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 t
he 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 Purity—it 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.