Commentary Sexual Health

Why on Earth Did the Las Vegas Police Department Sponsor an Event on Premarital Sex?

Martha Kempner

A presentation that took place this past weekend in Las Vegas may represent the all-time worst use of fear to promote chastity. It told its audience in no uncertain terms that premarital sex will lead to prostitution, sex trafficking, drug abuse, and death.

I’ve been tracking the abstinence-only-until-marriage movement since the late ’90s and have gotten very used to reports of events—held at schools, churches, and community centers—that use fear and shame to promote premarital abstinence. Last year, for example, I covered for Rewire a presentation during which national abstinence speaker Pam Stenzel made young women cry with messages her audience described as “slut shaming.” Then there’s “edu-comic” Keith Deltano who tells students that condoms fail 10 percent of the time, just before dangling a cinderblock over the genitals of a male student and yelling, “Is 10 percent good enough? Is it good enough??”

Plus, who could forget abstinence-only clown—sorry, “comedic juggler”—Derek Dye, who tells kids during his juggling routine, “Sex before marriage will destroy all of your life’s dreams!” and “Having sex before you’re married is just like juggling machetes!”

And yet, I do believe that a presentation that took place this past weekend in Las Vegas may be the all-time worst use of fear to promote chastity. Choose Purity, an event co-sponsored by the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, gave 125 students and parents a clear message: premarital sex will lead to prostitution, sex trafficking, drug abuse, and death.

According to the Las Vegas Sun, the event was the brainchild of Officer Regina Coward, president of the Nevada Black Police Association. Coward had been asked by her church to support a community event that spread an abstinence-only message, but the event, which was sponsored by the police department and held at a community center, did not seem to be religious in nature. Instead, Coward invited a local educational theater troupe to present the Toe Tag Monologues. The troupe’s website describes their productions as presenting “real life and death situations that our children face daily, such as; school violence, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, drunk driving, gang violence, teen suicide, bullying, snitching, teen prostitution, domestic violence, self esteem and the result of making bad personal choices.”

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At the event, the audience watched recordings of real-life pimps and prostitutes and saw pictures of the consequences of drug use, including “a woman who’d lost limbs in a methamphetamine lab explosion and a man who’d had his face partially gnawed off by a meth user.” Then the live show started. The Sun’s Bethany Barnes described it this way:

Wide-eyed youngsters watched as two girls gave dramatic performances told from the perspective of one girl who had died after abusing diet pills and one who had died after contracting a sexually transmitted disease as a prostitute. The monologues concluded with each girl getting on a gurney and into a body bag.

Oddly, this seems similar to an anti-drug assembly that I remember attending in fifth or sixth grade. In it, an actress described going crazy after taking something (probably acid, because no one talked about meth in the ’80s) and gouging her eyes out with knitting needles because she thought there were bugs behind them. I suppose it was an effective presentation if I still can picture it this many years later. But there is a huge difference between what I saw and what young kids were exposed to at the Las Vegas event: no one told me that having premarital sex would set me on the path to eye-gouging.

That was not only the message of Choose Purityit was the intention. Barnes writes:

When asked whether she’d recruited the “Toe Tag Monologues” to perform to send the message that engaging in premarital sex meant risking death, Coward said, “Yeah, because that’s what’s happening.”

Not everyone involved in the presentation took the purity angle. The director of the Southern Nevada Human Trafficking Task Force said her speech wasn’t about purity, but she did want to use the opportunity to talk about trafficking. Toshia Shaw, the founder of a mentoring group called Purple WINGS, says her organization goes beyond abstinence in its sex education messages but thought that the event was a good opportunity because the kids who attended were young enough to choose abstinence and the event could support that choice. The event also included Adrienne Henry, Ms./Mrs. Nevada U.S. Continental, who let girls try on her crown “to help them feel empowered.”

So let me see if I can make sense of the multitude of messages here: Premarital sex will make you promiscuous. Promiscuity will turn you into a sex worker. Prostitution will make you turn to drugs. Drugs will kill you. But don’t worry because purity, beauty, and a nice tiara will empower you to keep your legs crossed and that will fix everything. Right, got it.

Laura Deitsch, a former health educator who attended the event, called it a “hodgepodge of unrelated fear mongering.” She told the Sun, “Drugs are real; sex trafficking is real. I don’t know what is real about linking purity with those things.”

I would have to agree. Moreover, lumping these issues together with sex is problematic because of how very different they are. Most parents probably don’t hope that their kids will use drugs or become sex workers, but most parents do agree that someday they’d like to see their kids grow up and have a healthy sex life, even if they want that day to be after marriage.

I’m not a fan of the abstinence-only-until-marriage message to begin with—it does not represent a universal value in a country in which about 95 percent of people have sex before marriage; it is not realistic in an era in which the average age of first intercourse is around 17 and the average age of first marriage is upwards of 26 for both men and women; it doesn’t do anything to help young people delay sexual behavior or protect themselves from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections when they do have sex; and it sets up a dichotomy between “good kids” who abstain and the “bad” sexually active ones. But add in the images of severed limbs and body bags, the presence of policemen with guns, and the idea that sex caused all of this, and I think you can do a lot of damage to a young person’s understanding of sexuality.

Commentary Sexuality

Busywork to Keep Teens From ‘Getting Busy’: High School Students Asked to Sign an Abstinence Contract

Martha Kempner

One Utah program makes students choose to promise to uphold several flawed statements on abstinence. I would love to believe that the students would be brave enough to challenge what’s written on the page, but just in case, I decided to explain why some of the most outrageous statements just don't make sense.

A picture of an abstinence-only-until-marriage workbook distributed in a Utah high school is making the rounds on social media, thanks to PopSugar. As the apparent homework for students on Day 12 of a so-called sex education program, the assignment asked them to choose their top five (or more) reasons to remain abstinent out of a list of 28. Students were then told to write those reasons neatly on the next page and sign it as a “contract.”

There are many reasons that I hate this activity, including how closely it resembles virginity pledges—which, though they don’t often go through the same trouble of outlining reasons for abstinence, we all know don’t work. Research has shown that 88 percent of young people who take those pledges end up having sex before their wedding night. And worse, according to those studies, once pledgers become sexually active, they are one-third less likely to use contraception than their non-pledging peers.

What upsets me the most, however, is the degree to which young people are supposed to accept the premise of the 28 so-called justifications for abstinence without question. If they were allowed to think critically about what they are being asked to sign, they might notice that the statements are based on the assumption that all premarital relationships are unhealthy, morally wrong, and overwhelmingly likely to lead to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or unintended pregnancy. The statements are also based on the flawed idea that abstinence until marriage would be the only way to fulfill the promises they’re putting in the contract.

I would love to believe that the students in these classes would be brave enough to challenge much of what’s written on the page but just in case, I decided to explain why some of the most outrageous statements just don’t make sense. Maybe my arguments can help other kids faced with homework like this challenge assumptions or, even better, help adults realize why this kind of program does not meet the needs of students.

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#1. I refuse to use others for my physical needs.
#2. I refuse to be used by someone else to satisfy his/her physical needs.
I suppose we can give the authors credit for acknowledging that teens have physical needs, but they lose those points for assuming that all teenage sexual relationships involve using each other purely for physical intimacy. Sure, some teens enter into unhealthy relationships in which one person is being used, but this is true of adults as well. Teens can and do have sexual relationships that are based on mutual love, trust, and respect. And some of these relationships include mutually pleasurable sexual experiences. Instead of assuming such relationships can’t exist, we should be teaching teens what is and isn’t healthy, and why mutual consent and pleasure is important. This understanding is critical even for teens who decide to stay abstinent in high school or until they get married, because they’ll need it in adult relationships as well.

#3. I refuse to risk getting pregnant or a girl pregnant.
Awkward phrasing aside, this is a good risk to avoid. But while abstinence is the surest way to ensure that no one gets pregnant, there are other ways to do so. Condoms, if used consistently and correctly, are 98 percent effective in preventing pregnancy. Yes, some teens use them wrong, but the most common mistake is leaving it in their purse or night table drawer. Teaching teens the importance of consistent condom use could allow them to keep this piece of their promise even if they end up having sex before marriage, which the majority of Americans do. Or, we could teach about (and give them access to) contraceptive implants and IUDs, which are over 99 percent effective without any effort on the part of the user and last for at least three years. These methods are a near-guarantee that teens will keep the promise of avoiding pregnancy whether or not they choose abstinence.

#6. I refuse to live through the trauma of an abortion.
First, we have to question the premise that abortion is traumatic. A recent study of women who’d had abortions found that 95 percent believed they’d made the right decision. Moreover, the most common emotion of the women after their abortion was relief. The study found no evidence that “post-abortion trauma syndrome”—a scare tactic frequently used by crisis pregnancy centers—exists. But #6 is flawed for another reason as well: It assumes, again, that sex before marriage is going to end in pregnancy. As I just discussed, a teen can refuse to live through abortion and can do so by using a highly effective form of birth control.

#12. I refuse to lose my self-respect.
This one really galls me because it goes back to the dichotomy set up by many abstinence-only curricula that says teens who are abstinent are model citizens and teens who have sex lack character, dignity, and self-respect. Abstinence programs have compared teens who have already had sex to things like used tape, to a cup full of spit, a mushed-up Peppermint Patty, chewed pieces of gum, or a rose with no petals. A person’s value is not wrapped up in their virginity. And teens who have had sex should know that they are no less valuable than any of their peers.

#16. I refuse to disrespect other’s physical boundaries/limitations.
This is a great promise that all teens should make. It is the basis of a lesson on consent. Teens need to learn that everyone has the right to make their own choices when it comes to sexual activity and they must respect those choices. Such a lesson, however, has little to do with staying abstinent until marriage. It’s about respecting an individual’s own boundaries, whatever they may be. So if your partner doesn’t want to have sex until marriage, then yes, you have to abide by that decision. But it’s equally important to abide by their decision if they tell you they don’t want to have sex until, say, next Thursday.

#18. I refuse to enter into marriage with unnecessary baggage from past relationships.
Abstinence-only curricula often focus on the idea that all sexual relationships outside of marriage leave memories and scars that will haunt you forever. You may lose your ability to bond (again, think about the tape game) or you may have flashbacks of prior partners during sex with your spouse. The average adult between the ages of 30 and 44, however, has had between four and eight opposite-sex sexual partners. Although I can’t tell you what images were going through their heads the last time they made love to their husband or wife, many seem to manage marriage without daily PTSD flashbacks of the ones who came before. While some people might consider past relationships as baggage, others see them as opportunities to learn the communication, negotiation, and emotional skills needed to be a good life partner.

Though this assignment might seem extreme, it is actually the kind of thing kids have been made to do in abstinence-only programs for years. Making young people blindly adopt tenets like these and then promise to follow them for years is not going to help them learn to protect themselves against STIs, pregnancy, or even heartache. Nor is it going to help them develop the critical thinking skills they need to make responsible sexual and relationship decisions as they mature. Good programs aim to educate young people rather than indoctrinate them. These teens would be much better off with one that let them think for themselves and question the basic premise that all sex before marriage is wrong.

This contract, as they say, isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

Commentary Sexual Health

When It Comes to Abstinence-Only Education Battles, Let’s Fight Anecdotes With Anecdotes

Amanda Marcotte

It is tempting to laugh at Texas Rep. Stuart Spitzer, whose argument for abstinence-only education for everyone was that waiting until marriage worked for him. But the cold fact of the matter is that anecdote is often more persuasive than data.

Abstinence-only education is an idea that seems like it will never die. It’s been discredited, disproved, poll-tested, and laughed at for years, but Christian conservatives just keep dusting the asinine idea off and presenting it like it’s not 15 kinds of idiotic. The most recent example, as reported by Rewire’s Andrea Grimes, comes to us by way of Texas, where state house Republicans have decided to divert $3 million from a program to prevent HIV infections to a program telling teenagers to wait until they are married to have sex, a choice that more than 95 percent of them will reject.

It is tedious debunking the fantasy of abstinence-only education over and over again, but at least this time there was some entertainment offered alongside the usual tedious prudery spilling out from Texas Republicans. State Rep. Stuart Spitzer told the legislature that his goal is “for everybody to be abstinent until they’re married.” His justification: “What’s good for me is good for a lot of people.”

This created chaos, of course, when Democrats pointed out that he needed to prove that it was good for him instead of just asserting it. But what struck me about the comment, beyond how hilariously stupid it was, was that it perfectly encapsulates why exactly it’s so hard to kill this abstinence-only ideology off completely: Because the argument that it could work somehow gets confused with the idea that it will work or even that it should work.

Because the most obvious, repeated, well-sourced objection to abstinence-only education is that it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work when it comes to its ostensible goal of persuading people to wait until marriage. It doesn’t even work to scare teenagers off sex until they’re a little older. It seems to backfire when it comes to teen pregnancy rates and STI transmission rates—which is why it’s so devastating when funds are diverted from effective, comprehensive prevention or education programs to these abstinence-only failures. When you look over the data, abstinence-only is the equivalent of trying to kick a soccer ball but instead falling directly on your ass.

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The problem is that anecdotes are often more persuasive than data. Research shows that this is true when people are considering tragic events too: We feel worse reading about a single person’s suffering than reading a statistic that says it happens to thousands. But it’s also true where less traumatic issues are concerned. Personal accounts powerfully shape what we think is possible or even desirable, even in the face of massive amounts of evidence showing that they aren’t telling the full story.

In this way, people who are in a small minority can distort the narrative, distracting others from the numbers and convincing them to treat an outlier experience like it’s not just normal but normative. Think of anti-vaccination folks, for example. They have seen the data showing inoculations are not dangerous. But they heard a story about someone who thinks their own kid’s autism might be related to the vaccine. The latter has more persuasive power in a lot of cases, enough to bring back the measles when we thought we had it licked.

So while Spitzer sounds like a total idiot to pro-choicers, his kind of rhetoric is sneakily effective. To all your data showing abstinence-only education doesn’t work, he replies with a story—one you can’t refute without accusing him of being a liar—of a man who did wait to have sex until marriage, thus showing that it’s possible to do so. And it’s this possibility that persuasively captures the imagination, particularly of people who are easily caught up in the romantic spin anti-choicers put on the idea of abstinence before matrimony.

Data has a hard time competing with anecdote. You can say that the data shows that telling people to wait doesn’t work, but all a man like Spitzer has to do is say that it worked for him. In reality, no one opposing abstinence-only education was saying that it’s impossible to wait for marriage—just that in the aggregate, people will not make that choice, no matter what you tell them. But most people don’t think in aggregate. The choice to have sex, in particular, is an individual one, and so it’s really hard not to think of it on a case-by-case basis.

This isn’t just the case when it comes to convincing ordinary citizens to agree with faulty logic, for that matter. This kind of distortion affects the decision-making of people in power—beyond the Republicans who are passing this kind of legislation. Consider how Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his decision for Gonzales v. Carhart, completely ignored the overwhelming data showing “abortion regret” is not generally a real thing, instead zeroing in on the few individuals the anti-choice team was able to dig up. A couple of well-rehearsed stories about “abortion regret” trumped the experiences of millions of women who are glad they had access to abortion care.

All of which is why I think that the best way to kill off abstinence-only education—and similar movements trying to ban abortion and restrict contraception—is to really embrace the power of the anecdote. Conservatives like Spitzer want to suggest that abstaining worked for them, so it should work for everyone. And while we, as pro-choicers, are never going to buy into the conformist mentality that everyone should be the same all the time, there’s a lot of value in telling our stories about why premarital sex, in all its messy but wonderful diversity, worked for us and therefore should be treated like a legitimate choice that deserves to be included in sex education. Data certainly shouldn’t be disregarded, but when data isn’t working, meet anecdote with anecdote. They’ll run out long before we do, since almost no one actually waits until marriage for sex, statistically speaking. Seriously, people are probably more likely to hate ice cream than wait for marriage. (In my heart, I’ll always be a data nerd, I guess.)

So with that, my story: I didn’t wait for marriage, and thank goodness, as I never want to get married, which means I would have had to wait forever. My first boyfriend will be annoyed to read this, but if anything, I waited too long out of a misplaced fear that it was going to be a bigger deal than it was. As I immediately learned, sex is really fun and not all that dangerous if you take very basic precautions that can easily be learned through comprehensive sex education. (Which I didn’t get in school, but I’m a reader, so I learned.) If I had been snookered by abstinence-only education and tried to wait until marriage, my life could be full of regret and misery. Not only would I have missed out on some of the fondest memories of my youth, I probably would have gotten married young out of obligation. And then gotten divorced, because I was so not ready to make that kind of lifelong commitment in my early 20s.

Or, if I had attempted to hold off, I probably would have had sex anyway in the heat of the moment like most abstinence-vowers do. But I wouldn’t have used protection, because I likely wouldn’t have been as willing to prepare for this possibility as someone who is unashamed about having sex would be.

However, because I unapologetically and gleefully had—and I guess continue to have—sex outside of the bounds of holy matrimony, my life has been more fun, more adventurous, and way more fulfilling than I imagine it would have been for me personally. And abstinence-only feels like it’s trying to steal the opportunity to make that choice from our youth, which is the main reason I oppose it.

That, and the data says it doesn’t work anyway.