Sex, Lies and Politics

Sex, Lies and Politics

Throwing a bone to its sex-obsessed religious base, the GOP has slipped an abstinence activist into its convention mix of mostly moderate speakers.


Throwing a bone to its sex-obsessed religious base, the GOP has slipped an abstinence activist into its convention mix of mostly moderate speakers. Miss America 2003 will put a smiley face on President Bush’s bulging chastity industry, for which he has allotted $273 million in his 2005 budget, plus a third of the $15 billion global AIDS-relief package.

The ascendancy of abstinence-only under Bush has not only altered funding priorities; it has sanctioned a climate of hostility toward sexual health professionals, who increasingly face harassment, intimidation and marginalization if they stray from the abstinence-only-unless-married line. For example, in the spring of 2003 a Tennessee teacher’s thirty-year career nearly derailed after she commented on an abstinence video shown to her seventh-grade health class (her comments, presumably critical, were not made public). Charged with incompetence and insubordination, she was retrained and reassigned. Or take the Florida teacher who was suspended after his students used a banana to demonstrate how to put on a condom; he couldn’t make the meeting where school officials fired him because his wife was in labor.

Even abstinence educators face right-wing wrath if they depart from the movement’s dogma. University of Arkansas health science professor Michael Young, co-author of the award-winning “Sex Can Wait” curriculum, has been targeted by conservatives simply because he adheres to a law dictating that abstinence education be medically accurate and neutral on religion and abortion. Young was vilified by Focus on the Family and the Abstinence Clearinghouse for conducting a university-approved survey asking state abstinence coordinators how they define “sexual activity.” “I’ve been involved in controversy forever,” said Young, a Southern Baptist deacon, “but I never before felt I could lose my job.” After an aide to US Congressman Dave Weldon smeared Young last year, the state dropped its contract for “Sex Can Wait.”

Unlike buttoned-down Young, the bearded, free-spirited University of Kansas professor Dennis Dailey seems just the 1960s throwback conservatives love to slam. A single student complaint spun into accusations that “Dr. Dailey’s a pedophile,” a dozen death threats and hundreds of ugly e-mails. The offended student turned out to be an intern for hard-right Kansas State Senator Susan Wagle. “It doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is good or bad,” said Dailey, honored for teaching excellence when under fire. “When they attack, it’s about forwarding their agenda.”

Dailey noted that the field has always been controversial, but today’s attacks are more vile and infused with more money. Sexuality professionals discuss this trend’s chilling effect, but most insist on anonymity for fear of losing their jobs or organizational funding. “Principals are afraid, teachers are nervous,” said Elizabeth Schroeder, a sex ed trainer and consultant. “We walk around on eggshells when we’re offering life-saving, life-enhancing information.” Eva Goldfarb, assistant professor in health professions at Montclair State University and co-author of the sexuality curriculum “Our Whole Lives,” added, “The difference now is the assault is top down. It’s sanctioned at the highest levels.” Thus, after Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) and Advocates for Youth initiated an online campaign against federal funding of abstinence-only in late 2002, the two groups were subjected to three federal audits each.

Caged and cornered, the thirty-seven-year-old American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) and forty-six-year-old Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (SSSS) are venturing into the political fray. With their members demonized as “the condom crowd” or “promiscuity pushers,” these professional organizations have joined activist coalitions in support of sexual health education and research; are backing the comprehensive Family Life Education Act; and both chose unprecedented advocacy themes for their conferences this year. Of course, chastity crusaders have long shed any modesty about pushing a political agenda. While AASECT conference presentations in May included research on sexuality and aging, disability and sexual abuse, the Abstinence Clearinghouse’s “Pure Country” conference in June included presentations by Focus on the Family, Bush Administration officials and Judith Reisman, known for pedophile smears against sex researchers like the late Alfred Kinsey. The Abstinence Clearinghouse, whose founder also runs an anti-abortion center, is a key cog in a retro-right movement experienced in ideological warfare. “Who wins in the end?” Dailey asked. “I vote on science, rationality and good hearts.”

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