Commentary Sexual Health

Film Review: Does “Let’s Talk About Sex” Communicate the Right Messages to the Right Audiences?

Heather Corinna

The new film Let's Talk About Sex was created with the intention of sparking public dialogue about and family communication on teen sex and sexuality issues. Here's my take on whether the film is giving the right message to the right audiences.

Editor’s Note: The new documentary “Let’s Talk About Sex” aims to start a conversation about our society’s dysfunctional view of teen sexuality.  We’ve asked a few of our authors to join in that conversation and discuss their views of the film.

Someone like me is always going to be a tough customer for films like “Let’s Talk About Sex.”  I’m putting that out there right now because having seen the film, I’m critical about both its delivery and approach, although I very much appreciate its intent,

The film bills itself as taking “a revealing look at how American attitudes towards adolescent sexuality affect today’s teenagers.”

“We live in a society that uses sex to sell everything from lipstick to laptops. Yet fear and silence around sex and sexuality also permeate our culture. Teens are paying a terrible price for this confusion in unintended pregnancy, STDs, and even HIV. And American taxpayers are paying billions to treat these entirely preventable problems.”

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Ultimately, the primary message of the film is that negative outcomes resulting from teen sexuality would be remedied if only parents and other adults would just talk more about sex and sexuality with young people, and do so with more openness; with more facts and less fear.

Working with young people directly both internationally and domestically in sex education for over 10 years, nothing in this film was news to me, and it’s impossible for me to view the issues brought up as only being about one nation, since I see them worldwide. Because I’ve worked with these issues and in this field in such an immersive and broad way for so long, the flaws in a piece like this are bound to be far more glaring to me than its attributes; because doing this work has instilled a high sensitivity and protectiveness on my part for young people and parents alike, and those things are always going to have an impact on how I experience and what I take away from a piece like this.

The film was produced in collaboration with Advocates for Youth, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that director James Houston is a fashion and beauty photographer, not a sex educator, nor a parent of teens (from what I can gather) or even someone who (probably) has worked with teens before this outside of the fashion industry. His viewpoints throughout the film make it clear that a lot of what he found out was a shocker to him, while for plenty of us, even people who don’t work in this area, little to none of this is big news, so the approach of the film as exposing facts and truths with a constant gasp of surprise may be lost on a lot of viewers.

For parents and adults who honestly don’t know they should be talking openly and factually with young people about sex and sexuality or don’t know how important that is, and to whom much of what the film explores is news, I think the film could be a good entry point, even with its flaws, and that’s no small thing.  I think it would be most ideal when viewed by adults AND youth, and discussed together by both (as opposed to being seen as something for adults discussed by adults).

For those just coming to the table, or better still, for those who are parents of or work with very young children who are years away from adolescence, the film provides good reality checks around the inaccuracies in abstinence-only sex education, some statistical information about health outcomes for young people with sex right now, and scenes which illustrate important and problematic dynamics that often come up in sex education and sexual communication with young people.

For instance, there’s a telling scene in which a teacher of exclusively pregnant teens is giving them a lesson on contraception which ultimately is anything but: instead, she insists to this group of pregnant young women that abstinence is the only real way to prevent pregnancy.  There’s another scene in which a young woman who took a virginity pledge that her father wanted makes clear that, while he thought it was meaningful for them both, she didn’t have any understanding of what she was agreeing to do or not to do.

I think much of what the young people in this film voice—more than the adults—is important for people to see and hear. I also don’t think you can miss the intentionality on the part of the filmmaker. While some of how he approaches this is, in my view, limited and in some ways strongly problematic, I think his good intent is clear and meaningful.

The film contains great calls to parents and adults to communicate with young people about sex and sexuality and to do so with more honesty, openness, factual information and a keener sense of reality, rather than their own ideals. There’s an excellent focus on the language often used around sex and sexuality—which I found to be one of the strongest parts of the film—and the impact language laced with fear or shame can have on how people experience, act on, and communicate about sex. The other portions of the film that I thought were very strong, and provided viewpoints less often heard, were those which involved religious leaders who viewed their faith communities as places in need of comprehensive and realistic sex education.  I also was glad to see discussion about how sex education and communication about sexuality needs to start well before a time when young people may start to become sexual with others.

I confess, though, that I found more in the film that bothered me or disappointed me, and plenty of moments where it felt like something so-so could have become fantastic if this all hadn’t been so brand new to the filmmaker. I think if it hadn’t been so new to him the film would have had more nuance and sensitivity and less simplicity and black-and-white thinking than I found it to have. Ultimately, despite my strong desire to love this movie, I’ve got more critique to offer than waves of my proverbial pom-poms.

The Power of Peers

As an advocate for young people, I loved comments in the film about the power of having confidence in young people to engage in responsible sexual behavior, and I deeply appreciated attention paid to the ways in which parental or adult control, can contribute more to putting young people in danger than keeping them safe, especially when young people leave home, get freedom and autonomy, and then have a tough time managing because they’ve gone from almost-total external control to nearly none. But, there was also a very strong comment made by an adult in the film that peers can’t possibly provide each other with good mentoring or cross-education , a notion I found  adultist and also preposterous in a film which showed all the ways adults aren’t doing it either. In my experience, when peers fail to educate each other well, and adults fail to educate young people well, it’s for very similar, if not identical, reasons, most of which have little to nothing to do with age.

Suffice it to say, particularly given that I do much of my work online, the suggestion in the film that the internet is not a place where quality sex information and education can be found was frustrating. The film showed images only from sites like Cosmopolitan, not from sites like Scarleteen, Planned Parenthood, Brook, Options for Sexual Health, Sex, Etc., Go Ask Alice or Rewire, which often contain more comprehensive and factual sex information than any sex education class can, and which hundreds of thousands of young people find and use every day. After all, that girl talking about using Google to get her sex ed?  Chances are good that when she did, she landed on at least one of these sites.

The European Model

By design, this film is specifically about teen sexuality, sex education, and parent-teen sexual communication in America. It sets up a dichotomy between the U.S. and other countries that I found more optimistic than realistic. As  someone who works with international populations, I see common threads with sexual problems throughout nearly all nations.  By all means, some of the critiques were sound and fair, and I agree with them in some cases, such as when comparing the U.S. and the Netherlands.  Like the director, I’m on Team Netherlands when it comes to how sexuality tends to be culturally treated and approached there. (There, now I can wave those pom-poms after all.) However, the world is not divided into only two groups of cultures, those like the U.S. and those like the Netherlands. The Netherlands is a unique culture in this respect. There are few nations like it.

For example, despite what I felt was a pretty rosy picture painted of Australia by the director, I hear from young people in Australia who are having trouble with sexual and interpersonal violence, which is a big problem on that continent. I hear from teens having a very hard time accessing sexual health services there, and having other similar issues and problems with sex and sexuality young people have here. Indeed, their teen pregnancy rates are lower than ours (that’s a bit iffy, since there’s no mandatory reporting of abortion there, but their birth rate is around 18 per 1,000, compared to our 52). Their STI rates, however, are nothing to write home about and have also been increasing among young people. Regardless, I don’t think it’s even sound to base the overall sexual well-being of a nation or population, on those outcomes alone, something that happens all too often in commentaries on teen sexuality, and which I find to be part of the problem we face in understanding, evaluating and addressing teen sexuality well.

Lack of Inclusivity

The film gave an important nod to how sex education lacks inclusivity for queer youth, and I always love to see the brave and fantastic Max Siegel. But since the majority of the film itself wasn’t inclusive save that small nod, it felt like tokenism to me. It’s great to ask for better inclusion, but if you’re going to ask, you’ve got to model it, too, which I don’t feel the film itself did.

There were also some presentations of race and class I felt uncomfortable with in the film. For instance, it felt to me like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and teen pregnancy were presented as issues mostly about people of color.  While there was explanation of why some STIs more heavily affect people of color , I came away feeling like that the issue wasn’t explained very well, nor did it address the ways in which institutionalized racism plays a large role in perpetuating poor health in communities of color.

The Role of Gender

One of the biggest issues I had with the film was around gender. In the film, there are five young people who disclose very personal things about their sex lives: two young men and their parents, two young women and their parents, and, sans parent or address of parental communication, Max, who has previously disclosed his story in very public venues before this film, so he’s in a different spot than the other four of this group.  

Only the young women disclose “sexual dishonesties” in the film. Something about that feels exploitative to me, as it is only the girls doing so, and they are sharing with viewers what they have not yet shared with parents, making them even more vulnerable than they already are.

Some adults in the film also voice and enable, seemingly without awareness, gender biases or simplifications, like the teacher who states, with a chuckle, that “13-year-old boys think about sex every five to ten seconds.” Still none of the adults in the film, including the film maker really address gender inequities, gender double standards, sexism, or the fact that one groups bears a far greater burden when it comes to pregnancy, sexual health, and social stigma.

I felt the different challenges in parent-teen sexual communication often experienced due to gender were completely dismissed within this group of four and the film as a whole.  In the film, conflicts were seen only in the interviews involving young women, while the glowingly positive scenarios involved young men.  This was not likely only around gender dynamics, but no doubt those dynamics played a large part.

In addition, sexual and interpersonal violence and abuse also come into play, which is often a gender issue. While victims of sexual abuse and assault can and do come in all genders and sexes, young women are victimized at much higher rates than young men. I’m not even sure one of the young women whose personal story was featured was describing consensual sex, as it was presented, and not a sexual abuse or assault. Despite voicing things that begged the question (not wanting her experience to happen the way it did, being drunk, having things “happen” rather than voicing being an active participant), the question of whether this sex was consensual wasn’t asked or, from what I can tell, even considered.  I find that deeply troubling. 

The Portrayal of Parents

Something about the way the four teens and their families were presented felt more reality TV than documentary film to me.  Both the positive and negative examples felt one-dimensional; as though the filmmaker was  dividing the four sets of parents into the “Aren’t-They-Awesome” group and the “Parents-Of-Fail,” when I feel sure that all of the parents involved probably had the best of intentions and all wanted to parent well.  Presenting the positive examples this  way doesn’t let the viewer see the processes through which those parents might have gone or the challenges with which they might have grappled en route to becoming good at communicating (which would have been valuable); likewise presenting the negative examples as uni-dimensional made me feel like both those parents and teens were kind of put in the public stacks.  Both presentations felt exploitative to me—especially for the two young women who disclosed incredibly difficult things in a highly public venue they had not yet even disclosed to parents. To me this showed a lack of sensitivity vital in treating people and sexuality with care and respect.  The presentation also failed to address the whys of poor (or less-than-great communication) when people really are trying to do it right.

That all said, I think perhaps the biggest issue with this film is its intended audience and what it feels that audience needs.  Parents who truly do not know that they should be communicating about sex and sexuality are a very small group, and one that does not include parents actively choosing not to communicate openly, which is a far larger group.  In my experience, the parents who most need to understand the importance of open, honest, factual, and flexible communication about sexuality with young people, and who aren’t trying to engage their children in such discussions, are usually choosing not to do so quite intentionally because they simply disagree the whole premise. Do I think this film will change the minds of most of those parents? No.  In fact, I can’t help but wonder if the film won’t just steel their resolve to continue to stay silent.  After all, for parents who choose to be silent, those who only talk about sex and sexuality as a fearful “no,” or those who urge things like virginity pledging, witnessing parents freely giving condoms to young people, allowing sexual partners to stay overnight, and seeing teens more comfortable with sex and sexuality is not something likely to be perceived as a wanted outcome.

And, for the parents who do realize that they should be talking more about sex and sexuality than they now are, or who feel they need to be doing so differently than they have been, I’m just not sure this film gives them information or assistance on where and how to get started. I find that to be the biggest missing piece for most parents and adults around these issues: not the why, but the how. While I very much appreciate the calls to action for parents and other adults to better and more honestly and openly communicate with young people about sex and sexuality, we have to recognize that just asking parents to do that, and supporting them in doing so, only gets us so far.

There is much more to say on this subject—how to get started with that communication and how to do it better than any of us probably learned how—than can be said in this piece.  In Part 2 of this commentary, to be published next week, I will focus in greater depth on how parents and other adults can better and more honestly communicate with young people about sex and sexuality.

Analysis Law and Policy

Do Counselors-in-Training Have the Right to Discriminate Against LGBTQ People?

Greg Lipper

Doctors can't treat their patients with leeches; counselors can't impose their beliefs on patients or harm them using discredited methods. Whatever their views, medical professionals have to treat their clients competently.

Whether they’re bakers, florists, or government clerks, those claiming the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people have repeatedly sought to transform professional services into constitutionally protected religious speech. They have grabbed headlines for refusing, for example, to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples or to make cakes for same-sex couples’ weddings-all in the name of “religious freedom.”

A bit more quietly, however, a handful of counseling students at public universities have challenged their schools’ nondiscrimination and treatment requirements governing clinical placements. In some cases, they have sought a constitutional right to withhold treatment from LGBTQ clients; in others, they have argued for the right to directly impose their religious and anti-gay views on their clients.

There has been some state legislative maneuvering on this front: Tennessee, for instance, recently enacted a thinly veiled anti-LGBTQ measure that would allow counselors to deny service on account of their “sincerely held principles.” But when it comes to the federal Constitution, providing medical treatment—whether bypass surgery, root canal, or mental-health counseling—isn’t advocacy (religious or otherwise) protected by the First Amendment. Counselors are medical professionals; they are hired to help their clients, no matter their race, religion, or sexual orientation, and no matter the counselors’ beliefs. The government, moreover, may lawfully prevent counselors from harming their clients, and universities in particular have an interest, recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, in preventing discrimination in school activities and in training their students to work with diverse populations.

The plaintiffs in these cases have nonetheless argued that their schools are unfairly and unconstitutionally targeting them for their religious beliefs. But these students are not being targeted, any more than are business owners who must comply with civil rights laws. Instead, their universities, informed by the rules of the American Counseling Association (ACA)—the leading organization of American professional counselors—merely ask that all students learn to treat diverse populations and to do so in accordance with the standard of care. These plaintiffs, as a result, have yet to win a constitutional right to discriminate against or impose anti-LGBTQ views on actual or prospective clients. But cases persist, and the possibility of conflicting court decisions looms.

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Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley

The first major challenge to university counseling requirements came from Jennifer Keeton, who hoped to receive a master’s degree in school counseling from Augusta State University. As detailed in the 2011 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision considering her case, Keeton entered her professional training believing that (1) “sexual behavior is the result of personal choice for which individuals are accountable, not inevitable deterministic forces”; (2) “gender is fixed and binary (i.e., male or female), not a social construct or personal choice subject to individual change”; and “homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle,’ not a ‘state of being.'”

It wasn’t those views alone, however, that sunk her educational plans. The problem, rather, was that Keeton wanted to impose her views on her patients. Keeton had told both her classmates and professors about her clinical approach at a university-run clinic, and it wasn’t pretty:

  • She would try to change the sexual orientation of gay clients;
  • If she were counseling a sophomore student in crisis questioning his sexual orientation, she would respond by telling the student that it was not OK to be gay.
  • If a client disclosed that he was gay, she would tell him that his behavior was wrong and try to change it; if she were unsuccessful, she would refer the client to someone who practices “conversion therapy.”

Unsurprisingly, Keeton also told school officials that it would be difficult for her to work with LGBTQ clients.

Keeton’s approach to counseling not only would have flouted the university’s curricular guidelines, but also would have violated the ACA’s Code of Ethics.

Her conduct would have harmed her patients as well. As a school counselor, Keeton would inevitably have to counsel LGBTQ clients: 57 percent of LGBTQ students have sought help from a school professional and 42 percent have sought help from a school counselor. Suicide is the leading cause of death for LGBTQ adolescents; that’s twice or three times the suicide rate afflicting their heterosexual counterparts. And Keeton’s preferred approach to counseling LGBTQ students would harm them: LGBTQ students rejected by trusted authority figures are even more likely to attempt suicide, and anti-gay “conversion therapy” at best doesn’t work and at worst harms patients too.

Seeking to protect the university’s clinical patients and train her to be a licensed mental health professional, university officials asked Keeton to complete a remediation plan before she counseled students in her required clinical practicum. She refused; the university expelled her. In response, the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom sued on her behalf, claiming that the university violated her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.

The courts disagreed. The trial court ruled against Keeton, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously upheld the trial court’s ruling. The 11th Circuit explained that Keeton was expelled not because of her religious beliefs, but rather because of her “own statements that she intended to impose her personal religious beliefs on clients and refer clients to conversion therapy, and her own admissions that it would be difficult for her to work with the GLBTQ population and separate her own views from those of the client.” It was Keeton, not the university, who could not separate her personal beliefs from the professional counseling that she provided: “[F]ar from compelling Keeton to profess a belief or change her own beliefs about the morality of homosexuality, [the university] instructs her not to express her personal beliefs regarding the client’s moral values.”

Keeton, in other words, crossed the line between beliefs and conduct. She may believe whatever she likes, but she may not ignore academic and professional requirements designed to protect her clients—especially when serving clients at a university-run clinic.

As the court explained, the First Amendment would not prohibit a medical school from requiring students to perform blood transfusions in their clinical placements, nor would it prohibit a law school from requiring extra ethics training for a student who “expressed an intent to indiscriminately disclose her client’s secrets or violate another of the state bar’s rules.” Doctors can’t treat their patients with leeches; counselors can’t impose their beliefs on patients or harm them using discredited methods. Whatever their views, medical professionals have to treat their clients competently.

Ward v. Polite

The Alliance Defending Freedom’s follow-up case, Ward v. Polite, sought to give counseling students the right to withhold service from LGBTQ patients and also to practice anti-gay “conversion therapy” on those patients. The case’s facts were a bit murkier, and this led the appeals court to send it to trial; as a result, the student ultimately extracted only a modest settlement from the university. But as in Keeton’s case, the court rejected in a 2012 decision the attempt to give counseling students the right to impose their religious views on their clients.

Julea Ward studied counseling at Eastern Michigan University; like Keeton, she was training to be a school counselor. When she reviewed the file for her third client in the required clinical practicum, she realized that he was seeking counseling about a romantic relationship with someone of the same sex. As the Court of Appeals recounted, Ward did not want to counsel the client about this topic, and asked her faculty supervisor “(1) whether she should meet with the client and refer him [to a different counselor] only if it became necessary—only if the counseling session required Ward to affirm the client’s same-sex relationship—or (2) whether the school should reassign the client from the outset.” Although her supervisor reassigned the client, it was the first time in 20 years that one of her students had made such a request. So Ward’s supervisor scheduled a meeting with her.

Then things went off the rails. Ward, explained the court, “reiterated her religious objection to affirming same-sex relationships.” She told university officials that while she had “no problem counseling gay and lesbian clients,” she would counsel them only if “the university did not require her to affirm their sexual orientation.” She also refused to counsel “heterosexual clients about extra-marital sex and adultery in a values-affirming way.” As for the professional rules governing counselors, Ward said, “who’s the [American Counseling Association] to tell me what to do. I answer to a higher power and I’m not selling out God.”

All this led the university to expel Ward, and she sued. She claimed that the university violated her free speech and free exercise rights, and that she had a constitutional right to withhold affirming therapy relating to any same-sex relationships or different-sex relationships outside of marriage. Like Keeton, Ward also argued that the First Amendment prohibited the university from requiring “gay-affirmative therapy” while prohibiting “reparative therapy.” After factual discovery, the trial court dismissed her case.

On appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Ward eked out a narrow and temporary win: The court held that the case should go to a jury. Because the university did not have a written policy prohibiting referrals, and based on a few troubling faculty statements during Ward’s review, the court ruled that a reasonable jury could potentially find that the university invoked a no-referrals policy “as a pretext for punishing Ward’s religious views and speech.” At the same time, the court recognized that a jury could view the facts less favorably to Ward and rule for the university.

And although the decision appeared to sympathize with Ward’s desire to withhold service from certain types of clients, the court flatly rejected Ward’s sweeping arguments that she had the right to stray from the school curriculum, refuse to counsel LGBTQ clients, or practice anti-gay “conversion therapy.” For one, it said, “Curriculum choices are a form of school speech, giving schools considerable flexibility in designing courses and policies and in enforcing them so long as they amount to reasonable means of furthering legitimate educational ends.” Thus, the problem was “not the adoption of this anti-discrimination policy, the existence of the practicum class or even the values-affirming message the school wants students to understand and practice.” On the contrary, the court emphasized “the [legal] latitude educational institutions—at any level—must have to further legitimate curricular objectives.”

Indeed, the university had good reason to require counseling students—especially those studying to be school counselors—to treat diverse populations. A school counselor who refuses to counsel anyone with regard to nonmarital, nonheterosexual relationships will struggle to find clients: Nearly four in five Americans have had sex by age 21; more than half have done so by the time they turn 18, while only 6 percent of women and 2 percent of men are married by that age.

In any event, withholding service from entire classes of people violates professional ethical rules even for nonschool counselors. Although the ACA permits client referrals in certain circumstances, the agency’s brief in Ward’s case emphasized that counselors may not refuse to treat entire groups. Ward, in sum, “violated the ACA Code of Ethics by refusing to counsel clients who may wish to discuss homosexual relationships, as well as others who fail to comport with her religious teachings, e.g., persons who engage in ‘fornication.'”

But Ward’s approach would have been unethical even if, in theory, she were permitted to withhold service from each and every client seeking counseling related to nonmarital sex (or even marital sex by same-sex couples). Because in many cases, the need for referral would arise well into the counseling relationship. And as the trial court explained, “a client may seek counseling for depression, or issues with their parents, and end up discussing a homosexual relationship.” No matter what the reason, mid-counseling referrals harm clients, and such referrals are even more harmful if they happen because the counselor disapproves of the client.

Fortunately, Ward did not win the sweeping right to harm her clients or otherwise upend professional counseling standards. Rather, the court explained that “the even-handed enforcement of a neutral policy”—such as the ACA’s ethical rules—”is likely to steer clear of the First Amendment’s free-speech and free-exercise protections.” (Full disclosure: I worked on an amicus brief in support of the university when at Americans United.)

Ward’s lawyers pretended that she won the case, but she ended up settling it for relatively little. She received only $75,000; and although the expulsion was removed from her record, she was not reinstated. Without a graduate counseling degree, she cannot become a licensed counselor.

Cash v. Hofherr

The latest anti-gay counseling salvo comes from Andrew Cash, whose April 2016 lawsuit against Missouri State University attempts to rely on yet murkier facts and could wind up, on appeal, in front of the more conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. In addition to his range of constitutional claims (freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, equal protection of law), he has added a claim under the Missouri Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The complaint describes Cash as “a Christian with sincerely-held beliefs”—as opposed to insincere ones, apparently—”on issues of morality.” Cash started his graduate counseling program at Missouri State University in September 2007. The program requires a clinical internship, which includes 240 hours of in-person client contact. Cash decided to do his clinical internship at Springfield Marriage and Family Institute, which appeared on the counseling department’s list of approved sites. Far from holding anti-Christian bias, Cash’s instructor agreed that his proposed class presentation on “Christian counseling and its unique approach and value to the Counseling profession” was an “excellent” idea.

But the presentation itself revealed that Cash intended to discriminate against LGBTQ patients. In response to a question during the presentation, the head of the Marriage and Family Institute stated that “he would counsel gay persons as individuals, but not as couples, because of his religious beliefs,” and that he would “refer the couple for counseling to other counselors he knew who did not share his religious views.” Because discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation violates ACA guidelines, the university determined that Cash should not continue counseling at the Marriage and Family Institute and that it would be removed from the approved list of placements. Cash suggested, however, that he should be able to withhold treatment from same-sex couples.

All this took place in 2011. The complaint (both the original and amended versions) evades precisely what happened between 2012 and 2014, when Cash was finally expelled. You get the sense that Cash’s lawyers at the Thomas More Society are trying to yadda-yadda-yadda the most important facts of the case.

In any event, the complaint does acknowledge that when Cash applied for a new internship, he both ignored the university’s instructions that the previous hours were not supposed to count toward his requirement, and appeared to be “still very much defend[ing] his previous internship stating that there was nothing wrong with it”—thus suggesting that he would continue to refuse to counsel same-sex couples. He continued to defend his position in later meetings with school officials; by November 2014, the university removed him from the program.

Yet in challenging this expulsion, Cash’s complaint says that he was merely “expressing his Christian worldview regarding a hypothetical situation concerning whether he would provide counseling services to a gay/homosexual couple.”

That’s more than just a worldview, though. It also reflects his intent to discriminate against a class of people—in a manner that violates his program’s requirements and the ACA guidelines. Whether hypothetically or otherwise, Cash stated and reiterated that he would withhold treatment from same-sex couples. A law student who stated, as part of his clinic, that he would refuse to represent Christian clients would be announcing his intent to violate the rules of professional responsibility, and the law school could and would remove him from the school’s legal clinic. And they could and would do so even if a Christian client had yet to walk in the door.

But maybe this was just a big misunderstanding, and Cash would, in practice, be willing and able to counsel same-sex couples? Not so, said Cash’s lawyer from the Thomas More Society, speaking about the case to Christian news outlet WORLD: “I think Christians have to go on the offensive, or it’s going to be a situation like Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible, where you aren’t safe to have a guest in your home, with the demands of the gay mob.” Yikes.

Although Cash seems to want a maximalist decision allowing counselors and counseling students to withhold service from LGBTQ couples, it remains to be seen how the case will turn out. The complaint appears to elide two years’ worth of key facts in order to present Cash’s claims as sympathetically as possible; even if the trial court were to rule in favor of the university after more factual development, Cash would have the opportunity to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, one of the country’s most conservative federal appeals courts.

More generally, we’re still early in the legal battles over attempts to use religious freedom rights as grounds to discriminate; only a few courts across the country have weighed in. So no matter how extreme Cash or his lawyers may seem, it’s too early to count them out.

* * *

The cases brought by Keeton, Ward, and Cash not only attempt to undermine anti-discrimination policies. They also seek to change the nature of the counselor-client relationship. Current norms provide that a counselor is a professional who provides a service to a client. But the plaintiffs in these cases seem to think that counseling a patient is no different than lecturing a passerby in the town square, in that counseling a patient necessarily involves expressing the counselor’s personal and religious beliefs. Courts have thus far rejected these attempts to redefine the counselor-patient relationship, just as they have turned away attempts to challenge bans on “reparative therapy.”

The principles underlying the courts’ decisions protect more than just LGBTQ clients. As the 11th Circuit explained in Keeton, the university trains students to “be competent to work with all populations, and that all students not impose their personal religious values on their clients, whether, for instance, they believe that persons ought to be Christians rather than Muslims, Jews or atheists, or that homosexuality is moral or immoral.” Licensed professionals are supposed to help their clients, not treat them as prospective converts.

News Law and Policy

Texas Lawmaker’s ‘Coerced Abortion’ Campaign ‘Wildly Divorced From Reality’

Teddy Wilson

Anti-choice groups and lawmakers in Texas are charging that coerced abortion has reached epidemic levels, citing bogus research published by researchers who oppose legal abortion care.

A Texas GOP lawmaker has teamed up with an anti-choice organization to raise awareness about the supposed prevalence of forced or coerced abortion, which critics say is “wildly divorced from reality.”

Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) during a press conference at the state capitol on July 13 announced an effort to raise awareness among public officials and law enforcement that forced abortion is illegal in Texas.

White said in a statement that she is proud to work alongside The Justice Foundation (TJF), an anti-choice group, in its efforts to tell law enforcement officers about their role in intervening when a pregnant person is being forced to terminate a pregnancy. 

“Because the law against forced abortions in Texas is not well known, The Justice Foundation is offering free training to police departments and child protective service offices throughout the State on the subject of forced abortion,” White said.

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White was joined at the press conference by Allan Parker, the president of The Justice Foundation, a “Christian faith-based organization” that represents clients in lawsuits related to conservative political causes.

Parker told Rewire that by partnering with White and anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), TJF hopes to reach a wider audience.

“We will partner with anyone interested in stopping forced abortions,” Parker said. “That’s why we’re expanding it to police, social workers, and in the fall we’re going to do school counselors.”

White only has a few months remaining in office, after being defeated in a closely contested Republican primary election in March. She leaves office after serving one term in the state GOP-dominated legislature, but her short time there was marked by controversy.

During the Texas Muslim Capitol Day, she directed her staff to “ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws.”

Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in an email to Rewire that White’s education initiative overstates the prevalence of coerced abortion. “Molly White’s so-called ‘forced abortion’ campaign is yet another example that shows she is wildly divorced from reality,” Busby said.

There is limited data on the how often people are forced or coerced to end a pregnancy, but Parker alleges that the majority of those who have abortions may be forced or coerced.

‘Extremely common but hidden’

“I would say that they are extremely common but hidden,” Parker said. “I would would say coerced or forced abortion range from 25 percent to 60 percent. But, it’s a little hard be to accurate at this point with our data.”

Parker said that if “a very conservative 10 percent” of the about 60,000 abortions that occur per year in Texas were due to coercion, that would mean there are about 6,000 women per year in the state that are forced to have an abortion. Parker believes that percentage is much higher.

“I believe the number is closer to 50 percent, in my opinion,” Parker said. 

There were 54,902 abortions in Texas in 2014, according to recently released statistics from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The state does not collect data on the reasons people seek abortion care. 

White and Parker referenced an oft cited study on coerced abortion pushed by the anti-choice movement.

“According to one published study, sixty-four percent of American women who had abortions felt forced or unduly pressured by someone else to have an unwanted abortion,” White said in a statement.

This statistic is found in a 2004 study about abortion and traumatic stress that was co-authored by David Reardon, Vincent Rue, and Priscilla Coleman, all of whom are among the handful of doctors and scientists whose research is often promoted by anti-choice activists.

The study was cited in a report by the Elliot Institute for Social Sciences Research, an anti-choice organization founded by Reardon. 

Other research suggests far fewer pregnant people are coerced into having an abortion.

Less than 2 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 2004 reported that a partner or parent wanting them to abort was the most important reason they sought the abortion, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute.

That same report found that 24 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 14 percent surveyed in 2004 listed “husband or partner wants me to have an abortion” as one of the reasons that “contributed to their decision to have an abortion.” Eight percent in 1987 and 6 percent in 2004 listed “parents want me to have an abortion” as a contributing factor.

‘Flawed research’ and ‘misinformation’  

Busby said that White used “flawed research” to lobby for legislation aimed at preventing coerced abortions in Texas.

“Since she filed her bogus coerced abortion bill—which did not pass—last year, she has repeatedly cited flawed research and now is partnering with the Justice Foundation, an organization known to disseminate misinformation and shameful materials to crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said.  

White sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills during the 2015 legislative session, including several anti-choice bills. The bills she sponsored included proposals to increase requirements for abortion clinics, restrict minors’ access to abortion care, and ban health insurance coverage of abortion services.

White also sponsored HB 1648, which would have required a law enforcement officer to notify the Department of Family and Protective Services if they received information indicating that a person has coerced, forced, or attempted to coerce a pregnant minor to have or seek abortion care.

The bill was met by skepticism by both Republican lawmakers and anti-choice activists.

State affairs committee chairman Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) told White during a committee hearing the bill needed to be revised, reported the Texas Tribune.

“This committee has passed out a number of landmark pieces of legislation in this area, and the one thing I think we’ve learned is they have to be extremely well-crafted,” Cook said. “My suggestion is that you get some real legal folks to help engage on this, so if you can keep this moving forward you can potentially have the success others have had.”

‘Very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem’

White testified before the state affairs committee that there is a connection between women who are victims of domestic or sexual violence and women who are coerced to have an abortion. “Pregnant women are most frequently victims of domestic violence,” White said. “Their partners often threaten violence and abuse if the woman continues her pregnancy.”

There is research that suggests a connection between coerced abortion and domestic and sexual violence.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, told the American Independent that coerced abortion cannot be removed from the discussion of reproductive coercion.

“Coerced abortion is a very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem, which is violence against women and the impact it has on her health,” Miller said. “To focus on the minutia of coerced abortion really takes away from the really broad problem of domestic violence.”

A 2010 study co-authored by Miller surveyed about 1,300 men and found that 33 percent reported having been involved in a pregnancy that ended in abortion; 8 percent reported having at one point sought to prevent a female partner from seeking abortion care; and 4 percent reported having “sought to compel” a female partner to seek an abortion.

Another study co-authored by Miller in 2010 found that among the 1,300 young women surveyed at reproductive health clinics in Northern California, about one in five said they had experienced pregnancy coercion; 15 percent of the survey respondents said they had experienced birth control sabotage.

‘Tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion’

TJF’s so-called Center Against Forced Abortions claims to provide legal resources to pregnant people who are being forced or coerced into terminating a pregnancy. The website includes several documents available as “resources.”

One of the documents, a letter addressed to “father of your child in the womb,” states that that “you may not force, coerce, or unduly pressure the mother of your child in the womb to have an abortion,” and that you could face “criminal charge of fetal homicide.”

The letter states that any attempt to “force, unduly pressure, or coerce” a women to have an abortion could be subject to civil and criminal charges, including prosecution under the Federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

The document cites the 2007 case Lawrence v. State as an example of how one could be prosecuted under Texas law.

“What anti-choice activists are doing here is really egregious,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire’s vice president of Law and the Courts. “They are using a case where a man intentionally shot his pregnant girlfriend and was charged with murder for both her death and the death of the fetus as an example of reproductive coercion. That’s not reproductive coercion. That is extreme domestic violence.”

“To use a horrific case of domestic violence that resulted in a woman’s murder as cover for yet another anti-abortion restriction is the very definition of callousness,” Mason Pieklo added.

Among the other resources that TJF provides is a document produced by Life Dynamics, a prominent anti-choice organization based in Denton, Texas.

Parker said a patient might go to a “pregnancy resource center,” fill out the document, and staff will “send that to all the abortionists in the area that they can find out about. Often that will stop an abortion. That’s about 98 percent successful, I would say.”

Reproductive rights advocates contend that the document is intended to mislead pregnant people into believing they have signed away their legal rights to abortion care.

Abortion providers around the country who are familiar with the document said it has been used for years to deceive and intimidate patients and providers by threatening them with legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing an abortion.

Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, previously told Rewire that abortion providers from across the country have reported receiving the forms.

“It’s just another tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion—tricking women into thinking they have signed this and discouraging them from going through with their initial decision and inclination,” Saporta said.

Busby said that the types of tactics used by TFJ and other anti-choice organizations are a form of coercion.

“Everyone deserves to make decisions about abortion free of coercion, including not being coerced by crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said. “Anyone’s decision to have an abortion should be free of shame and stigma, which crisis pregnancy centers and groups like the Justice Foundation perpetuate.”

“Law enforcement would be well advised to seek their own legal advice, rather than rely on this so-called ‘training,” Busby said.