So what does a teenage couple on a US sex–abstinence programmme get up to when they get home after a night out on the tiles? "We couldn't get like all close with each other or touch each other inappropriately," says Ashley Gort, from Osseo, Minnesota, who prefers to take her boyfriend home where watchful parents help her regulate their loving. Along with a few other couples, they sit watching videos until the early hours, with Gort's parents peeking in now and again to ensure that touching between Gort and her sweetheart goes no further than hand–holding and the odd cuddle.

Ashley and her parents set the deal up in 1995. That was the year when her mother, Jeri, found out that sex was to be defined one of her daughter's forthcoming lessons. "At that moment, I truly believe the Holy Spirit came down and gave me grieving of the heart," she says.

Jeri 'opted' her daughter out of the sex education class. She then set up a campaign to win federal funds for abstinence education at Osseo School District. A year later, the newly–Republican congress approved a $440 million, five–year funding package for that purpose.

Jeri Gort — along with the Osseo's large Christian community — got exactly what they wanted.

Today, Osseo School District's abstinence curriculum — true to its scriptural origins — teaches that sex out of wedlock is physically, emotionally and spiritually dangerous. It includes a course on "how to touch" and the Sexuality, Commitment and Family textbook features drawings of hand–holding (with a green arrow) and snogging (red danger sign). There's no information about birth control, homosexuality or abortion. Which is just as well for Ashley, as she doesn't want to hear about "gays and lesbians and stuff like that. I want to marry the opposite sex."

We've heard it all before from the Bible Belt. But buckle down, because today 34 per cent of US schools (not counting the touring evangelical missions) are teaching teenagers to think about love and sexuality on the same wavelength as Ashley Gort. This year, an extra $85 million (on top of the $50 million already allocated) is being spent on abstinence–only education, and a further rise in abstinence programs is on the way as $135 million is to be spent annually on the policy until 2007. Much of the money will end up in the coffers of Christian organisations.

It's all about preventing unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, according to George Bush. No doubt the Republicans intend to tackle America's 35 per cent teenage pregnancy rate, the acquisition of a sexually transmitted disease by 3 million teens every year and the fact that 20 per cent of AIDS cases in the US are people in their mid–20s. But one can't help thinking that health and welfare problems are not the only demons haunting Bush. It's also secular, left–wing, liberal culture. Take the fact that federally funded abstinence programmes cannot, by law, promote condoms or provide instructions for their use. Or Bush's recent decision to prevent funds from his $15 billion battle against AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean from going to any family–planning group that mentions abortion. US Republicans and the Religious Right are not just introducing different methods of dealing with a problem, but they are also seeking to eradicate the previous ones.

Still, some liberals were initially confused. Surely the abstinence campaign is really about the poor and the perception of poverty?

After all, people on a low–income are statistically most at risk from STDs and early pregnancy. Ergo, some commentators thought, abstinence education is 'really' a form of hegemony: by drafting in the scriptures, politicians may recast the real issue — underprivileged — as an issue of immorality. Take, for example, government–funded, evangelical abstinence missions such as True Love Waits. The organisation has been taking the abstinence message to poorer neighbourhoods since 1987 and claims to have over a million young subscribers, over half from "low–income backgrounds". From here, abstinence education looks like a sly attempt to shift the responsibility for iniquity from state to individual.

Very likely such a thought sits somewhere — perhaps barely articulated — in the psyche of the American political right. But what we can be certain about are its conscious and co–ordinated efforts to push abstinence education well beyond the religious Mid–West and the evangelical poor. Take Bush's success in executing his education policy: it was in large part due to the legwork carried out by a highly–organised support network. From 1991 to 1992 small Religiousm Right groups were fielding their own school–board candidates who ran in 140 board races in New York and San Diego alone. And in 1989, the federally–funded Christian education group Citizens for Excellence in Education helped over 5,000 of it's members into school board positions in 20 American states. In such a light, the abstinence education movement takes on more dictatorial shades: a planned assault on secular, liberal culture.

Back in Osseo, Tobe Goldberg is trying to resist the onslaught. From her place on an advisory committee to Osseo School District's board, she fights for 'comprehensive education' or traditional sex–education. The subject is still taught in 58 per cent of US schools and in Osseo is timetabled as an alternative to the abstinence classes. The principle behind it? "Young people should wait to have sex but if they do not they should use birth control and practise safe sex," according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP).

This is the most common position of liberals across the US. While many parents are happy to have abstinence discussed in their children's classes, says the NASSP, religion should not dictate the limits of what is discussed. The liberal camp has been able to promote that view through groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Last November the ACLU successfully challenged and outlawed the Louisiana governor's office from using taxpayer dollars to fund religious, abstinence–only programmes in the state's schools. A symbolic victory, but after abstinence declarations by the likes of popster Britney Spears and Miss America 2002, the Republicans look like winning the publicity battle.

Yet the evidence to show that their policy is actually working does not convince. Take the Republican claim that for teenagers who take the virginity pledge, sexual intercourse is delayed for an average of 18 months longer than those who do not take the pledge. Trouble is, as a survey by National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found, when pledgers do get round to having sex, they are much less likely to use contraception. Oh, and the virginity pledge works much better amongst 15 to 17 year olds. Republicans point to the birth rate among teens which has fallen by 18 per cent since 1991. But Adrienne Verrilli of the Sexuality Information and Education Council argues that this is simply testimony to years of informing people about birth control. She also cites research which suggests that condom use among sexually active young people is, for the first time, leveling off, rather than increasing, thereby leaving them more open to unwanted pregnancies and sexual diseases.

Meanwhile, US teenagers are carrying on being teenagers. Which, as in most cultures, means carrying on regardless of (or in specific opposition to) what adults say, whether they are liberals or conservatives. Indeed, a survey carried out by the American Journal of Public Health last November suggests that there is no association between sex education classes and US teenagers' use of contraceptives and sexual activity in general. Another study indicates that growing numbers of teenagers are having sex at home in the afternoon — while their parents are out of the house.

For those of the Bush–generation who do swallow the religious–right's take on love and romance, it seems logical that misogyny, frustration and misunderstanding is just around the corner. In Osseo School District, for example, the obvious truth that many people find sex a great source of pleasure gets a wide bypass. Students instead learn about what makes a compatible marriage mate, why they should want to mate in the first place, and one textbook even explains why one should steer clear of marrying someone of a different economic, cultural or religious background. The book portrays boys as the victims of their predatory instincts, while it is the responsibility of girls to resist them. This conflation of popular belief and second–rate evolutionary psychology is represented to teenagers as divine truth.

Value–laden pedagogy is finding success in America partly because over there, identity is muvh more of an institutional affair. In Britain, the schoolroom — or anywhere public for that matter — seems an inappropriate place to confess one's most private preferences and values. For Americans, identity — whether it's about regurgitating the US constitution at school, chatting on weblogs or going on the Oprah Winfrey show — is worked out in public. In fact, in a confession–and–admission culture, external validity is what counts: you can become whatever you want, provided you tell people. The American need to spread absolutist values is more profoundly the need for simple, quick–fix glue to stick together a nation with the fastest identity–turnover in the West.