“The Abstinence Teacher” Gets Schooled

Nicole Summer

Secularists and evangelicals attempt to divide and conquer suburbia in the biting new book, "The Abstinence Teacher" by Tom Perrotta. And divide they do.

Secularists and evangelicals attempt to divide and conquer suburbia in the biting "The Abstinence Teacher" by Tom Perrotta. And divide they do, although both sides have a harder time conquering.

After liberal sex ed teacher Ruth Ramsey responds to a high school student's question about oral sex by saying "some people enjoy it," she is besieged by a small group of irate parents, led by the strangely charismatic pastor of a new evangelical church in town, the Tabernacle. The school district cedes to the Tabernacle's wishes, holds an "Abstinence assembly" and brings in a "Virginity Consultant" to keep an eye on Ruth and make sure that she toe the new abstinence-only party line.

Ruth reluctantly resigns herself to the abstinence curriculum, but after she sees her young daughter being led in prayer by her soccer coach after a game, she's done. She confronts the coach, a former drunk and junkie named Tim Mason who gave up his destructive ways with the help of the Tabernacle and its pastor. Tim tells Ruth that her daughter might actually need Jesus, just as he did and does. The soccer player sets up the ongoing conflict in the novel, pitting secularists, who want Jesus kept in churches and out of their classrooms and playing fields, against the evangelicals, who want Jesus everywhere and in every sinner's heart.

With a dose of wit and intelligence, Perrotta shows us the uncompromising characters on both sides of the aisle. Self-righteous and nosy, Pastor Dennis of the Tabernacle encourages Tim and his young Christian wife to spice up their marriage with "hot Christian sex." Virginity Consultant JoAnn Marlow, a 28-year-old looker who rides Harleys and listens to Coldplay but is saving herself for marriage, tells students horror stories about sluts contracting awful STDs even if they use condoms; as Ruth puts it, JoAnn traffics in "shameless fear-mongering, backed up by half-truths and bogus examples and inflammatory rhetoric," something those familiar with abstinence-only education will recognize. On the flip side, several people in Tim's life, including his wild-child ex-wife, his mother and his former rehab counselor, are skeptical and somewhat fearful of his newfound faith and love for all things Christ and can be just as narrow minded as the devout churchgoers of whom they steer clear. But the atheists and holy-rollers aren't Perrotta's only targets. Also in his satiric gunsights are McMansions, Nancy Grace, litigiousness, consumerism, soccer moms and dads – everything that comes with in today's suburban lifestyle.

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Ruth's frustration with the faux-science in her new curriculum and with private religious life intruding in the public school sphere resonates. Undone when she is forced to spout dubious statistics about the rate of condom failure in the new curriculum, Ruth makes an unwise comment to her class and is forced to go to an "abstinence refresher" course with other "reprobate Sex Education teachers," all of whom committed similar sins. JoAnn forces them all to write an essay titled "A Sexual Encounter I Regret," promising that she is not there to judge them. Yet, her hypocrisy rears its well-coiffed head when she feeds on one of the repeat offender's shame and lets out a very judgmental "eeew" after hearing one of the reprobate's essays.

The rise of the religious right in this country and its influence is on full display here, with Pastor Dennis encouraging members of his flock to recruit new converts through youth sports coaching. The new abstinence-only sex ed curriculum is funded by a federal grant and loaded with deceptive statistics. But for the most part, Perrotta stays away from heavily criticizing the religious right, allowing the characters and caricatures to do that for him. What's most palpable is the unwillingness of either side to compromise or to see a situation from anything other than that perspective, something familiar to anyone who pays even half-attention to political discourse in this country.

Ruth and Tim find common ground, perhaps the only common ground in this story, in their alienation from their daughters – Ruth's daughters want to start going to church and getting to know Jesus, while Tim's daughter refuses to pray with her father on the soccer field or have any part of it. Tim's daughter is beginning to worship at the altar of money and materialism, and Ruth's daughters seem to rebel against their progressive mother by becoming holy. United by their alienation from their offspring, Ruth and Tim begin to break down each other's boundaries, defenses and unstinting principles, and assisted by their mutual attraction, these divorced and lonely 40-somethings take small steps toward meeting in the middle. Perhaps the impasse is passable after all.

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