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The Christian Right's Slick Campaign to Make Abstinence Seem Trendy

Conservatives finally learned that sheer moralizing doesn't keep teens from having sex. Now they have a creepy new tactic.
 
 
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Magazines. Fashion. Dating. Comedy. These are all large parts of contemporary teen culture. Who would have thought they could also become the latest weapons in conservatives' war against sexual autonomy?

But after a decade of the Bush administration pouring millions of taxpayer dollars into abstinence education programs, only to see them fail, that's exactly what's happening.

Study after study has shown that those schooled in abstinence rhetoric are just as sexually active as those who aren't, leaving the right wing with virtually no credibility on the subject. Now, conservatives have to be a little savvier if they want to lie about condoms' effectiveness against sexually transmitted infections, make bogus claims about a link between abortion and breast cancer, or manipulate teens into thinking that premarital sex is damaging to one's self-worth. That's why conservative ideologues have taken abstinence-only discourse outside of the classroom and are trying to woo students through a different strategy: by making abstinence the teen trend of the year.

To boost the no-sex-'til-marriage cool factor, conservatives are co-opting everything from teen magazines to fashion to comedy routines. But behind the trendy talk are the same shame-inducing tactics and medical misinformation that could potentially put teens' self-esteem, health and lives in danger.

Abstinence Chic

The 2008-2009 edition cover of J4G (Just 4 Girls/Just 4 Guys) magazine features a close-up of a smiling girl with a fashionable fur-collared sweater, surrounded by brightly colored headlines like "The Inside Scoop on Guys!" This is a pretty familiar image for teens -- no different than what you'd likely see on the cover of Seventeen or YM. But what a young reader may not know is that J4G's "Inside Scoops on Guys" is really a lesson on dressing modestly. The feature tells the young reader that "guys are visual, so when a girl is dressing to show off (wearing tight pants, low-cut shirts, etc.), it is hard for guys because they are stimulated by what they see."

The piece continues its urge to readers: "(S)tart respecting yourself and your guy friends by dressing modestly" -- equating "respect" with wearing more -- and placing all responsibility on girls to tame the wild beast of young men's sexual desires. The diatribe ends with a suggested clothing Web site so female readers can be fashionable and "still be modest."

A project of the Human Life Alliance, J4G is given out to middle and high school students across the country in an effort to present "the importance of abstinence until marriage." The HLA proudly describes the magazine as "cutting edge," contending on its Web site, "The colorful graphics will catch their attention, and the thought-provoking stories and facts on the inside will challenge them to change the way they think about sex outside of marriage."

The magazine's Q&A advice column features Dr. Mary Paquette, who says birth control causes not only weight gain, acne and depression, but abortion. The same goes for emergency contraception. A 16-year-old pregnant girl seeking advice from the doctor is given all of her options, but with an obvious slant: Dr. Paquette describes parenting and adoption as being "selfless," and abortion as "often thought of as a quick fix." She then contends that abortion is a "painful option" and continues: "Women have described it to me as the most awful thing they have ever been through. Women often block out the memory of it and regret having aborted their baby. Not only do these women have lives haunted by their abortion, but they also have an increased risk of infertility, miscarriage and premature babies. There is also a risk of breast cancer in women who have an abortion. Trying to hide your pregnancy with abortion only leaves you alone to cope with all the depression, pain and regret that follow."

Coming from a doctor, teens are likely too see this as a reliable and accurate source of information, despite the fact that all of these "risks" have been disproved by numerous studies, including the National Cancer Institute's findings in 2003 that abortion is not linked to breast cancer. The magazine fails to inform its readers that Paquette works at AALFA Family Clinic in Minnesota, which identifies itself as a pro-life Christian clinic. Not surprisingly, the clinic does not provide birth control or emergency contraception.

When you flip J4G to the opposite end of the magazine, you'll find "Just for Guys" -- the opposite end of the magazine's gendered spectrum. While the girls are fed messages about modesty and respect amid pink designs and trendy fashion tips, the boys are told to "be a man" -- the mantra juxtaposed against images of sports and pretty girls. One feature article titled "Why Wait?" comes with an epitomized image of teen masculinity: three buff, attractive young studs flexing their arms with dirt smeared on their faces and shirts. The article conveniently matches the picture: It's a story of the author's road from abstinence to a loving marriage, all the while using war as a metaphor for young men's struggle to want to have premarital sex, and urging them to "fight the 'dragon' of sexual temptation while their ladies watch in wonder and admiration."

The other pages of "Just for Guys" include many of the same scare tactics you find in "Just for Girls:" discussing the "dangers" of birth control, incorrectly linking abortion to health risks in both sexes, and downplaying the effectiveness of condoms.

What is dangerous about J4G is that it offers a layer of lies to the young and impressionable; not only are the magazine's staff and publisher manipulating teens by packaging fear and shame-inducing rhetoric in trendy teen wrapping, but that rhetoric is trumpeting medical inaccuracies and deceptive advertisements.

And J4G isn't the only teen zine like this reaching young people's hands. Revolve, a Biblezine made to look like Seventeen, tells girls who want to ask a boy out that it's not appropriate because, "God made guys to be the leaders. That means that they lead in relationships." Jen Magazine, a publication for Morman teen girls, is filled with tips on how to live and dress modestly -- for example, how to wear two pairs of jeans or a bodysuit under your clothes to make sure not a hint of skin is showing where it shouldn't be -- like your shoulders.

The Human Life Alliance has distributed over 150,000 copies of its third edition of J4G for 2008-2009, including a reprint. They've dispensed over 450,000 copies total of J4G since the release of its first edition in 2004, spreading the word widely across the nation to schools, church youth groups and pregnancy centers. Some even made it outside of the U.S. to nations where HIV rates are high, like Uganda and Cameroon -- nations that can't afford to be told that condoms don't work.

Abstinence Comedy

Self-labeled "educational comedian" Keith Deltano dangles a cinderblock over a young male student's genital area to show the ineffectiveness of condoms against HIV. This is one of the many acts Deltano features in his performances that he demonstrates to schools across the country. As the Funny Man of the abstinence-only movement, he's been featured in Christian conservative magazines and has won teaching awards of excellence from the Abstinence Clearinghouse, one of the largest abstinence-only organizations in the country. Deltano's show, "Abstinence is Cool," initially comes off as harmless; videos of his performance show students laughing as he jokes that just because dogs have sex doesn't make them "men," and he continues on to tell them what it means to be a man: "paying your bills, serving your country when called, paying your taxes, going to a job you don't like to support a family you love." But this is just the foreplay; shortly thereafter, you see Deltano strapping a male student to a table onstage and holding a cinderblock over him while yelling closely to his face (Deltano was formerly a military police officer) that there's a 10 to 20 percent chance that the cinderblock will fall on him. This is his metaphor of condoms' ineffectiveness against HIV.

While students laugh at his stunts half in shock, he tells them that laughing means that they get it -- and believe it. In one of his performances, he says: "I'm not laughing at these diseases, I'm laughing at the idea that you can have casual premarital sex with no negative consequences. And you know something, young people? That's what you're laughing at. You agree with me."

Pam Stenzel is another abstinence-only educator who uses comedy as way to engage her audience, and is perhaps even more dangerous than Deltano. While Stenzel also uses fear and shame tactics, she targets young girls specifically by telling them that birth control could kill them. Stenzel's special, "Sex Still Has a Price Tag," starts off charming and funny but quickly escalates to her chilling take on birth control: "Every high school I'm in, without exception, everywhere in this nation, every high school I'm in, I will have a girl write me, e-mail me or come right up to me and say this: 'Well, my mom found out I was having sex, and so she put me on the pill.' Or Depo, the shot, fill in the blank. What is that protecting that girl from? What does birth control protect you from? Pregnancy is what that protects you from. That drug, that hormone, that pill, that shot that this girl is taking has just made her 10 times more likely to contract a disease than if she were not taking that drug. This girl could end up sterile or dead. Thanks Mom. Glad you cared."

Stenzel also talks about how many young women she has counseled have suffered from bulimia, anorexia and suicide from having an abortion that "they couldn't take back." This is despite the fact that the American Psychological Association affirmed in 1989 that abortion "does not pose a psychological hazard for most women," and it doesn't recognize the existence of a "post-abortion traumatic stress syndrome," a popular term used by the anti-choice movement. But Stenzel still travels all over the world, spreading the message to young teens that birth control and abortion could potentially result in their death, all sandwiched in between funny stories and personal anecdotes.

Stenzel and Deltano use comedy as their guise, pushing scare and shame tactics to convince teens to mock the idea of having premarital sex -- that not only is sex not cool, but to make fun of the losers who "risk their lives" with it.

Sex and Social Control

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) reviewed Pam Stenzel's and Keith Deltano's work last year, deeming their work "fear-based" and "designed to control young people's sexual behavior by instilling in them feelings of dread, guilt and embarrassment."

SIECUS' Martha Kempner, who authored the reviews, contends that Deltano and Stenzel are not only deeming themselves the connoisseurs of what's cool, they are manipulating teens into thinking they're someone to trust. "What's so wrong is that they start this conversation by saying, 'I'm your friend'; they ingratiate themselves into the teen world, create a personal relationship with them and then give this information. ... They're giving blatant misinformation to teens in an attempt to control their behavior, and that's just wrong."

J4G essentially does the same thing; while the text is surrounded by smiling faces and catchy headlines, "the inside scoop" isn't giving teen girls a secret on dating, but a lecture on young women's responsibility -- and only young women's -- to keep "visually sensitive" males away from them by dressing modestly.

"These are old age messages the conservative movement has been putting out there," says Kempner. "It wasn't long ago that these were the same messages that were given to rape victims (who were blamed for what they wore). And that's pretty dangerous to still have out there."

Kempner says educators like themselves need to assist teens in developing a critical eye for misinformation in these messages they're given: "Much of what they're going to consume from the media is going to be inaccurate, so we need to help them figure that out, and the biases, whatever they are."

These "old age" messages Kempner talks of remind us that "abstinence-only" may not be the correct terminology for a movement in which abstinence is not the only lifestyle being pushed here. Rather, it's a broader form of regressive conservatism that longs for a country where abortion is illegal, same-sex relationships are virtually ignored (or demonized) and birth control doesn't exist. This is despite the fact that when these things were all a reality 50 years ago, nearly 9 out of 10 women were still having premarital sex, and thousands of women were dying from illegal abortions every year.

The "Abstinence Chic" approach is not only encouraging kids to refrain from sex until marriage, but is packaging an old-school conservatism of anti-abortion, anti-birth control and anti-sex ideologies into a new, shiny teen trend. What is being pitched as "new" and "in" is in fact the oldest -- and most dangerous -- of ideas.

Vanessa Valenti is a New York-based freelance writer and an editor at Feministing.com.