, West Virginia, not long after they wed, she found a church group that welcomed and befriended her.

With the church’s help, Judy’s religious convictions deepened, and her self-confidence improved, too. “Being Christlike and unconditional love began to help me feel valued again,” she said. “God can heal your heart.”

The Rouses moved to Midland in 1991. Judy learned about the Life Center, which was then known as the Problem Pregnancy Center, from a friend at a Bible study. Prior to that, Judy had been working in retail and helping direct regional pageants, but she felt her calling was helping teens.

She became a volunteer, and in 1995 the Life Center’s board chair asked Judy to “step in” as director, she said. At first, she leaned on her husband—she was afraid to travel to conferences by herself—but now, Randy is the chairman of the board and Judy manages most day-to-day operations on her own.

In 1997, Judy attended a talk by Patricia J. Sulak, a Texas gynecologist who developed Scott & White Worth the Wait, a prominent abstinence-only program. Sulak “blew my hair off my head with the rates of infection, the amount of STDs these kids are faced with,” Judy said.

The solution, Judy decided, was to steer kids away from sex, rather than describe how to do it safely. “You might as well say, ‘Well, you're going to smoke dope,’” she told me, “‘so we're going to offer free dope at lunch.’”

The Life Center had already been teaching an abstinence-only program in Midland public schools for several years when, in 2005, school officials in Odessa launched a search for a new sex-ed curriculum for that district.

That fall, Odessa’s Student Health Advisory Council, or SHAC, had a meeting to hear pitches for sex-ed programs from various local groups. In Texas, school districts are free to choose whichever sex-ed programs and instructors, if any, they’d like to invite into schools. The Odessa SHAC meeting included, among others, a presentation from a Planned Parenthood representative. Someone asked the woman if Planned Parenthood had “given up on abstinence.”

Next up was the Life Center. According to the meeting minutes, a center employee named General Echols highlighted how its program “does not deviate from abstinence,” and “proves that eventually contraception will fail.” Dannen Mannschreck, a local doctor who was at the meeting, asked Echols what he thought about studies showing the failure of abstinence-only programs. How was the center’s program different? According to the minutes, Echols replied “that the secret is in its simplicity.”

Rachel Dobbs, the chair of the SHAC at the time, was at the meeting and remembers being skeptical of the Life Center’s limited discussion of contraceptives.

As word spread that Rachel was opposed to the center, anonymous letters and phone calls flooded her home, “saying I wasn’t a Christian because I didn’t support the religious option,” she told me. She disconnected her answering machine.

Rachel joined other members of the SHAC in telling the county school board to choose a different program, one that explained birth control. But school-board members—several of whom were motivated by their religious faith, Rachel said—voted for the Life Center anyway. The Life Center began teaching in Odessa in 2007.

The Life Center’s rapid rise mirrors Texas lawmakers’ priorities for women’s health. Since 2011, the state government has slashed the state’s family-planning budget by two-thirds, kicked Planned Parenthood out of a Medicaid-funded women’s health program, and, most recently, announced it will require all aborted fetal remains to be buried or cremated.

Meanwhile, the state’s funding for the Alternative to Abortion Services Program, which funds crisis pregnancy centers, has quadrupled since 2008. Of the nine states that publicly fund these types of “abortion alternatives,” Texas allocates the most money, $9.15 million annually. Missouri dedicates the next-largest amount, about $2 million, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion-rights think tank. Each year, the Life Center receives about $154,000 in taxpayer dollars.

Rachel heard disturbing things in the early versions of the Life Center’s curriculum. According to her and others, some of the center’s presenters told students that condoms almost always fail or are full of holes. At a meeting in 2006, several SHAC members pointed out that the Life Center’s statistics didn’t match those used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some accused the center of promoting a “fairy-tale image” of marriage. (To this, Judy responded, “The Life Center always teaches from the most current scientific research and facts available at the time.”)

And after the Life Center was introduced to Odessa classrooms, the county still had one of the highest teen-pregnancy rates in the state. About 98 teen girls per 1,000 gave birth in Ector County, which encompasses Odessa, in 2011, compared to 64 on average in Texas.

Spencer Platt / Getty

In 2011, the Ector County school board added a stronger dose of science to the sex-ed programming: a companion curriculum taught by health experts from Texas Tech University. The Texas Tech doctors would speak at length about contraceptives and even pass around models of intrauterine devices to the students.

The Texas Freedom Network, a group that advocates for civil liberties, has been collecting data on sex-ed programs in the state. Its nonprofit arm, the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, found that about 10 percent of the districts in their sample affiliate with a crisis pregnancy center. The organization’s deputy director, Ryan Valentine, told me it’s not uncommon for medically accurate materials to be presented alongside religiously motivated abstinence messages, even within the same district.

Like a couple with an amicable divorce, now the two sex-ed organizations split up the kids between them. In Odessa, the Life Center presents to students on some days, and Texas Tech on others. And in Midland, seven years of Life Center instruction is supplemented with a science-based, comprehensive sex-ed curriculum taught by science teachers in seventh and eighth grades.

In both cities, parents can opt out of one or both parts of the sex-ed program, but they rarely do. Support for the Life Center’s message, strict as it may sound, is widespread.

“I like everything about it,” said Doyle Woodall, an Ector County school board member. “They teach abstinence only. That's what every parent, deep down, would really prefer—that their children wait for marriage before they become sexually active.”

It doesn’t look like people are obeying their elders’ wishes, though. Midland and Ector County have far more chlamydia cases than the state average, and the rates are getting worse. When I stopped by the Ector County health department one day, a sign on the door said STD screenings would be limited because of a staffing shortage.

But residents shouldn’t expect to get tested at the Life Center: STD tests are expensive, and the center opted to open a new branch in nearby Big Spring rather than buy the kits. Instead, they do an STD “consult,” in which a center staffer will “educate” the woman about “her lifestyle choices.”

“We review with them that the best choice is to abstain from sex until marriage,” Judy explained, “and why and how that’s healthier for them.”

Judy and others at the center said they aim for a less militant anti-abortion message than most crisis pregnancy centers. Journalists posing as pregnant women who have visited other CPCs have reported being pressured into getting ultrasounds and shown inaccurate videos. Life Center staffers said they stick to the information in a state-mandated “Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet.

The Life Center’s touch wasn’t always so light. In 2010, the abortion information page on the center’s website suggested the procedure was linked to breast cancer and mental-health issues—theories that had been medically debunked. “How does God see your unborn child?” the page asked visitors.

The site has since been scrubbed to a neutral agnosticism, saying only that “The Life Center offers peer mentoring and accurate information about all pregnancy options.”

Judy told me she pivoted away from the pressure tactics about a decade ago, after deciding they were disrespectful. The softer approach still persuades some women, though. In 2012, the Odessa American interviewed a 22-year-old named Jamesha Pierce, who changed her mind about having an abortion when she came to the Life Center in Midland when she was 17 and pregnant. "They told me even though the baby wasn't born, it still has a voice," Pierce told the paper. Later in the story, Judy says that if a client chooses to have an abortion, “we understand. We understand the damage it does to the human soul."

Today, when pregnant clients say they’ve had previous abortions, the Life Center staffers sometimes refer them to a post-abortion program called Surrendering the Secret. The program’s checklist for deciding, “Is Abortion Affecting My Life?” directs visitors to ask themselves whether “I often feel angry or irritable,” or “I use alcohol or drugs or prescription medications once per week or more.”

Other aspects of the center are overtly religious. A since-deleted job ad for a prevention specialist—the staffers who teach sex ed—read that the person must have “an active faith and is a faithful participant in the ‘Body of Christ.’” The center’s clients can choose from a wall of spiritual literature, and at one point a “prayer warrior” came to handle some prayer requests.

Judy feels the religious aspects of the center don’t conflict with its secular mission in the schools. To her, the entire world is a bastion of liberalism and atheism. Conservative Christianity deserves its own corner, here in the heart of Midland’s sleepy downtown.

“If you think about our culture, and how Christians are being really boo-ed right now because it’s not P.C. to be a Christian,” she said. “It's not okay to be Christian, or conservative, or Republican. That's not really equality, is it? Boy, if I try to act on my faith, that’s not okay and I get thrown in jail and put out of business. Isn't that interesting? I’m just saying.”

Judy had a tendency to start her thoughts in a way that seemed common-sense—even wise. “The healthiest thing for whole societies is the intact family unit … ” she said.

But as she spoke, she slowly spiraled outward, finishing up near the outskirts of her ideology.

“... that's why the Muslims are so strong,” she added.

As gently as I could, I told Judy that I know many people whose past sexual partners number in the double-digits, and who often have no immediate plans to marry, and who nevertheless are doing perfectly fine.

“Their goal is not marriage, obviously, and it’s not to have a family,” she responded. “If they see their purpose as only for themselves, to be the most wonderful them, without seeing that they're part of a grander scale plan … what's the point of being here in this life?”

The night of Misty’s first sex-ed lecture, I drove to the First Baptist Church in Midland, where she prepared to teach a parenting class to 42 teen moms.

The Life Center introduced the voluntary class, called MARY, for Mothering As Responsible Youth, in 2006. Pregnant girls in Midland are referred to MARY by their schools, with full disclosure that it’s a religious program. (Though this process, too, runs into tricky church-state issues: One participant said she found a card about MARY at her desk in school.)

After praying over a meal of Chick-fil-A, the girls split up into their discussion groups. The young moms love the class, which combines a Bible study with a pep talk and a dash of parenting advice from Misty.

After passing out Bibles, Misty asked the girls about the day’s topic: finding purpose. Chaela McDonald, a 16-year-old mother of an infant girl, told the group that she was the first girl at her church to get pregnant. When church higher-ups found out, they nearly threw her out of her purity group, “because I wasn’t pure,” Chaela explained tearfully.

Misty choked up, too. “You're an example to another teen mom to let her know that her life is not over,” she said. “It's just different.”

She was still fuming over Chaela’s shunning two days later. “Christians don't understand that our whole responsibility is to introduce them to the love of Jesus,” she told me. “And how can we do that if we have our finger pointed in their face?”

Misty Stewart, right, and Nikita Matthews play with Matthews’s daughter. (Olga Khazan / The Atlantic)

Misty connects with the teen moms because she was one, as was her own mother. She was nearly put up for adoption, but “I was so dadgum cute they had to keep me,” she says. Misty had her first son two weeks after graduating high school and married his dad a few months later. Starting out, she and her husband were so broke they would wander around the local mall for fun, gazing longingly in the department-store windows. She got a job answering phones for a staffing agency. By the time she left seven years later, she was district manager—further evidence, to her, that teen moms can do anything.

To help the young mothers along, MARY provides childcare and bags of food staples at the monthly meetings. The girls earn “baby bucks” for attending, and after a few meetings they can exchange the bucks for free baby clothes. Some of them even compete for small scholarships that the Life Center funds.

Taylor Coy, a 19-year-old mother of a 3-year-old who is working at a Planet Fitness, received $2,000 to go to cosmetology school. Misty “told me, ‘God listens,’” Coy said. “I know he does.”

The Life Center’s MARY class, in particular, spotlights a complicated attitude toward teen parenthood that prevails here. If you’re a teen in Midland, premarital sex is wrong. If you mess up and do it anyway, you may very well get pregnant. In that case, you should definitely have the baby, because, as almost all of the teens and adults I interviewed assured me, abortion is an even greater sin. Once you've had the baby, redemption begins. Other adults should respect and help you. You can even become an example to other single parents—except that there shouldn't be any, because again, premarital sex is wrong.

Misty seemed untroubled by these contradictions as she taught her final class at Odessa High.

During the previous day’s lesson, Misty had explained that sexual intercourse creates an intense bond that is not to be shared with just anyone. (“When you are bonding often, like a dog,” Judy had explained to me earlier, “the emotions and the chemistry are so confused that your ability to stick with anybody is diminished.”) In class that day, Misty played a video produced by an anti-porn company called Covenant Eyes, which argued that porn trains viewers to bond with digital images rather than people.

At times, Misty sounded just as non-judgmental as she did at MARY. When someone asked if God would hate them for having sex before marriage, for instance, she replied with a swift “absolutely not!”

Today Misty was discussing STDs, albeit in a way that suggested no sexually active teen could avoid them.

Misty mentioned there’s a shot that prevents HPV, the virus that causes genital warts and cervical cancer. But she made it seem useless, saying it only defends against three or four strains of HPV out of 100 different types. Doctors’ case for teens getting the vaccine, Gardasil, is that two of those strains account for 70 percent of all cervical cancers.

At one point, she told the class that “it is illegal to have sex under the age of 17”—referring to a law that, according to one Texas sexual assault lawyer, provides an exemption when the age gap is fewer than three years.

At this, a girl cried, “What are they going to do to you if you fuck somebody?”

Earlier in the school year, a Texas Tech doctor would have dispassionately detailed for this same group the advantages and disadvantages of virtually every type of birth control. But the Life Center discusses contraceptives only in the context of their failure rates. Most high-schoolers in Texas have had sex, according to the CDC, and most also did not use a condom.

“Condoms are going to give you some protection,” Misty exclaimed to the class. “If you're fixin’ to jump out of an airplane and I pack your chute and I tell you, ‘Well, it works some of the time,’ are you cool with jumpin’?’”

For IUDs, Misty cited a success rate of 99 percent. “That means one out of 100 is gonna get pregnant,” she told the students. “You don't know which one that is.”

That’s a slight exaggeration. The failure rate of most IUDs and implants, also called LARCs, is actually less than 1 percent. For Implanon birth-control arm implants, the failure rate is dramatically lower, at about one in 2,000 women.

And because LARCs are the gold standard in birth control, public-health agencies recommend increasing their use among teens as a way to further cut the teen pregnancy rate. Texas has the highest repeat teen birth rate in the nation, and Misty has noticed that some of the MARY members are on their third or fourth pregnancies. Still, contraceptives are never discussed in MARY. Instead, the women learn about identity and “sexual healing.”

(In response, Misty relayed the sources for her information. For the slide about the illegality of underage sex, she provided a law firm website that names the age of consent as 17—though it also discusses the three-year “Romeo and Juliet” provision. Regarding the IUD statistic, she sent me a CDC document describing the first-year failure rate as less than one in 100, and one out of every 2,000 for implants.)

The Life Center sex-ed curriculum also doesn’t discuss abortion- or birth-control providers. When health workers recently surveyed 21 teen moms and dads, mostly from Odessa, the majority didn’t know they could get free condoms and birth control without asking their parents. Most weren’t using birth control when they became pregnant.

When I told Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, about Midland and Odessa’s unique sex-ed strategy, he said that while it makes sense to tell teens to delay sex, as the Life Center does, “this approach of, ‘On Monday we're going to scare the kids to death and on Thursday we'll tell them about contraception’”—as Texas Tech does— “doesn't quite work.”

One day at OHS, I walked out into the parking lot and encountered a boy who was practicing for an upcoming rodeo, roping a metal steer near my Ford Focus. He was in 11th grade, so he ostensibly would have heard presentations from both Texas Tech and the Life Center. I asked him if he knew what IUDs and implants were. He asked me if I meant breast implants.

After Misty’s class, I tried to imagine myself lying navel to navel with someone on a dorm-room mattress, armed with the Life Center’s sex-ed teachings. Would I reach for a condom or figure they’re fundamentally worthless?

When I called a boy who had sat through Misty’s class to see what he thought of it, he said he uses condoms every time with his girlfriend, but he lamented that they are expensive. After three consecutive days of sex ed, he didn't know that Odessa’s STD clinic gives bags of condoms away for free.

But as I called school officials, I discovered something surprising: They accept the Life Center as a natural presence in the schools. They see it and the scientific programming—taught by science teachers in Midland and by Texas Tech in Odessa—as a package deal.

Beth Meyerson, a Jewish transplant from the San Francisco Bay Area who sits on the Odessa SHAC, described Misty as an eager and open-minded collaborator—which is not nothing when you’re trying to teach teenagers about vaginas in Laura Bush’s hometown.

Even Life Center skeptics view the present situation as a sort of sexual realpolitik: If there’s only one game in town, you’d better learn how to play.

“The vast majority of the community prefers the idea that we can discourage sexual activity, and that [the Life Center’s] program is the one we should be utilizing,” said Carol Gregg, an Ector County school board member. “It’s important to me that we have Texas Tech. If the price of that is to have the Life Center, I’m willing to pay that price.”

Olga Khazan / The Atlantic

These types of compromises are the natural result of America’s patchwork approach to sex education. Only half the states mandate any kind of sex ed, and only 13 require it to be medically accurate. Texas is not one of them, and by law, sex education in the state must emphasize abstinence. For the most part, school districts decide whether to teach it and what to teach. Some see sex ed as akin to the abortion debate—a subject with “two sides,” to abstain or to do it.

The Texas Freedom Network and other state teen-pregnancy-prevention advocates have repeatedly lobbied for legislation that would force districts to ensure all sex-ed materials are medically accurate and don’t disparage contraceptives, but the bills have gone nowhere.

Though polls show that most American parents support comprehensive sex ed, “it’s one of those few subject areas where we empower community stakeholders and small, vocal groups of parents” to determine the curriculum, said Nora Gelperin, the director of sexuality education and training at Advocates for Youth. “What tends to happen is you get the wild west of sex ed.”

For Odessa and Midland, that means that even if the school board members viewed the Life Center’s presence in schools as a problem (which, given the tumultuous sex-ed selection process, they mostly don’t) and decided to oust it (which, given the depth of the Life Center’s roots, they likely won’t) there’s no guarantee the center’s replacement would be an improvement. Unlike algebra or English, sexuality education in the U.S. is often a matter of local sentiment, trial, and error. And in Texas, it’s often a matter of faith.