Visit From Conservative Sex Educator Divides a Town

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.


  •' Craptacular says:

    “…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!” -Pam Stenzel

    So maybe you can get your god to pay you and stay away from taxpayer monies, because we demand results. You know, the statistically measurable kind.

    “Supporters argue that Stenzel’s tactics are excusable because her message is moral.”: -from the article

    So it is ok to be immoral, as long as you are supporting a moral message. Was this one of jesus’ teachings? Something from the sermon on the mount? “Blessed are the immoral, as long as they support a moral message.” I must have missed that one.

  •' DKeane123 says:

    “will undoubtedly leave the community just a little weaker than it was before.” And Poorer. What about the lesson that you can get up on stage and say any old nonsense and no one will hold you accountable? Or do they already learn that lesson from Cable News?

  •' ecm192 says:

    I just remembered – too late – about Christine Gardner’s “Making Chastity Sexy: The Rhetoric of Evangelical Abstinence Campaigns.” In it, Gardner points out that people used to advocate chastity because it was Biblical, full-stop. You should be chaste because God said so, and that’s all you need to worry about. These days, abstinence advocates tend to argue that saving sex for marriage will lead to better sex later on.

    Stenzel’s position is weird in that she does a little of each. She’ll say effectiveness doesn’t matter, because God says so, but then she’ll also say that abstaining has all sorts of practical benefits – like not getting diseases, for instance. Then she’ll blow the threat of disease entirely out of proportion, as though abstinence is the only effective thing.

    It’s all really disjointed, which just underscores how unscientific it is. And yet, she does get paaaid.

  •' ortcutt says:

    Lititz is squarely in Pennsylvania’s bible belt, so I’m not surprised by this, but it’s the dishonesty of the whole thing that bothers me. People like Pam Stenzel and her supporters don’t care what’s actually true about sex, they just know it’s a sin, and also know they can’t give a sermon in public schools, so they give quasi-sermons and lie about medical and social problems. I guess lying for Jesus is OK sometimes though.

  •' nmgirl says:

    I just love “TRUE CHRISTIANS”: as long as i’m lyin’ for Jesus, it’s ok.

  •' TheRealReginaPhalange says:

    As I told another poster here: if you have to lie to make your argument, you clearly lack confidence in your own convictions.

  • This is one of the most stunning things I’ve ever read about a member of the right-wing-nut-o-sphere.

    If you can only get a message across by lying to everybody about everything, then the chances might be good that you’re on the wrong side of whatever issue it is you’re discussing. It’s so weird that her supporters think her message is moral. Her message is 100% LIES. How is lying even moral? And they’re not even good lies–they’re lies that even I knew weren’t true back in the 80s and 90s. Any of those teens could and will debunk her talking points with a smartphone and a good 4G connection before the auditorium is even emptied. Once people figure out you’re lying to them about something, you’ve pretty much lost them on everything else–the saying is true that if you lose your good name, you’ve lost everything. I can attest to this truth personally. When I was in my 20s and realized I’d been lied to about an important doctrinal point of my religion, I was devastated–but determined to figure out the truth. That quest led me right out of Christianity. Considering something like 60-70% of young people detach themselves from Christianity as it is (according to Barna), is increasing the lies told to them really the strategy evangelicals want to pursue? Do they want even more kids to leave this religion? Because, as Archer’s said, that’s how you get kids to leave this religion.

    Zealots don’t care about the truth. They only care about winning their wars, and the ends always justify the means with them. Pam Stenzel is a zealot. She should not be allowed anywhere near impressionable young minds. It’s a real pity her religion doesn’t talk about lying being a sin or anything. That’d be a good thing to include in its rules–but I wonder if she’d care even if it were in there anywhere.

  • I heard the same lies when I was a young Christian many years ago. These speakers can’t even keep their own stories straight! All that remains the same is their dishonesty.

  •' Gregory Peterson says:

    I would think that school administrators would be mindful of intellectual integrity. Apparently not.

  •' NavyBlues05 says:

    She’s a greedy female Elmer Gantry.

  •' Jim 'Prup' Benton says:

    “Saving sex for marriage will lead to better sex.” ??? This may be a ‘side note’ to the whole discussion, but it does highlight just how absurd the ‘abstinence’ position actually gets.
    The statement would be correct, if and only if the following were true;

    a) Sex involved nothing to be learned, neither techniques nor communication between partners, nor understanding of the partner’s sexuality.
    b) People’s sexual responses were all the same, at least among the same gender.
    c) People’s sex drives and the amount — and type — of sex a given person finds satisfying are the same for all people.

    Of course, none of the above happens to be true. We have gone beyond the time, true, when society was such that the story about Chesterton was even plausible — that he and his wife were both overweight (to the point of being ‘spherical’), that they could never figure out how to manage the basic act, and that society made them ashamed even to ask. We have even — I devoutly hope — gone beyond the time where the vast majority of men, and even the majority of women were unaware that women could have orgasms. I should, perhaps, have checked out Stenzel’s writings before posting, but I assume she has progressed that far — it would be what makes her a ‘modern’ evangelical sex ‘expert’ and differentiates her from the average fifth grade level Sunday School teacher or nun.
    But better sex? I’d have to say that the discouragement of ‘fornication’ leads to nothing but sexual unhappiness — and in fact even to more adultery — as couples — one or both of whom are virgins, and who are at least virgins to each other — form committed, ‘unbreakable’ relationships before they discover that, while they may share many things from religion to television programs to a love of dancing and types of food, this is not enough to overcome sexual incompatibilities of various types. (Especially if no idea is given that couples can learn to change as they recognize the problems and can learn the uniquenesses of each other. ‘Abstinence’-types seem not even to realize that those uniquenesses exist.)
    Add to this two factors, mostly involving males — who the ‘locker room’ culture tend to make the stupider gender when it comes to sex — of, once they discover ‘what works’ with one partner, think is the ‘secret of good sex’ with any partner; and the attitude that there is somehow a difference between sex between unmarried partners and marital sex. And it becomes obvious that fornication — and not just with each other but with several other partners — should actually be recommended for couples contemplating marriage.
    (And if that last isn’t enough to get me into trouble and send my comment into ‘moderation’ I’ll even go so far as to recommend that most people should at least try having sex with both genders before they are certain which one they are attracted towards — and even that they at least question the ‘have to choose a side’ attitude that society forces on young people.)

  •' Jim 'Prup' Benton says:

    This article leads into so many different discussions that I could easily write a half dozen comments, each as long as the article and each going off in a different direction. I’ll limit myself to two — and the other comment below — and try and keep their length within band. But the questions of ‘morality’ and ‘truth’ seem to require further discussion.
    I am continually amazed and saddened by those who argue that ‘morality’ in sex has to do with who you have sex with — or what type of genitalia they possess — rather than with the attitude the participants have towards each other and towards the act itself. ‘Morality’ involves respect, honesty, above all, consent, and a mutual understanding of what the sex act involves for each party. (That last is more unclear than most of my somewhat involved writing, so let me explain that I see nothing immoral in casual sex, or in sex as part of a relationship, but I have every objection to a situation where each party views the same act differently, and where one party realizes the other has a different expectation and doesn’t correct the other and make sure they are ‘on the same page.’

  •' Jim 'Prup' Benton says:

    And a final point, which goes even further astray, perhaps. (The three comments I have made so far should be read in the order they were written, which is probably the reverse of the way they appear.)

    But it seems that there is a mushrooming belief that truth simply doesn’t matter when it comes to arguments, that a person can tell all sorts of absurd lies to win his or her goal (in a ‘good’ cause, of course — frequently meaning “Christian’ (itself a lie since it assumes fundamentalist evangelism is the only ‘real’ form of Christianity)) in the calm assurance that he/she will suffer no punishment either financial or political for those lies.

    Stenzel is a prime example, of course. You would think that a person who has demonstrably lied as often as she has, and who has even, in essence, admitted those same lies would be ‘punished’ in her wallet, simply because no one would hire her, pay her for speaking, or publish her books, yet none of these seems to be true.

    And much the same could be said about a David Barton, yet he continues — despite the fact that he has been refuted even by evangelicals ‘in good standing’ — to be called on as an ‘expert’ in a field he has proven to have little knowledge of.

    Steve Benen at the Maddowblog has recently made several sad, ironic comments about our moving into an ‘era of post-truth politics.’ He has mostly been referring to the Senatorial candidacy of Tom Cotton in Arkansas, who has repeatedly lied, been shown to be lying, and has simply repeated the lies, knowing that the vast majority of his voters will never hear the refutation, and those that do hear them have probably been conditioned to dismiss anything coming from a ‘liberal’ or ‘mainstream’ source — defined, usually, as anyone who differs with what the trusted speaker says.

    But Cotton is hardly the first candidate to do this in the last decade, perhaps none as repeatedly as Gov. Romney — though his lies were at least within the range of truth, not a bullseye, not even in the target. but at least into the backing board of the target. Cotton and much more egregious violators don’t seem to have an idea of where the target is.

    The last month has shown that even the barrier between the ‘looney radical right’ and the ‘respectable far right’ has vanished, most obviously in comments about the ebola situation that have lost any touch with the crumbs of reality entirely. Right Wing Watch has, literally five times a week or more over the last month, documented comments from rightwingers ranging from Larry Klayman, Rick Wiles, and William Gheen to the more respected Phyllis Schlafly, Tony Perkins, and Keith Ablow that President Obama has deliberately encouraged or brought about the spread of ebola for reasons ranging from a hatred of white people, a preference for America to become more like his ‘native’ Africa, to a desire to use the crisis to seize permanent power and institute martial law.

    Then there are those, including at least one probable Presidential candidate, who argue that there is a danger of ISIS deliberately infecting someone with ebola and, working with Hispanic drug cartels, sending them across the Southern border to cause an epidemic.

    And these are not examples of paranoid delusions from some mental ward, or examples of people as rare and as disturbed as those who claim to be gods, but comments from the general run of political discourse among the right — and there are far more similar examples from the John Birch Society authored claims that Agenda 21 is part of a planned UN takeover, to the idea that Obama has been deliberately refusing to institute gun control legislation to lull people into a sense of security before he actually institutes a plan of total confiscation of all guns in his last few months in office — or will they be, since these types suspect he won’t leave office when his tem is up.

    Sure these ideas are ludicrous, but they are becoming far too common — as I said, at least five times a week over the past month for the ebola ones alone — and I worry about them poisoning the discourse so totally that equally untrue but less obviously insane comments (like those about Obamacare) are swallowed whole because they seem reasonablein contrast.

  •' Jim 'Prup' Benton says:

    One minor but necessary point. I have taken my examples from the right, and well over 99% do come from there, but we have a few of our own practitioners of ‘post-truth’ politics, or at least major level liars. My own Governor — I’m in Brooklyn for those still unaware of it — classifies, and there are not a few commenters on the progressive side who conflate the looney right, the Christian Morality Right, and the Koch brothers/Romney Business Right into one gigantic interlocked conspiracy rather than an alliance in which each group is using the others, and many of the candidates expressing these points don’t even believe them themselves but are merely saying ‘what’s necessary’ — to get elected, of course.

    Those Becks of the Left are hardly representative, but they have done a good job of discouraging voters — and more importantly the Democratic Party and Candidates — from bothering to compete against such a massive and united opposition.

    And thus we repeatedly lose elections when polls show we are on the popular side (as well as the right side) of literally every dispute from gay rights to minimum wage to gun control to Obamacare. (Even a majority of NRA members favor some reasonable gun restrictions, despite the claims of their leaders, and while Republicans have made the word a ‘scare word’ most polls show most people support almost all the changes Obamacare has made.

    Sorry for wandering so far afield and the number of hobby horses I exercised. Maybe it is just that it is too close to Hallowe’en and the monsters are more visible.

  •' Art Bagnall says:

    what a skank.

  •' xnlover says:

    “No one has ever had more than one (sexual) partner and not paid.”

    I wonder what “price” Abraham paid for having sex with his wife’s slave woman with his wife’s permission? Or Jacob, who had sex with his two wives and their concubines? Or his son Judah, who had sex with his wife as well as his son’s wife? Or David, who had several wives and a number of concubines? Or Solomon, who had a number of wives and, reportedly, 900 concubines? This woman not only lies about sex, she’s ignorant about the content of the Bible that contradicts her lies.

  •' Marian L Shatto says:

    The Warwick School Board is notorious for making decisions and then refusing to consider any facts which might contradict them. At the board meeting where parents were given the opportunity to express their concerns, four spoke against Stenzel’s appearance and three spoke in favor (according to news reports; I was not there personally). A representative of the board then read a prepared statement defending their choice, making it abundantly apparent that they had no intention of ever considering opposing views. The collective attitude is “my mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts.”

    Last week the superintendent announced that a private business had come forward to fund the talk, but the identity of the business could not be revealed. Forgive me for being very skeptical that such private funding has been secured. As soon as this was announced, I sent a letter to the administration and board protesting vigorously the use of one cent of my tax money for a speaker who depends on lies and distortions to make her points. Needless to say, I’ve had no response. Without any children in the district I don’t have standing to pursue legal action.

    About a month ago a news article reported that faculty and staff had joined students in a “See You at the Pole” prayer meeting. I believe the constitutionality of that participation is questionable, at best. Eventually they will have a lawsuit on their hands, but that will take action from a group of dedicated parents who are willing to publicly oppose the fundamentalist cabal on the board. I’m afraid that won’t happen any time soon.

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