“If you use birth control, your mother probably hates you.”
“I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous.”
Meet Pam Stenzel, the pro-abstinence speaker whose talk caused a controversy at a high school in Charleston, West Virginia, last week. At George Washington High School, student body president Katelyn Campbell refused to go to the mandatory assembly where Stenzel gave her anti-sex, anti-contraception lecture, and the actions that the school took against Campbell in response have once again called attention to the abysmal state of sex education in the United States.
Stenzel, as she explains in her talk, spent nine years as a “counselor” at a Crisis Pregnancy Center in Chicago before she started traveling the country and the world speaking about the dangers of sex and the virtues of abstinence. Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs) are pseudo-clinics, deliberately designed to look like abortion clinics, where pregnant women are given free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds and told about the nonexistent connections between abortion and breast cancer, or abortion and infertility. CPCs, which are often funded by religious organizations, push pregnant women to keep their pregnancies so that they can either give the baby up for adoption or parent it themselves (for more on CPCs, read the inimitable Katie Stack, whose undercover videos of the clinics are jawdropping).
It makes perfect sense, then, that Stenzel’s talk is riddled with misinformation, outright lies and moralizing that shames people—mostly women—for wanting and having sex.
Katelyn Campbell was having none of that. After refusing to go to the assembly, she filed a complaint with the ACLU, and then she alerted the media. She called it “slut-shaming.” Then, the principal, a man by the name of George Aulenbacher, retaliated. He called Campbell to his office and berated her for what she had done:
He then allegedly threatened to call Wellesley College, where Campbell has been accepted, and tell them about her actions. “How would you feel if I called your college and told them what bad character you have and what a backstabber you are?” he said, according to the complaint.
“I said, ‘Go ahead,’” Campbell said Monday. “He continued to berate me in his office. I’m not an emotional person, but I cried. He threatened me and my future in order to put forth his own personal agenda and made teachers and students feel they cant speak up because of fear of retaliation.”
After this Campbell filed an injunction against him, and continued talking to the press, demonstrating as she did so that, despite Aulenbacher’s threats, she is precisely the kind of student a school like Wellesley would want to have. Campbell’s argument was that she and her fellow students deserve accurate, nonjudgmental information about sexual health, and she is of course absolutely correct (she didn’t tackle the fact that in a public high school, students were required to attend an assembly that was funded by a local Christian group and that clearly preached Christian sexual morality, which would appear to bridge the necessary separation between Church and State. Presumably, hopefully, that aspect of this controversy is under investigation).
Stenzel jokes in her talk that her plan for ensuring that her kids made the right decisions about sex was to lock them in a box when they turn 13, and not let them out until they’re 19. Now that her daughter is 20, though, Stenzel says she’s decided “to up that to 24.” That’s because she wants desperately to protect her kids from the pain and heartbreak that she saw every day at the CPC and that she sees in the schools she speaks at. Clearly, the lock-‘em-up line is a joke, but it’s an apt metaphor for what Stenzel and the principal of George Washington High School are doing by requiring kids to hear this fact-deficient, judgment-heavy version of sex.
Marketing her talk as the cold hard truth about sex, Stenzel goes on to tell her audience that “if you have sex outside of one permanent monogamous—and monogamy does not mean one at a time, that means one partner who has only been with you—if you have sex outside of that context, you will pay. No one has ever had more than one partner and not paid.” When Campbell called Stenzel’s talk “slut-shaming,” she was not kidding. What Stenzel is providing, and what principals like Aulenbacher are forcing their students to listen to, is not education. It’s indoctrination. More than that, it’s unscientific moralizing dressed up as the truth, with the purported goal of protecting students.
Stenzel is right about one thing: American teenagers need to know the cold hard truth about sex. That certainly isn’t what she’s providing, but it is what they need. They need to know about condoms and the pill and abortion, and pregnancy and herpes and HPV. They need to know about consent. They need to know about relationship abuse. They need to know the truth about all those things so that they really and truly can make the best decisions for themselves.
It isn’t hard to see the similarities between CPCs and the kind of “education” Stenzel is peddling, besides her involvement in both. Both deceive and mislead people when they are vulnerable and trusting, and in need of help. Both masquerade as the cold hard truth, as the real story, as what “they” won’t tell you about abortion. Both are invested in a deeply conservative vision of sexual politics, in which abstinence, “traditional” marriage and the virgin-whore dichotomy are firmly in place.
Most importantly, both are marked by a deep mistrust of the people they target, by the belief that, if furnished with all the relevant information, those people will make the “wrong” decision. They will decide to have premarital sex, or to have an abortion. CPCs and abstinence education are both marked by the consequent belief that it is justifiable to lie to achieve their ends. Whether it’s in healthcare or in our schools, our young people deserve better than that.
That’s why we need more young people like Katelyn Campbell. We need young people who know their rights and aren’t afraid to assert them. We need young people who are committed to knowing and sharing the cold hard truth about sexual health. Who refuse to stay locked away in that box.
Read Chloe Angyal on the military’s sexual assault revelations, and why we need to shine the light on sexual assault in everyday life.