The Virginity Movement, Rebranded
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.