Commentary Sexual Health

Abstinence-Only Speaker Makes Kids Cry—Then Fight Back

Martha Kempner

Abstinence-only-until-marriage speaker Pam Stenzel presented her message of shame to the wrong students last week. Many are complaining that her speech was "slut-shaming" and at least one is filing a complaint with the ACLU.

Pam Stenzel, a speaker on the national abstinence-only-until-marriage circuit, was out in full force in West Virginia last week telling students at George Washington High School that sex outside of marriage is bad and that anyone who has had sex outside of marriage is similarly bad. She allegedly told students that if they were on the birth control pill “their mother probably hated them” and that she could look any one of them in the eyes and tell whether they were going to be promiscuous. While people like me have been complaining about Stenzel’s messages for years, she has a new foe now: her audience.

Katelyn Campbell, a student who attended the recent presentation, told the West Virginia Gazette that she is planning on filing a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) because Stenzel’s fear-based and inaccurate presentation amounted to “slut-shaming.” Campbell explained, “Many students felt uncomfortable with her outright condemnation of any and everyone who has ever had premarital sexual contact.”

A male student, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Gazette, “While her intentions may have been good, her tone was very loud, like she was shaming everyone in the audience. She was making girls cry. There were pregnant girls in the audience and she was implying, if you had sex, you’re not an OK person. The only reason I am standing up against it is so other schools in West Virginia don’t have to hear this.”

Other students took to social media to condemn what they had just heard, with one saying, “She doesn’t like you if you’re not a virgin. I hope people are calling in about the sex ed speaker this morning. Shaming girls for having sex isn’t teaching abstinence.”

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Stenzel’s Modus Operandi

Unfortunately, this is nothing new for Stenzel, who has been shaming teenagers across the country since before these students were born, and getting paid a pretty penny to do so. (Her presentations cost between $4,000 and $6,000, according to the Gazette, though reportedly no school funds were used to pay for her recent appearance at George Washington High School.)

In my old job running the Community Advocacy Project for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), I had the task of tracking speakers like Stenzel who would go into schools a provide “sex education” in the form of motivational speeches and even comedy routines that seemingly without fail contained the abstinence-only-until-marriage program trifecta: inaccurate information, fear, and shame. Stenzel was always most heavy on the shame.

Stenzel is a graduate of the Jerry Falwell-founded Liberty University and spent her early career as a counselor at crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), organizations that claim to help women facing unintended pregnancies make the best choice but then do almost anything to convince them not to have an abortion. In her promotional material, she claims that while at the CPCs she saw too many women who did not think about the consequences of their actions so she dedicated her life to helping them think about them ahead of time.

I’ve never seen Stenzel speak in person, but I’m aware of her performance thanks to a 2007 video she created called Sex Still Has a Price Tag, which is a follow-up to her earlier video and road show, The Price Tag of Sex. The video was filmed in front of a live audience of teenagers; in 2007, Stenzel was going around the country with a presentation of the same name. According to her website, she now has new videos called The High Cost of Free Love and Take a Look in the Mirror, among others. Though she may have updated her material a bit, based on the reports from students in West Virginia, she appears to be the same old Stenzel. (The quotes that follow are from the review I did for SIECUS as well as a speech I gave on Capitol Hill about a number of abstinence-only speakers, Stenzel included.  You can read the full review here but the speech is not available online.)

She Yells, A Lot

Stenzel’s style comes off like a cross between a tent-show evangelist and a stand-up comic. As I wrote in my review for SIECUS, “She uses a preacher’s cadence and often yells at her audience in attempts to emphasize her points.” When she’s not yelling, she is talking in patronizing or condescending tones, and she frequently adopts a high-pitched, whiny voice to imitate what teenage girls might be thinking or saying.

While she tells students nicely in the beginning that she didn’t come here to make decisions for them, but rather to give them the benefit of her experience, her tone quickly goes from “kind friend” to “pissed-off parent.” And her message is simple: “No one has ever had sex with more than one partner and not paid.”

Early on Stenzel tells her audience this: “If you forget everything else I told you today, and you can only remember one thing, this is what I want you to hear. If you have sex outside of one permanent monogamous—and monogamy does not mean one at a time, that means one partner who has only been with you—if you have sex outside of that context, you will pay.”

For a 16-year-old in the audience who might challenge her absolutism, perhaps knowing friends who have had sex and did not in fact come out of the experience with a sexually transmitted disease (STD), a pregnancy, or emotional scars, Stenzel is ready with one of the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry’s favorite tropes: gun imagery. She warns: “Who’s to say the next time you decide to put this gun to your head it doesn’t go off?”

Virginity is Very Important

As the students who saw her last week noted, it becomes increasingly clear during her presentation that Stenzel doesn’t like teenagers who are no longer virgins. The essence of her slut-shaming is as simple as this: Virgins are good people and non-virgins are not.

She claims that numerous boys have told her they plan to “fool around and sleep with every girl who’s stupid enough to sleep with me but when I get married then I don’t want that girl—who has slept with half the football team—then I want a virgin.” Her response to these foolish young men: “Why would a virgin want you?”

My favorite story of hers, however, comes when Stenzel tells of the 6’8” basketball player who ran up to her after one of her speeches to tell her that he was virgin. He complained that his teammates often teased him about his choice. “I said young man, the next time your friends start to tease you because you’re saving yourself for your wife I want you to look at your friends and I want you to say this: Any day, tonight, I could choose to be like you, but you will never again be like me.”

That’s right—once you give away that virginity you are damaged goods.

Oh, and in case there was any confusion as to what counts as being a virgin and what doesn’t, for Stenzel you lose the right to call yourself a virgin if you have had any genital contact. She refers to genital contact as “the medical line over which you cannot step, and if you have stepped over this line, you’ve risked disease, you’ve risked disease, and you need to get tested and don’t you dare tell anyone you’re a virgin. Don’t you dare.”

STDs Are Going Kill You

Stenzel is not alone in telling young people that HIV is a deadly disease; with each passing year and medical advancement this becomes increasingly less true, but HIV is still scary. To remind her audience of this, Stenzel says, “And then there is HIV. We won’t spend time on it. It’s the virus that causes AIDS. It’s deadly. You don’t want it. Equal opportunity virus, hurting boys and girls the same. Death is death.”

In Stenzel’s world, other STDs are going to kill you as well, but first they’ll make you infertile: “Ladies, you contract Chlamydia one time in your life, cure it or not, and there is about a 25 percent chance that you will be sterile for the rest of your life.”

Not quite. If treated promptly, chlamydia will not affect a woman’s fertility. Chlamydia becomes a bigger problem when it is left untreated and leads to pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptomatic PID occurs in only about 10 to 15 percent of women with untreated chlamydia, and infertility occurs in only about 10 to 15 percent of women who get PID.

According to Stenzel, infertility is also a common outcome of human papillomavirus (HPV) infection. To illustrate this, Stenzel provides this hypothetical story about an audience member: “You’ve found this girl you love. I mean this is it, all those other girls, they were just messing around. This is the real thing. Pull out that diamond, look her in the eyes, if you’re really cool guys you get on your knees, you say marry me—by the way, I’ve got genital warts, you’ll get it too, and we’ll both be treated for the rest of our lives, in fact you’ll probably end up with a radical hysterectomy, cervical cancer, and possibly death, but marry me.”

While I have to applaud her delivery, which made me laugh, this story plays fast and loose with the truth. HPV is ubiquitous; according to the CDC about 79 million people in the United States have it, and about 14 million contract it each year. Most people’s bodies will clear the virus without any permanent damage. Of these, about 12,000 women each year will develop cervical cancer. For women who are infected with the strains of HPV that cause cervical cancer, it takes 10 to 15 years for this type of cancer to develop, and with regular screening pre-cancerous changes to the cervix can be caught and treated before cancer ever develops.

If You Don’t Die, You Will Be Punished

Stenzel also likes to focus on the ways in which society is going to punish bad sexually active teenagers for their behavior. In one fascinating diatribe, she addresses all the male audience members as potential deadbeat teen fathers and says this: “The laws have all changed. Boys, I don’t care if your older brother, some uncle, or a cousin got away with this, it’s not happening to you. … We are now requiring in all 50 states the Social Security number of both parents on every birth certificate for every baby born in this nation.”

Then, she makes fun of an 8th grader who was so “cute” because he thought the government collected this information so the baby could know who his father is when he grows up. So naive, she laughs: “Money is what we are after and it’s going to cost you. … Let me make it clear, this is not a bill the state’s going to politely ask you to pay. We’re not collecting. It’s coming out of your pay check taken out by your employer before you ever see it.”

Yep, Pam Stenzel will personally hunt down any dead-beat teen dads and garnish their wages. The only problem is she is totally wrong about the law here. As I reported for SIECUS, women are never required to reveal paternity or provide the father’s Social Security number. In truth, unmarried fathers may have a hard time getting their names onto their child’s birth certificate.

Laws about birth certificates vary from state to state, but the CDC has developed the U.S. Standard Certificate of Live Birth, a model birth certificate. According to the CDC, if the parents are not married, both parents need to sign a paternity acknowledgement form before any information about the father can be included on the birth certificate. States across the country adhere to similar rules. For example, Vermont law states that “[i]f the mother does not wish to identify the baby’s father, she is not required to do so. If the parents are not married, no record of the father will be entered until both parents complete a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage, or a court or agency has established paternity. The form must be signed and both signatures witnessed.” Similarly, Arizona law “requires that if a mother is not married at the time a child is born and has not been married any time during the preceding 10 months, no father will be named on the birth certificate unless both parents file sworn statements or unless so ordered by a court of competent jurisdiction.”

Emotional Anti-Abortion Plea

Stenzel’s tone changes from “disciplinarian” to “sad-but-knowing aunt” when she starts to talk about the options young women have if they find themselves pregnant before they are married: “I have had to tell a lot of young girls that their test was positive. Immediately they want an easy painless way out of this pregnancy they didn’t plan, and I have to look at this little girl and say, guess what sweetheart, your choices at this point are bad, terrible, and even worse. You had a good choice; that was before you had sex. Now all the choices you have are going to carry life-long consequences.”

It turns out that this is a very personal issue for Stenzel, who gives her audience an emotional explanation of how her biological mother was 15 when she got pregnant as a result of rape. She says, “I have not met my birth mom. Some day I hope to. And if someday I get that chance, I’m going to wrap my arms around her and I’m going to tell her I love her because she loved me enough to give me my life, and she loved me enough to give me the next most special gift I was ever given, and that’s my family.”

She continues, “My biological father is a rapist. I don’t even know my ethnicity. But my life isn’t worth any less than any of yours just because of the way I was conceived. And I did not deserve the death penalty because of the crime of my father.”

While she, like everyone else, is certainly entitled to her own opinion about whether she would ever have an abortion, this presentation is emotionally manipulative and unfair. There is something about screaming at teenagers for the better part of an hour and then asking them to agree with you out of sympathy that seems almost abusive to me.

High School Administrators Not Swayed

I can’t promise that Stenzel said exactly any of these things last week in West Virginia. She may have updated her presentation. But I find it highly unlikely that she’s change her tone much in the last few years, given what the students who sat through her presentation describe. Unfortunately, their complaints seem to be falling on deaf ears.

It’s important to remember that unlike curricula, which often have to go through a long review process including educators, committees, and ultimately a school board, speakers can be invited into a school at the discretion of the principal or one teacher. In the heyday of the abstinence-only-until-marriage movement, these presentations were often free to schools because a community-based organization or CPC would have a federal grant to sponsor such speakers.

At George Washington High School, Stenzel’s appearance was reportedly paid for with unspecified private donations.

District administrators do not seem to be nearly as upset about the talk as their students. Principal George Aulenbacher told the Gazette that he watched most of the presentation and didn’t hear anything out-of-line: “Anytime you talk about sex with any teen student, it can be uncomfortable. The only way to guarantee safety is abstinence. Sometimes, that can be a touchy topic, but I was not offended by her. The intent was to educate and talk to kids about making good decisions.”

I can’t imagine sitting through Stenzel’s presentation and not being offended. Within two minutes of the start of the Price Tag of Sex video, I was throwing things at the screen. It’s not OK to assume teenagers are going to behave badly and alternate between yelling at them and talking to them like they’re morons. It’s not OK to give them misinformation. It’s not OK to lie to them. It’s not OK to manipulate them. And it’s not OK to make them feel bad about themselves or convince them to look down on their peers.

Given the administration’s lack of a reaction, it will be interesting to see if the students’ complaints have any legs and if the ACLU can help them. Though Stenzel comes from a religious background and her talks have religious undertones, she offers two versions of her speeches: a secular version for public schools and another one for parochial schools. The student who is filing a complaint with the ACLU acknowledged that Stenzel did not include any overtly religious messages in her speech, which may limit the ACLU’s power to get involved.

Still, it is heartening to know that there is a new generation of kids out there who are not willing to sit back and take Stenzel’s abuse. Now all we have to do is get the adults to wise up as well.

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