In the late culture war era, communities are sometimes riven by fierce and needless debates. This month my hometown of Lititz, Pennsylvania has become a case-in-point. The town is divided because the Warwick School District–my alma mater–is paying more than $3500 in taxpayer money to host a series of student assemblies with conservative firebrand Pam Stenzel. Nationally recognized for her advocacy of “abstinence-only” sex education, Stenzel has a reputation for making intemperate and unsubstantiated claims.
Profiling her last year for The Daily Beast, Michelle Goldberg writes:
It’s always nice when Pam Stenzel is in the news, because no one does more to highlight the insane state of American sex education. If you’ve been following the story of her latest exploits, you know that the abstinence educator spoke last week at George Washington High School in Charleston, West Virginia, where she reportedly told students, “If you take birth control, your mother probably hates you,” and “I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous.”
Covering that same visit for the Charleston Gazette, Mackenzie Mays observes:
In her YouTube videos, Stenzel says birth control makes a woman “10 times more likely to contract a disease . . . or end up sterile or dead.” Many of the videos warn of sexually transmitted diseases and also say, “Sex could damage you for the rest of your life.” Sex also could lead to “scarred fallopian tubes and cancer . . . and you need to ask Jesus for forgiveness.”
In addition, Stenzel points to anorexia, bulimia and “cutting” as after-effects of abortion.
Elsewhere she warns, “No one has ever had more than one (sexual) partner and not paid.”
Based on reports like these, many parents have been critical of the Warwick School Board’s decision to hire Stenzel–and understandably so. Pressed for an explanation, the administration cited “an increase in the number of students who share concerns related to the pressures of dating and sex,” though it did not explain how that increase has been measured.
An editorial from Lancaster Newspapers–hardly an exemplar of liberal media–criticized the district for “wasting” taxpayer money, adding, “Educators should educate, not terrify, not least because studies have shown that scaring teenagers generally doesn’t work.”
Studies have also shown that comprehensive sex education does work, a fact that apparently does not matter to Stenzal. Goldberg notes that, “in 2003, Stenzel gave a speech to a fundamentalist conference called “Reclaiming America for Christ,” in which she rejected the idea that abstinence education should be judged by its effectiveness. ‘People of God,’ she cried, ‘can I beg you, to commit yourself to truth, not what works … I don’t care if it works, because at the end of the day I’m not answering to you, I’m answering to God!’”
During a recent public forum to discuss the controversy, one concerned parent took issue with Stenzel’s method, arguing that she “distorts, exaggerates and manipulates facts to make her case.”
By contrast, a Stenzel supporter stated, “Although we all honor the separation of education and religion, in this public context, the fact remains that there is a difference between right and wrong, between good and evil.”
A survey of the comment threads following the LNP articles suggests that this pair of comments generally represents the discussion in town. Supporters argue that Stenzel’s tactics are excusable because her message is moral. Critics point out that her claims are often either embellished or untrue, tantamount to lies.
For their part, the district administration must have at least suspected that this was a bad idea. They’ve made excuse cards available to parents, providing them with the option to keep their kids at home during Stenzel’s visit. Generally speaking, educational institutions don’t do this when contracting with actual educators.
Having spent some time thinking about this controversy–and reading not a few Facebook posts about it–I admit to some ambivalence. I think it is possible to overstate the threat posed by the Pam Stenzels of the world, and to understate the acuity of teenage intuition. I suspect these assemblies may well come and go without doing any lasting damage to the young audiences who endure them.
But that certainly doesn’t mean that Warwick’s decision was wise. As far as educational standards go, “no lasting damage” sets the bar impressively low. Even if Stenzel’s ranting is mercifully ineffective, her endorsement by this district–and the divisiveness it prompted–will undoubtedly leave the community just a little weaker than it was before.
Culture war discourse is usually defended on grounds that people feel passionately about certain issues. Rhetorical “warfare” is necessary, we’re told, because the stakes are high and tensions follow. But often it seems that the issues are upstaged by the culture war frame itself. We feel passionately, first, about defending our “side,” and the facts of the matter are secondary at best.
In this case, Pam Stenzel’s defenders in Lititz seem to believe that the ends justify the means, that a commitment to Christian truth excuses the telling of some pretty egregious lies. It’s an odd position to take. I’d suggest that, with apologies to Stenzel, no one has ever believed this and not paid.