Crowned Virgins of the Right

The virgin scores. Miss America 2003, Erika Harold, won a brief but public spat with organizers to let her reign promote abstinence until marriage. Despite switching to a youth violence platform to win the national crown on Sept. 21, Harold has since come out with chastity as the cause closest to her bosom. Bright, beautiful and polished, Harold most certainly earned the $50,000 scholarship to attend Harvard Law School and someday run for political office.

But her crowned rise clipped the fall of Miss North Carolina after clandestine private photos pushed Rebecca Revels from the pageant's ultimate runway. Who knows if Revels, the high school English teacher who has competed in beauty contests since age 2, would be the more worthy to don America's crown jewels? Her spurned fiancé, a cop, yanked the national red carpet from under her by threatening to sell topless snapshots of the 24-year-old beauty queen.

Perhaps fearing another sex scandal, or simply fearing sex, pageant officials brandished the morality clause Revels had signed, allegedly forcing her to resign. Even after Revels' lawsuit determines who shall wear the tobacco state's tiara, the jury's still out on sex in America. What is sex, and is having it virtue or vice? When's a girl not so "nice"?

The abstinence movement glommed onto Harold's win as a virgin-slut morality tale. One aspiring princess gives speeches about keeping her lengthy legs crossed and becomes an American icon. The other little girl grows up to see her dreams dashed when her romantic past comes back to bite her sculpted ass. But is Harold more virtuous for not yet having had an intimate relationship at 22? And can Revels "be characterized as dishonest, immoral or indecent" or "inconsistent with the standards and dignity of the Miss America Program" just because she had bad taste in men?

And what's with the purity pile-on when Miss America was founded on sex for sale: a bathing revue of nubile teens to keep dollars on the Atlantic Boardwalk post-Labor Day. Despite such program updates as current events and social causes, the starved, dolled-up misses still must parade in bikinis and stilettos to represent our nation. Not so long ago, Miss America measurements made morning news. Now pageant producers hoped out loud that the rumored booby pics and fleshier swimsuit stage would spike TV ratings. Maybe female sexuality is only immoral if no one's making money off of it.

The judge who ruled against Revels competing in the national pageant got it right: "Miss America represents America," or at least its sexual schizophrenia. Both prosper on young women's sexual promise while espousing irrelevant virginal standards. (Think Britney Spears.) The savvy abstinence group Project Reality milks this illusion by training and mobilizing former beauty queens to spread word of salvation through sexual denial. Not denial for the young and stupid but for all unwed.

Before Harold, the chastity crusaders' most famous, self-described "abstinence apostle" was 27-year-old Mary-Louise Kurey, Miss Wisconsin 1999 and author of "Standing With Courage: Confronting Tough Decisions about Sex." Through speaking and media engagements, she gives both teens and adults just two choices: non-marital virginity or secondary virginity. Tough all right, especially for the millions of responsible, healthy singles ready to rub.

Last spring Kurey, Harold and 10 other crowned virgins stormed Capitol Hill trumpeting more abstinence-only tax dollars, as part of the Welfare Reform Reauthorization act still sitting in Congress. Apparently the Miss Virgins didn't wear bikinis during testimony and none applied for internships. Yet congressmen, who may not have saved themselves for marriage, swallowed the pageant winners' chastity line over the cry for comprehensive sex education by most health experts worldwide, including the past three U.S. surgeons general.

"These maidens that are sitting here, all of them are virgins. I think the whole nation should be proud of that." No, not another Bushism. Shortly before the Miss America pageant, elsewhere a Zulu king praised thousands of parading bare-breasted girls during their traditional dance. He called for young people to abstain from sex until marriage to combat the AIDS epidemic now ravaging South Africa. Unlike President Bush, however, the king also made a modern appeal for contraception use.

Miss America 2003 is working with the federal government on her now anti-violence/pro-abstinence campaign, and has met with such key players as Surgeon General Richard Carmona and Education Secretary Rod Paige. As Erika Harold pushes her personal success story as crowned virgin into public policy, more abstinence-only-until-marriage millions put countless diverse lives at risk by supplanting education and health services. But at least she, for now, escapes the moral hypocrisy of most chastity-for-singles zealots who have loved more than one before -- including head cheerleader President Bush.

Lara Riscol, a member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality, is writing "Ten Sex Myths That Screw America." Email her at


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