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Virginity Movement on the Defensive, Scrambling to Rebrand

Progressives have to fight to ensure that abstinence groups don't regain their cultural footing.

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So when the NAEA met for its annual lobby day in March, high on the list of priorities was developing a strategy for continuing to receive federal dollars. Joe Sonka, managing editor of the Advocates for Youth blog Amplify, wrote of the lobby day, "Instead of abandoning their demonization of condoms and adherence to social conservative ideology over sound science, they would simply rebrand themselves as a curriculum that 'wasn't just about abstinence,' but was all about 'holistic approaches' to 'healthy lifestyle choices.'"

At an April 29 Capitol Hill briefing, Huber told the room that abstinence-only education is "not a 'just say no' message." "This is not abstinence only, this is a holistic message that prepares and gives students all of the information they need to make healthy decisions," Huber said. In fact, the NAEA isn't even calling its programs "abstinence only" anymore -- now they're "abstinence centered."

Similarly, WhyKnow -- a major provider of abstinence-only education curriculums -- recently changed its name to On Point, its tag line to "Direction for Life" and hired PR company Maycreate Idea Group to help recast its image. Lesley Scearce, executive director of On Point, said in an article for the Chattanoogan that the organization is trying to "get teens involved in new, positive directions that lead to a healthier, more fulfilling life. Without a re-naming, re-branding and re-positioning, this new direction wouldn't have been possible."

Perhaps the virginity movement recognized that threatening students with bricks and telling them they're dirty pieces of candy wasn't working, so this rebranding effort includes appropriating the language and tools of comprehensive sex education and its advocates. At Huber's DC briefing, for example, she assured her audience that "abstinence education talks about STDs and the medically accurate information regarding that" and that "abstinence education talks about contraception." But of course, the only time abstinence-only classes will talk about contraception is when they discuss failure rates -- often exaggerating those rates or spreading misinformation about the dangers of contraception. In the past, this tactic has been taken to extremes. In Montana's Bozeman High School, for example, teens in 2005 were taught that condoms cause cancer.

The virginity movement is also attempting to legitimize its message by rebranding itself as science-based. The newly renamed Medical Institute (formerly known as the Medical Institute of Sexual Health), for example, touts itself as being founded to "confront the global epidemics of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.... We identify and evaluate scientific information on sexual health and promote healthy sexual decisions and behaviors by communicating credible scientific information."

Sounds innocuous, but the Medical Institute is a hard-core abstinence-only organization. Its advisory board reads like a Who's Who of purity pushers. Even W. David Hager -- a former Bush appointee to the FDA's advisory board on reproductive health, who suggested prayer as a cure for PMS and whose ex-wife alleged in The Nation that he had repeatedly raped her ["Dr. Hager's Family Values," May 30, 2005] -- is listed.

The NAEA is also jumping on the science bandwagon; on its AbstinenceWorks website, much of the home page is taken up by a graph showing the decrease in teen pregnancy rates, presumably to demonstrate its programs' effectiveness. The problem? The graph conveniently stops in 2006; the teen pregnancy rate in the United States has actually increased for the second year in a row.

The most public component in this rebranding effort, however, is the attempt to save face amid Bristol Palin's pregnancy by making her the new poster girl for abstinence. Despite the teen's earlier comments that abstinence was "unrealistic," Palin is being trotted out as the face of teen pregnancy prevention. She's even on the June 1 cover of People magazine, sporting a cap and gown and holding her son, Tripp.