Simmer Down, Kids!

Public Enemy Number One tiptoes up to the hot tub. She reaches behind her neck to untie her halter. Her dress drops to the ground.

Her name: Tila Tequila. Her claim to fame: being America's most famous bisexual. In her TV show, A Shot at Love, she is courted by 32 suitors, male and female. The MTV program ranks number one among viewers ages 12 to 34.

Tila Tequila makes sex-education teachers grind their teeth and pull their hair.

"Kids get ten hours of Tila Tequila a week," grumbles Beau Heyman, project manager for Be the One, a group that ventures into Palm Beach County schools to teach young people the value of abstaining from sex until marriage. "Students only get three hours of our program... a year."

As the vice president of education, training, and counseling, Ricky Siegel directs sex-ed programs for Planned Parenthood, which advocates an approach known as "comprehensive sex ed." Siegel, like Heyman, groans at the thought of Tequila. "It reminds me of the first time I saw a commercial for the Girls Gone Wild videos," he says. "I was like, 'Where are these girls' fathers?' "

Despite their differences, Siegel and Heyman agree: Either qualified adults will shape kids' ideas about sex — or Ms. Tequila will.

But who's qualified?

In school board chambers, in newspaper op-ed pages, and even in the halls of Congress, sexuality education is framed as a momentous battle between two bitter foes, with each side painting the other as totally cuckoo. On one side, proponents of abstinence fasten their chastity belts, lock their knees shut, and Just Say No. On the other side, advocates of comprehensive sex ed toss condoms to teenagers as though they're Mardi Gras beads, practically inviting kids to stage their own orgies. Or that's the impression we get.

Politicians pass laws and administrators rubber-stamp curricula, but such initiatives can have little relevance when they trickle down from boardrooms to classrooms. In the trenches, professional educators on both sides of the debate — the ones actually talking to kids about sex every day — feel that their work is largely mischaracterized.

"This idea that there are two camps battling is so off-the-mark," Planned Parenthood's Siegel says. "It's about raising sexually healthy kids."

"Most people who get into this field have the best interests of kids at heart," Heyman says. "The battle is at the national level — and it's about money."

A lot of money.

The federal government has spent about $1 billion on abstinence programs in the past decade. Currently, the argument is as polarized as ever. Congress was considering boosting funds for abstinence programs by $28 million at the same time that 16 states refused the money on the grounds that such programs aren't effective. The terms of the debate begin to assume the same sickeningly familiar dynamic we see in Iraq: Should we give up? Or start a surge?

The answer seems to lie somewhere between "abstinence until marriage" programs and "comprehensive" sex ed — not to mention the nebulous thing in the middle called "abstinence-plus." There are hundreds of sex-education models in circulation around the country. In South Florida, though, what are kids learning about condoms? Pregnancy? Oral sex?

Be the One knows its message won't get across if some dork tries to deliver it.

Daniel Wilson is a sharp-dressed 22-year-old with piercing eyes and spiky hair. Uniformly, Be the One instructors are young, fit, and squeaky-clean.

In Ms. Floyd's racially mixed health class at Santaluces High School in Lantana, girls bite their fingernails and boys hide under the hoods of their sweatshirts. Wilson fires up his PowerPoint.

He pulls up a chart illustrating that the average person thinks about sex beginning at age 12 or 13, gets married at 25 or 26, and dies in his or her late 70s. That still allows 50 years of sex — and, he implies, better sex. "If I say, 'I'll give you $500 if you sit in that chair for one day, but I'll give you $500 million if you sit in that chair for a week,' which are you going to choose?" he asks.

Some detractors argue that abstinence-until-marriage (sometimes called "abstinence-only") programs are unrealistic because they deny the reality of sexual impulse. Be the One's program, at least, does not. If anything, it feeds the notion that sex is an amazing and pleasurable experience — within the confines of marriage.

Wilson is supposed to serve as a role model, showing that it is possible to wait until marriage to have sex. Even though he didn't personally.

"In my senior year at Boynton Beach High School," Wilson explains to the class, "I started dating Nicole — a gymnast and a dancer. We started having sex. Then she missed a period."

It turned out to be only a scare, but it made Wilson realize he was not ready to be a dad. He broke up with Nicole and was then free to travel the world. Upon his return, he decided Nicole was The One. They "hope to be engaged" soon.

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Deirdra Funcheon