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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.

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."