The uproar over Justin Lookadoo’s sexist school presentation in Texas has subsided to a murmur, but the presence of fundamentalist abstinence speakers in public schools remains a serious problem.
A legacy of the Bush administration’s “abstinence-only” push, fundamentalist Christians enjoy federal financial backing for their dogmatic approach to sex education. The Title V Abstinence Education program, reauthorized by President Barack Obama as a concession to social conservatives, is a crack in the wall of separation that allows sectarian influences to seep into public classrooms.
As a result, students are subjected to inaccurate, aggressive presentations peppered with pseudoscience. In June, AU’s Rob Boston covered the story of Katelyn Campbell, a West Virginia student who lodged a protest after her school hosted Pam Stenzel, a notoriously extreme abstinence advocate.
Stenzel, a graduate of evangelical Liberty University, told students that “…if you take birth control, your mother probably hates you.” Among her more outrageous claims: that she could tell if a student is promiscuous simply by looking at them, and that birth control users are “10 times more likely to contract a disease…or end up sterile or dead.”
None of these claims is supported by medical research, but that doesn’t seem to deter school administrators eager to promote Stenzel’s simplistic message.
Stenzel is just one of several abstinence only speakers profiled in a recent piece by Mother Jones magazine. Jason Evert, a devoutly Catholic abstinence advocate, emphasizes female modesty as the key to sexual purity, telling students, “A culture of immodest women will necessarily be a culture of uncommitted men.”
Sexism emerges as a consistent theme in these presentations, as speakers seem to focus disproportionately on the dress and behavior of teen girls. (Boys, it is assumed, will be boys and either can’t or won’t change their behavior.)
In a 2011 presentation, Shelley Donahue of the Center for Relationship Education placed the blame directly on the shoulders of high school girls.
“The boys want to love and respect these girls, and the girls won't let them. The girls are backing up the booty, the girls are being assertive, these girls are emasculating these boys,” Donahue asserted.
Other speakers prefer to rely on the type of pseudoscience we typically expect from the anti-abortion movement. Joi Wassill, founder and co-director of pro-abstinence outfit Decisions, Choices and Options Inc., tells students that condoms are riddled with holes and that the morning-after pill is really a chemical abortion.
Again, these claims aren’t supported by facts, but according to Wassill, she’s teaching “sexual risk avoidance.” It’s unclear why she couldn’t communicate the same message with real facts.
High schools have a clear interest in protecting the well-being of their students, so it’s little surprise that administrators want to promote healthy relationship behaviors. But this goal won’t be achieved by exposing students to sexist, inaccurate abstinence-only speakers who derive their views from extreme dogma instead of mainstream social and medical research.
The consequences of this approach to sex education can be extraordinarily damaging for young people, as articulated by kidnapping survivor Elizabeth Smart in a recent speech.
Smart, abducted at 14 by a religious zealot and his wife, experienced horrific abuse at the hands of her captors. Prior to her abduction, she’d been exposed to sectarian abstinence-only sex education by a school teacher who compared sexual activity to chewing a piece of gum.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away,’” she said. “And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value. Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”
Smart’s abduction is an experience that most high school students, thankfully, will never share, but her perspective provides troubling insight into the long-term psychological effects of sectarian sex education.
If school administrators are still determined to promote abstinence to their students, then at the very least they should carefully research proposed speakers. The Pam Stenzels and Justin Lookadoos of the Religious Right have no business in public schools—and they have no business receiving taxpayer funds, either.