When Abstinence Only Policies Fail, Bring In The Hatchet Men to Preserve Bush’s Billion Dollar Boondoggle

Scott Swenson

Using membership dues paid in part by federal tax dollars, the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA) hired the Washington, DC, public relations firm, Creative Response Concepts, best known for the 2004 "Swift Boat Veterans" ads against John Kerry, to launch a public relations effort supporting the failed and unpopular abstinence only education policies.

Without a proven proactive program of their own to reduce STDs and unintended pregnancies, NAEA is likely to attack supporters of successful public health methods, like comprehensive sexuality education. While progressives are promotiong Prevention First and Responsible Education About Life, social conservatives once again will use fear and smear to distract voters, evidenced in the hiring of Creative Response Concepts (CRC), to exagerate the influence of the fewer than 1-in-5 voters who support failed abstinence education efforts.

Using membership dues paid in part by federal tax dollars, the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA) hired the Washington, DC, public relations firm, Creative Response Concepts, best known for the 2004 "Swift Boat Veterans" ads against John Kerry, to launch a public relations effort supporting the failed and unpopular abstinence only education policies.

Without a proven proactive program of their own to reduce STDs and unintended pregnancies, NAEA is likely to attack supporters of successful public health methods, like comprehensive sexuality education. While progressives are promotiong Prevention First and Responsible Education About Life, social conservatives once again will use fear and smear to distract voters, evidenced in the hiring of Creative Response Concepts (CRC), to exagerate the influence of the fewer than 1-in-5 voters who support failed abstinence education efforts.

The leadership of NAEA also needs to be investigated. Some of them already have been. Their Advisory Committee is a who's who of those who have profited from the Bush Administration's diversion of one billion taxpayer dollars to cronies supporting abstinence only education policies.

One notable NAEA Advisor, Valerie Huber, headed Ohio abstinence programs for several years. Last year she was the subject of a state ethics probe when it was discovered she steered state contracts toward an organization in which she had a personal interest. That probe resulted in disciplinary action against Huber, but she remained in her position, under the notoriously corrupt administration of Gov. Bob Taft, whom Ohio voters rejected last year.

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"It begs the question: If abstinence-only programs are actually effective in reducing long-term rates of sexually transmitted disease and unplanned pregnancy, why hire a PR firm to spin the message?" asked Earl Pike, executive director of the Cleveland-based AIDS Task Force, an organization familiar with Huber's record, as well as that of many other principles at NAEA.

Given CRC's well known track record, as well as an outline of NAEA's plan sent to recruit members and obtained by Rewire, it is a safe assumption that Creative Response Concepts is less likely to promote abstinence only as they are to attack supporters of proven, evidenced-based, comprehensive sexuality education.

Specifically, the membership recruiting letter from NAEA outlines "unlimited legislative lobbying" and mobilization in "key Congressional Districts" as well as a "Rapid Response" initiative that is intended to "counter attack negative attacks on abstinence education". That last part makes one wonder if at one time a memo circulated outlining the Swift Boat ads as "rapid response to negative attacks on George Bush's military record", broadly interpreting "negative" as John Kerry simply discussing his exemplary service in Vietnam.

People advocating for comprehensive sexuality education are not negatively attacking abstinence only education, they are proactively promoting a realistic, proven public health method for reducing STDs, unintended pregnancies and equipping young people with information they need to make responsible, personal life decisions.

Stating that abstinence only education is unrealistic because studies prove it does not work, and thus is undeserving of even one federal tax dollar, is not a negative attack, it is reality.

But social conservatives are resorting to what they do best, appealing to people's fear by raising the specter of a Swift Boat like campaign running in Congresssional Districts around the country.

This campaign is not intended to scare voters, but the candidates seeking their votes. Public opinion polls indicate overwhelming support for comprehensive sexuality education and the 2006 midterm elections were a clear repudiation of the Bush Adminstration policies.

Democrats would be wise to consider caving to the intimidation tactics of NAEA and their hired guns at CRC, unless of course they want to lose the strong hold they now have on independent voters who have rejected social conservative policies after seeing them fail time and time again. Victor Gold, former Bush (41 and 43) confidant and personal friend of the Cheney's, authored Invasion of the Party Snatchers: How the Holy-Rollers and the Neo-Cons Destroyed the GOP. He says of the Bush Administration, "I really came to the conclusion that there was a threat to our system, to our way of life, and it was coming from those I thought were my people." If long-time Republicans are saying this, surely Democrats can find the backbone to stand up to NAEA and their hatchet men at CRC.

Progressives in Congress, Republican and Democrat, must stand up for reality based sexuality education efforts for teens. Not to do so would be deserving of equal or greater scorn than those who believe abstinence only education works based on an ideological bent that prevents them from looking at facts. In theory, progressives know better.

Creative Response Concepts' other clients have included the Christian Coalition, Concerned Women for America, the Discovery Institute (a Seattle-based think tank that promotes "intelligent design" creationism), Regnery Publishing (a conservative publisher with David Limbaugh, David Horowitz, and Oliver North among their authors' list), the Coalition for Patient Choice (a group advocating against managed care reforms, and which includes the conservative Eagle Forum as a member), the Media Research Center (a conservative media watchdog organization which recently honored Rush Limbaugh with the "Buckley Award for Media Excellence"), and a group called USA Next (which was formed as an alternative to the "liberal activism" of the AARP).

Q & A Media

Discrimination, Doxxing, and That ‘Louie’ Episode: A Q&A With the Filmmakers Behind ‘Fattitude’

Annamarya Scaccia

Rewire recently spoke to Lindsey Averill and Viridiana Lieberman, who are crowdsourcing funds for Fattitude, their documentary about fat prejudice. The filmmakers discuss the core principles of Fattitude, the harassment they've experienced while making the film, and much more.

So often in pop culture, fat is used as a symbol of immorality.

From Colin Farrell’s fat-hating boss in Horrible Bosses to “Fat Monica” on Friends to Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, fat bodies frequently are a substitute for something disturbing, something laughable, or something that’s villainous. Even if the fat-shaming is not overt, as in Lifetime’s series Drop Dead Diva, there is still an underlying message that fat equals impiety.

Yet, despite widespread acceptance that pop culture drives and defines how we feel about our bodies, there has yet to be much acknowledgement of how society is not only rife with fat discrimination, but is complacent about it.

That’s where Lindsey Averill and Viridiana Lieberman come in. Through their feature-length documentary, Fattitude, the Florida-based filmmakers and long-time friends are taking a concentrated look at the ubiquity of fat prejudice through media analyses and interviews with some well-known activists—like Marilyn Wann, author of Fat! So?, and Sony Renee Taylor, founder of global movement The Body is Not an Apology. They also plan to develop an educational activist campaign around the film, much like those related to the documentaries An Inconvenient Truth and Miss Representation, that centers on raising awareness of fat discrimination.

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“Our media tells a lot of lies about fat bodies and about the experience of living in fat bodies,” Averill told Rewire. The film project is “close to both of our hearts because we both have lived in bodies of changing sizes throughout our lives and we both battled how fat discrimination functions, how fat hatred functions, how fat-shaming functions.”

Fattitude is still in the production phase, though, and Averill and Lieberman have turned to the community to help fund their project through a Kickstarter campaign, which ends on Sunday, May 25. Funds raised through the drive will go toward travel costs for the crew and production team to shoot additional interviews, equipment purchases, revenue for an illustrator/animator and sound editor, and costs of film festival applications.

So far, their Kickstarter campaign has more than exceeded its goal, bringing in nearly $5,000 more than the original $38,050 they set out to raise. With only a few days left, the duo is now pushing for $50,000, hoping to raise enough for additional production items such as professional color correction, original music composition, and a fair use lawyer.

But the entire process has not gone smoothly. Earlier this year, Averill and Lieberman became the victims of a horrible online attack. Shortly after launching their Kickstarter, a YouTube user by the handle “GODBLESSADOLFHITLER” posted the Fattitude trailer under the title “Cakes: The New Comedy Hit,” which Averill immediately reported for copyright infringement, and YouTube removed it. Apparently angry about being reported, the YouTube user began to harass Averill, Lieberman, and their supporters on Twitter, posting their contact information online—or “doxxing” them—and soliciting his followers to also stalk and abuse the filmmakers. In a matter of days, Averill and Lieberman were receiving rape and death threats, hate mail, and frightening phone calls. The abuse continues to this day. (The incidents were reported to local police, which subpoenaed Google, YouTube’s parent company, but the filmmakers have yet to hear back.)

While the experience has left both Averill and Lieberman shaken, they say it’s validated the importance of both the film and their work in exposing fat hatred. “I feel more aggressively determined that this is an absolutely necessary film,” Averill said.

Rewire recently spoke with the filmmakers about the core principles of Fattitude, the latest episode of Louie, the importance of featuring diverse voices, and more.

Rewire: Fattitude aims to educate about “the harsh and very real realities of fat shaming and fat hatred.”  How so?

Lindsey Averill: We felt that there wasn’t a strong documentary that really looked at how popular culture intensifies fat discrimination in everyday life. For us, we believe representation plays a huge role in how we formulate our ideas about the culture we live in. What we did is really examine popular culture and say, “How is the everyday experience of media representing the fat body?” So our film [is] really delving into that. We’re saying, “In our culture, when we talk about fat bodies, it’s in a negative context, period.”

Viridiana Lieberman: And using pop culture as a lens is very accessible in conversation because everybody can relate or has seen one or all of the forms of media we’re discussing—whether it’s a show you really like or a story that you read about in the newspaper, or just reality television that is just in your ear all the time, even if you’re not watching it.

LA: For us, we feel that [the first step in] educating the populous about fat discrimination is opening people’s eyes to the reality of the fact that they already are complacent in fat discrimination because it’s so acceptable in the media that that message is imbedded in our lives. Our film is our first action item. It’s the first space in which we put forward, “Open your eyes. Realize that this is one of the invisible cultural assumptions that you’re not paying attention to, and you’re not realizing how cruel, how frugal, and how aggressive this assumption is when it plays out in everyday life.”

Rewire: You write on Fattitude‘s Kickstarter that, through this journey, a lot of your own views about fat prejudice and how it is to live in a fat body evolved. Can you talk about that?

LA: I became really conscious of where my failures of body acceptance were. Yes, I was already an activist saying everyone should love their bodies, but [being] in front of these people who so totally have taken on the reality of that, I realized I hadn’t yet. There were moments where even if I wasn’t saying something negative about my body, I was looking in the mirror and assessing it in my own mind. There were these very subconscious whispers that I was able to figure out how to dispel.

On top of that, an academic argument makes sense, but it’s very different seeing it crystalize in real life for you. A lot of the arguments I have seen people make, I hadn’t formulated my own opinions about, per se. Even with regards to “How do we manage this airplane [seat size] issue?” Through the process of listening to all these academics and talking with them, all of a sudden I was like, “No, no this is totally serious. The corporations need to be responsible for this. This is just flat-out discrimination.” Whereas I hadn’t thought deeply about it until I was listening to others really talking [about it].

VL: The pop culture reference we used to like to say [in women’s studies] is that you got unplugged from the matrix—the whole idea that all of a sudden you can see it everywhere, and in everything. That definitely happened to me right when we started working on the project with different aspects of fat activism. But the biggest thing for me, personally speaking, is when interviewing people, I remember walking out of those interviews and thinking, “How did they unplug [from the matrix]?”

I remember I used to wait to do things. I really gauged a lot of big moments in my life on the concept that I should wait until I reach a goal weight or I’m more fit or blah blah blah. And that was such a weird concept to sit back and be like, “Wait a minute, not only is this perhaps the way my body will be no matter what I do, but on top of that, you should never wait.”

What a terrible reason to wait to do things! [laughs]

I remember sitting back and I felt so much more free. [But I] also became very conscious of what people were saying around me from what they ingested in pop culture, and how they feel about their bodies—when we eat and they feel guilty.

LA: The other thing that was amazing to see was that a lot of the people we met [who] totally embraced body positivity and fat positivity have literally unplugged from popular culture. They said, “I’m no longer going to look at these images that tell me my body is not OK because that is totally detrimental to me.” And they had no television, didn’t see movies, just totally unplugged from the popular media because they felt popular media was constantly harassing and torturing them.

VL: We’d start rattling off the list of shows that we want to hear their input on, and they’ve never seen it. “Oh I’ve heard of that one, never seen it.” “I don’t own a television.” I mean every single person [laughs] and that was a huge revelation.

Rewire: In last week’s episode of Louie, the character Vanessa, played by Sarah Baker, made a speech about dating as a fat woman, which was praised by media outlets. Critics, however, like Willa Paskin at Slate, question the scene’s intent. How does that scene challenge or propagate the perception of fatness in pop culture? 

LA: That moment on Louie is rife with both the good and the bad. For example, it is amazing to see someone on television acknowledge the fact that the way we lie about the reality of a person’s body size is insulting and demeaning. Regularly when I refer to my body as fat, people try to tell me it’s not. Obviously, they are lying to me because they believe that being fat is something to be ashamed of, something ugly, something awful. Of course, in reality being fat is just a fact. It doesn’t have to have moral or aesthetic resonance—and the attempt to “hide” me from my fat points out that they believe that if I know I’m fat then I can’t possibly like myself. So I think the fact that this character is on television pointing out the ugliness that is intrinsic in dismissing the reality of a person’s body size is amazing and also really unheard of in mainstream media.

That said, [the speech] also relies on popular cultural lies—like the idea that fat women are not desired or that men are “ashamed” to be seen with fat women—and it makes some really limited assumptions about the issues that fat women struggle with and in turn obscures the systemic reality of fat discrimination. I think the conversation about fat discrimination is more concerned with the reality that fat people make less money than their thin counter parts, that they often receive sub-par medical care, and that they are assumed to be lazy or stupid. 

Arguably, this scene gives fat men an edge over fat women—which is debatable. It’s true that historic understandings of femininity have relegated women to the role of object and therefore “beauty,” and long-term relationships are understood as defining and significant factors in a woman’s life, but not a man’s. Of course this is an archaic idea, and yet popular culture still perpetuates these stereotypical gender concepts. That said, ultimately fat men and fat women suffer. We can’t sit around comparing oppressions. Instead we need to work on eliminating the causes of discrimination.

Rewire: What I find interesting, though, is that some outlets, like Flavorwire, are hailing it as this moment that’s given a voice to fat people, which seems dismissive of fat activists. How does that response play into what you’re discussing in Fattitude?

LA: One of the things we can always say is that on some level, anytime we’re having a conversation about fat discrimination—even if it’s problematic—we’re starting a conversation. I feel that the conversations are not being had enough in general, so while the conversation might be problematic, there’s a part of me that feels joy any time the conversation exists at all.

VL: I totally agree with that point.

LA: While there are activists on the ground, and there are amazing people out there saying amazing things, at the end of the day, the way our culture works—and the way it sort of worked for decades—is when you have someone famous as your spokesperson and you have someone famous start the conversation, the conversation is heard. Versus when you have activists having the conversation, it often gets relegated to, “Oh, those are activists talking. I don’t know if that’s important or not.”

And I say that with complete sarcasm, because while the activists are doing amazing and unbelievable things, they’re often shown as the far left or the far right. I’m saying that we can bring the conversation to center and enable it to happen.

VL: Right. You don’t need to mediate that, though. At the end of the day, if that person may have opened the door, it’s still giving access for people to finally be heard.

Rewire: As seen in Fattitude’s trailer, you feature a lot of diverse voices from cultural, wellness, and academic fields. How important was it to tackle this issue from those different viewpoints?

LA: We entered the sphere of making this film with the belief that diversity and diverse voices were extensively important, and one of the current flaws with the trailer—which will not be true of this film—is that it is all women’s voices. It is our goal, by the time we complete this film, that it is a film about fat men and fat women of every race, creed, sex, color, all of the above, because we believe only in that space can you truly have a conversation about what’s being experienced.

Rewire: Were there any issues that you were surprised to learned about as you conducted these interviews?

LA: The reality is that I was so well-informed before we even got to this because I am writing a dissertation of fat activist and fat-shaming. So most of the time, it was about the nuance of the argument, not that an argument popped that [we never thought about]. You look at an argument that you’ve defined for yourself, but then you start listening to [Fat! So? author] Marilynn Wann or [author and activist] Virgie Tovar explaining why they’ve come to the reasoning about a particular argument, and you think, “Oh, that’s incredible.” Then you talk to someone like [Seeking the Straight and Narrow author] Lynne Gerber, and you go, “Oh my God, holy, that’s incredible too.” 

You knew it was wrong that someone on the airplane was being kicked off for their body size, but you didn’t take the step forward to realize that the corporation must fix that. The fact that people didn’t think [about it as], “We’re telling you you deserve to be punished. You deserve to be kicked off this plane because your body size is too big,” the fact that people aren’t recognizing that’s prejudice—that was the kind of nuance that became blatantly clear.

VL: That’s why we love that quote where [Gerber] says, “We can land a person on the moon, but we can’t figure out how to get airplane seats for a human being,” because it’s true. Even “thin” people complain about those seats being too small [laughs]. There’s no relevance, there’s no acceptance of any form of spectrum in body size in the human body. Like Lindsey said, it’s just thought to be absolutely OK, undeniably OK, to discriminate and make that assumption.

Rewire: In the process of promoting Fattitude, you’ve also experienced incredible anti-fat abuse and harassment on- and offline. Tell us about that.

LA: It definitely happened to both of us. I think my household experienced the brunt of it, but I was not alone. [“GODBLESSADOLFHITLER”] got very angry and started harassing me on Twitter, initially. My reaction to his harassment on Twitter was, “This is someone who is ridiculous,” and I blocked him. Then he proceeded to go from there to calling my house and sending things to us in the mail, calling my parents’ house, calling my husband’s business, sending Mormon missionaries, having other people send horrible letters that said frightening things, death threats, rape threats. Viri got very aggressive rape threats. We got pizzas delivered to our house. Two days ago, I got a cola. It’s ongoing. It doesn’t go away. It has an anti-Semitic [element], which I think is just part of his online persona, but most of it is “fat bitch cunt” kind of stuff. It’s really anti-woman. It’s really anti-fat. It’s anti-gay, absolutely.

Rewire: Are both of you OK?

LA: I think we’re OK. That’s the best I can say. Our alarm went off the other night, and you feel like cowering in a corner because for the first time in your life, it’s not your instinct to be like, “Oh, that’s our sensitive alarm [that goes off] all the time.” Instead, you’re like, “Oh my God, who’s outside my house?!” There’s definitely a certain level of paranoia I could do without.

VL: The day after my information got out on the Web, I remember getting really nervous, looking over my shoulder. Any time our phone buzzes when somebody would come to our apartment building, there was always a hesitation, even if it was our friends or someone randomly calling the wrong apartment. But it’s where your mind goes first, which is bad.

LA: You feel more cautious and more anxious. But we’re making this film for a reason. It’s an absolutely necessary conversation, because I have now not only experienced the bullying that was experienced by living in a fat body in the world, but I have also experienced this intense level of fat hatred in the culture that I haven’t felt. The reality is, activists like Amanda Levitt [of] Fat Body Politics get this kind of trolling on a regular basis. They get this kind of brutal ugliness coming at them as they try to fight this. I contacted all the people in our film right away when this started, and activist Substantia Jones was like, “Hey, this is my life. This happens to me all the time. We are human, we are strong, and we won’t be quieted.” There’s a huge part for me where I have to remind myself that the activists now, and who came before us, experienced this, and that’s a part of it. That’s what happens, because you’re striking a nerve and you’re having a conversation that is obviously compelling, but also important.

I think at the end of the day, are we OK? Yeah, we’re OK. Is it great? Not always, but we’re OK.

Rewire: What has this experience showed you about the work you’re doing with Fattitude?

LA: We’ve seen the ugliest version of fat discrimination. Fat discrimination is that someone thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to come up to me, and go, “Oh, I’m on this great new diet, I should tell you about it,” because that person is assuming that I want to know about a diet, that I’m interested, that I’m unhappy with my body as it is now. That’s a version of fat discrimination. And, obviously, so is someone sending me hate mail and threatening my life, and calling my documentary cancerous because I am trying to tell people it’s OK to live your life even if you’re fat.

That’s what it showed us: It’s not just something subtle. We know it’s systematic. But we just looked at the brutal version of the hatred.

VL: And the hatred that happens at a time of change.

LA: Absolutely.

Rewire: In the end, what is the number one thing we should know about Fattitude?

LA: That each person’s body belongs to them. One of the things we like to do in this world is to think we have the right to judge other’s choices, and that’s one of the ways we quickly justify body prejudice. Everyone’s body is their own, and everyone’s body deserves the right to live free, equally, and with love and acceptance in this world.

VL: I couldn’t have said it better.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Commentary Sexual Health

Men Are From Mars, Women Don’t Want Sex: Abstinence-Only Curricula Rife With Gender Stereotypes

Martha Kempner

Pointing out gender stereotypes in abstinence-only curricula got law professor Nina Pillard, who was nominated to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, in trouble with the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it's something we should talk about more often.

As Jessica Mason Pieklo reported for Rewire on Thursday, Republicans in Congress are working to scuttle the nomination of Georgetown law professor Nina Pillard to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. While this is part of a larger effort to block all of President Obama’s nominees to this influential bench, the specific issue that is holding up Pillard may surprise some. She is being condemned by conservatives in part because of her criticism of gender stereotypes in abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula.

In her academic writings, Pillard argues that these curricula perpetuate gender stereotypes and that as such teaching them in public school “violates the constitutional bar against sex stereotyping and is vulnerable to equal protection challenge.” Not surprisingly, proponents of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and some Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee took issue with this. I, on the other hand—having spent much of my career poring over abstinence-only curricula and suffering through speeches and videos on the topic—applaud it. These curricula are riddled with dangerous gender stereotypes, and while I will leave the constitutional analyses to Pieklo, Pillard, and their legal colleagues, I can say as a sex educator that such blatant stereotypes have no place in a classroom.

Rife With Stereotypes

Abstinence-only curricula perpetuate the idea that men and women are very different when it comes to sex and everything else, suggest that women are responsible for setting limits because men want sex and they really don’t, and then make excuses for boys who are sexually aggressive while labeling women who have sex as forever tainted.

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In a 2007 article for the Emory Law Journal, Pillard argues that these messages might be unconstitutional and eloquently explains why they are so damaging. Since she focused primarily on the legal analysis she only used a few examples for the curricula themselves. Given the current furor over her academic writings, I think this is a good time to review other examples as well as her arguments. (Note: Unless otherwise linked, the examples below are taken from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States fact sheet Sugar & Spice, Virtue & Vice: How Fear-Based, Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Curricula Perpetuate Gender Stereotypes, which I wrote in 2008 based on in-depth reviews of the most recent version of each curriculum available at the time.)

Men Are From Mars, Women Can’t Do Math

Typically, abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula begin their discussion of gender by enumerating differences between men and women, from the vaguely interesting (women have larger kidneys, livers, stomachs, and appendixes than men, but smaller lungs) to the ridiculous (boys carry their books under their arms while girls hug them to their chest) to the downright offensive (girls aren’t as good at math). To emphasize their points, the authors like to point out that these differences are real and “proven” by science. Some of my favorite examples include:

  • “New research data says that many basic male-female differences are innate, hardwired and not the result of condition.” (Worth the Wait, Section 5-11)
  • “Let’s face it, men and women are different. Not just in terms of anatomy, but even in the ways they typically think and act in various situations.” (WAIT Training, p. 183)
  • “Males … are usually better at spatial reasoning than females. … Males’ superior skills in this area give them an advantage in math, engineering, and architecture.” (Worth the Wait, Section 5-11)
  • Women need affection while men need sexual fulfillment; women need conversation while men need recreational companionship; women need honesty and openness while men need physical attractiveness; women need financial support while men need admiration; and women need family commitment while men need domestic support. (WAIT Training, p. 199)
  • “Real men” are “strong, respectful, and courageous.” “A man protects.” In contrast, a “real woman,” “knows herself, is confident, sends a clear message, and is caring.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 52 & 55)
  • “Tom walks Kristie to her classes and carries her books for her. He doesn’t want her to strain herself.” (Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 42)

It is understandable why at first glance some people might not be all that offended by the presentation of these gender traits—for one thing, many of them ring true in everyday life. The majority of sitcoms and at least half of all stand-up routines in the 1980s were based on the idea that men and women are different, and psychologist John Gray got rich and famous for suggesting that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

Though these differences may seem benign, they are setting up a world view in which men and women take on specific roles in both society and their family. After all, if men are better at special relations and need domestic support, doesn’t it just make sense that they become engineers while women stay home and do their laundry?

In her article, Pillard explains why even those gender stereotypes that are based on kernels of truth about men and women are problematic:

Under the line of cases culminating in United States v. Virginia (VMI), even statistically accurate generalizations about “typically male or female tendencies”—such as men’s greater aggressiveness versus women’s comparatively more cooperate temperament or men’s tendency to harass and women’s victimization by sex harassment—cannot be ground for official sex-based discrimination … The [doctrine] thus recognizes that sex-role stereotyping is itself harmful because it projects patriarchal messages that make discrimination at once more likely and less apparent.

Women Are in Charge, But Only of Saying No

The myriad of generalized gender differences mentioned above seem to be used for the purpose of setting up and underscoring the differences that the abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula are really interested in driving home: those that have to do with sex. The basic message here is that boys want sex with anyone at any time. Girls, on the other hand, may think they want sex, but really they are just looking for love. Such differences are natural, we shouldn’t fight them, we should just learn how to handle them. To cope with these differences, girls must help boys by dressing modestly, setting clear limits, and acting as the enforcer. Here’s how some of the curricula explain this:

  • “Because they generally become physically aroused less easily, girls are still in a good position to slow down the young man and help him learn balance in a relationship.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 12)
  • “Girls need to be aware they may be able to tell when a kiss is leading to something else. The girl may need to put the brakes on first in order to help the boy.” (Reasonable Reasons to Wait, Student Workbook, p. 96).
  • Q: “But aren’t there many girls who really want to have sex, and so they pressure the guys?” A: “Yes, there are. This is happening in larger numbers now than in years past, since the pop culture has removed the stigma from non-virgins and displays many role models of provocative women.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 12)
  • “While a man needs little or no preparation for sex, a woman often needs hours of emotional and mental preparation.”(WAIT Training, p. 199)
  • “A young man’s natural desire for sex is already strong due to testosterone, the powerful male growth hormone. Females are becoming culturally conditioned to fantasize about sex as well.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 11).

Young people need to understand that in a couple, both men and women have not just the right but also equal responsibility to determine what sexual behaviors will be part of their repertoire. Young men need to know they are perfectly capable of not having sex at any moment, while young women need to know it’s as normal for them to want sex as it is for a man. Setting up a double standard in which only men desire sex and women’s role within the sexual relationships is simply to deny their partners’ relentless requests is damaging on many levels.

In her 2007 article, Pillard explains it brilliantly:

Sexual double standards set up both young women and men to act irresponsibly. The notion that male sex drives are irrepressible, the valorization of male sexual “conquests,” and the failure to hold men accountable to care for the children they father all encourage heedless and even lawless sexual behavior destructive to male-to-male peer pressure, and disregard of women’s humanity. Relying on young women to be the gatekeepers of chastity and to respond with denial and shame to their own sexual drives, and encouraging women to care more about their relationships with men than their own plans intensify women’s ambivalence and difficultly in negotiating their own drives, desires, and best interests.

It’s also worth noting that such discussions of sexual behavior completely ignore even the possibility of same-sex relationships. Though Pillard does not make this argument, others have suggested that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs discriminate against gay and lesbian teens, as these young people are left out of the conversation entirely.

Boys Will Be Boys, But Girls Might Get Ruined

One of the most obvious dangers of putting young women in charge of their partners’ insatiable sexual appetites is the impact it has on rape and sexual assault. Though some programs spend a token amount of time discussing date rape and may pay lip service to the idea that “no means no,” most include language that suggests otherwise. Girls are constantly blamed for tempting boys whose hormone-addled brains just can’t handle short skirts or flirtatious smiles. And while boys will be boys—meaning they can be forgiven for most sexual behaviors, perhaps including non-consensual behaviors—girls should know better. A girl who wants or actually has sex, according to these programs, has been permanently damaged. Here are some gems from the curricula:

  • “Date rape is a crime that young women must be on the lookout to avoid.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 101)
  • “The young girl learning to understand her changing body often has no idea the effect it has on surrounding males. Signals she doesn’t even know she is sending can cause big problems.” (Why kNOw, 6th grade, p. 17).
  • “Males and females are aroused at different levels of intimacy. Males are more sight orientated whereas females are more touch orientated. This is why girls need to be careful with what they wear, because males are looking! The girl might be thinking fashion, while the boy is thinking sex. For this reason, girls have a responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 46).
  • “Deep down, you know that your friend’s plunging necklines and short skirts are getting the guys to talk about her. Is that what you want? To see girls who drive guys [sic] hormones when a guy is trying to see her as a friend. A guy who wants to respect girls is distracted by sexy clothes and remembers her for one thing. Is it fair that guys are turned on by their senses and women by their hearts?” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 94)
  • “Generally female dogs allow the male to mount them/get on top of them, do their business, and leave. Some girls appear to act as if they want this.” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 27)
  • “If [a girl] has been involved in sexual activity… sexually, she is no longer a virgin, she is no longer pure, unspoiled, fresh.” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 9)

Pillard takes this on in her article as well and points out just how damaging it can be to both genders. “Painting all males with the brush of sexual brutishness both naturalizes the wrong done by the rapist and obscures the good of the non-aggressor,” she writes. “Failure to acknowledge women’s very real and powerful sexual urges also abets sexual abuse and rape: If women are taught to deny their desire, their ‘no’s’ appear ambiguous, making it easier for men to believe that no means yes—i.e., that male insistence will merely lead to what both ‘really’ want.” She adds, “The female chastity norm also punishes women who repudiate it—or are presumed to do so—by viewing them as ‘fair game,’ disentitled to protection from uninvited sex.”

Possibly Unconstitutional, Definitely Inappropriate

As Pieklo explained, Pillard essentially argues that such blatant sex discrimination violates our equal protection laws: “[the curricula’s] prescriptions for women and men resonate vividly with the traditional sex roles that were targets of so many of the early sex equality cases.” As such, this content would be out of place in any public education program, but Pillard goes on to argue that perhaps an even stricter standard should be applied to sexuality education programs, which are by their nature trying to change how young people behave. She says:

Obligatory education permeated with discriminatory content alone raises serious constitutional concerns. But the conduct-shaping of sex education curricula makes them vulnerable to equal protection challenge even if communicating retrogressive sex roles in traditional academic classes might not be.

I have always felt that one of the most important goals of sexuality education is to help young people think critically about their own decisions in order to shape their future behavior for the better. Sure these courses should provide information about sexually transmitted infections, contraception, and sexual health, but that is not nearly as useful as the skills to apply it to their own lives. Presenting gender stereotypes in an effort to help young people understand the origins of these ideas, question their validity in today’s society, and examine how they affect communication within sexual relationships would be an ideal exercise for a sexuality education program. Unfortunately, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are not interested in helping young people think critically about gender roles or any other aspect of sexuality. Instead, they present these stereotypes as universal truths and prescribe different behavior for men and women accordingly.

Over ten years ago, the toy company Mattel found itself in the center of a public relations nightmare when it released Teen Talk Barbie. Among the 470 phrases she would say was this winner: “Math class is tough.” Reaction to this was so strong that the doll was pulled from the shelf. A couple of years ago, retailer J.C. Penney got similarly lambasted in the media for a t-shirt that said “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.”

It turns out that kids are being exposed to even worse gender stereotypes in federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, but can calling these into question prevent someone from getting a seat on the bench? Professor Pillard was right to question whether abstinence-only programs belong in our schools, and she made excellent arguments about why the gender biases they tout are so damaging. I hope that her academic writings on this topic do not, in the end, prevent her from becoming a member of the D.C. Circuit. Though, I can’t help but wonder if she missed her true calling as a sexuality educator.

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