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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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Keith Deltano has a high school student tied up onstage and is precariously dangling a cinder block over the young man's genital region. Deltano is not a school bully or an escaped lunatic. He's an abstinence proponent, a comedian who uses this brick trick to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of condoms (although the actual lesson learned may be to steer clear of comics brandishing bricks).

Under the Bush administration, stories like this were commonplace. There was the Virginia Beach teacher who told her ninth graders they could be arrested for having premarital sex. And the abstinence teacher who explained to the young women in his class that women are like wrapped lollipops, and that after having sex they're nothing more than "poorly wrapped, saliva-fouled suckers."

This would be comical if not for the fact that these people have been teaching -- or not teaching, more accurately -- young Americans about sex. And then there are the assorted ridiculous sex-scare policy decisions -- like the FDA holding up over-the-counter status for emergency contraception out of fear that it would make young women promiscuous or even lead to teens forming "sex-based cults."

Thankfully, the Obama administration has brought some measure of sanity to public health policy, cutting most abstinence-only education funding from the 2010 budget. But abstinence organizations are not going away. In fact, they're getting organized. Well aware that their cause is in trouble and unpopular, purity proponents are revamping their image to appear more mainstream. And with Obama's faith-based initiative lending them an ear, it just might work.

In my book The Purity Myth, I call these folks the virginity movement. Composed of antifeminist think tanks like the Independent Women's Forum and Concerned Women for America, abstinence-only organizations, religious leaders and legislators with regressive social values, the virginity movement is much more than the same old sexism; it's a targeted and well-funded backlash hellbent on rolling back women's rights using modernized notions of purity, morality and sexuality. Its goals are mired in old-school gender roles, and its primary tool is young women's sexuality. (What better way to get people to pay attention to your cause than to frame it in terms of teenage girls' having, or not having, sex? It's salacious!)

The virginity movement has suffered a number of public embarrassments recently, from the Bristol Palin pregnancy brouhaha to study after study demonstrating the ineffectiveness of virginity pledges and abstinence-only education programs.

Its spokespeople aren't exactly helping, either. Leslee Unruh, founder and president of the Abstinence Clearinghouse, has a reputation for being a bit unhinged. In a 2007 Fox News segment, for example, Unruh debated Mary Alice Carr of NARAL Pro-Choice New York over a new oral contraceptive. After arguing that the birth control pill was poison and that women needed to be protected from it, Unruh ended the segment by becoming frenetic and screaming over Carr, "I want more babies. More babies! We love babies!"

Unruh loves babies so much, in fact, that she founded an organization called the Alpha Center, which in 1987 pleaded no contest to five misdemeanor charges of unlicensed adoption and foster care practices. (Nineteen additional charges, including four felonies, were dropped.)

Valerie Huber, executive director of the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA) and former head of Ohio's abstinence programs, also brought the movement unfavorable coverage when she was suspended after a state ethics investigation found her guilty of neglect of duty for hiring a company she was affiliated with to do state work.

The lack of consistent and presentable leadership, combined with ripe-for-mockery educators like Deltano, has made it all too easy to dismiss the virginity movement's message. And they know it. One of the "Strategic Objectives" now listed on the NAEA website is "Rebranding the abstinence message."

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.

In the article inside Palin says, "Girls need to imagine and picture their life with a screaming newborn baby and then think before they have sex.... If girls realized the consequences of sex, nobody would be having sex." Unless, of course, they were told how to protect themselves by using birth control.

The good news in all of this is President Obama's budget cutting most abstinence-only education funding and seeking to redirect the funds to "teen pregnancy prevention programs." The bad news is that 25 percent of the $164 million marked for teen pregnancy prevention would be open to abstinence-only programs, and the language in the budget doesn't make room for initiatives to curb sexually transmitted infections.

Joseph DiNorcia Jr., president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, says, "This myopic approach does not represent the current state of the research or the desire of the American people for the federal government to invest in comprehensive sex education."

President Obama's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, at the Department of Health and Human Services, has already come under fire from political bloggers like Pam Spaulding for "rolling out the welcome mat" for virginity movement leaders like the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America to discuss reducing the abortion rate.

In addition to including organizations like these in discussions on abortion and sex education, President Obama in early June appointed Alexia Kelley, an antichoicer and executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, to head the Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, says that while there are reasons to be optimistic, "there are also reasons to be vigilant.... It would be a mistake to assume that the election of Obama and a Democratic Congress means failed abstinence-only programs will be eliminated." Wagoner says that now is not the time to "sit back and put our feet up," and he notes that programs stemming from the virginity movement are not just about public health but about "very negative gender stereotypes, promoting homophobia and undermining rights to information and education."

So while the virginity movement re-evaluates its image and messaging, progressives have to be just as prepared to battle back with renewed energy, with an eye toward legislative and policy gains and toward assuring that these groups don't regain their cultural footing. As Wagoner points out, this is about a lot a more than bad-faith messages about condoms and pregnancy. It's about stopping a movement committed to the regression of women's rights, enforcing gender norms and teaching America's youth -- especially young women -- that sexuality is wrong, dirty and dangerous.

Now that there's a new administration in Washington, we need to ensure not only that we hold our leaders accountable but that we direct the national conversation about sex, gender and health.

Jessica Valenti is the executive editor of Feministing.