Sex-Ed Wars

04.19.13

Pam Stenzel, America’s Abstinence Prophet

Pam Stenzel is paid to tell high-schoolers that birth control can lead to sterility or death—and she’s making a killing off it. Michelle Goldberg reports.

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.”

After student-body president Katelyn Campbell spoke out against Stenzel, the school’s principal, George Aulenbacher, allegedly threatened to denounce the high school senior to Wellesley College, which she plans to attend in September. Campbell ended up going to court seeking an injunction against Aulenbacher, though Wellesley made it clear that his threat is moot, tweeting, “Katelyn Campbell, #Wellesley is excited to welcome you this fall.” Meanwhile, Aulenbacher has been the subject of death threats, and his supporters mobilized to stand up for him at a Thursday-evening school-board meeting.

With the story in the spotlight, it’s a good time to ask an important question: how is it that Stenzel, one of the country’s most established abstinence-only lecturers, continues to make a living by shaming and deceiving schoolkids?

The important thing to know about Stenzel is that she admits that doesn’t care about her message’s effect on kids’ health. As I reported in my book Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, 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!”

She continued, “Let me tell you something, people of God, that is radical, and I can only say it here. AIDS is not the enemy. HPV and a hysterectomy at 20 is not the enemy. An unplanned pregnancy is not the enemy. My child believing that they can shake their first in the face of a holy God and sin without consequence, and my child spending eternity separated from God, is the enemy. I will not teach my child that they can sin safely.”

Of course, Stenzel is not just teaching her child. The Obama administration has, for the most part, closed off the federal spigot of money for abstinence-only education. Stenzel no longer sits on any Department of Health and Human Services task forces or gets invited to the White House, as she did during the George W. Bush administration. But she still travels the country, giving her bombastic lectures to high school students, and makes a decent living at it, charging between $3,500 and $5,000 for an appearance. According to her latest available tax filings, her company, Enlighten Communications, took in $268,799 in revenue in 2011.

If you want to see what schools are getting for their money, check out Stenzel’s YouTube channel. In one of her speeches she talks about girls whose parents help them access hormonal birth control. “That drug, that hormone, that pill, that shot that this girl is taking has just made her 10 times more likely to contract a disease than if she were not taking that drug,” Stenzel shouts. “This girl could end up sterile or dead.” In another she tells a rapt student audience that if you have sex outside of perfect monogamy—meaning “one partner who has only been with you”—then “you will pay. No one has ever had more than one partner and not paid.”

Stenzel’s message might sound extreme, but according to Monica Rodriguez, president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States—a group that supports comprehensive sex ed—she’s not that different from other abstinence lecturers. “From the speakers that we’ve reviewed and that we keep tabs on, she’s right in the mainstream,” Rodriguez says.

In most states, there’s no requirement that these speakers offer students true information. “There are some states like California that, in their education code, says that any sexuality-education program used in the state needs to be medically accurate,” says Rodriguez. “But that is not as common as you might think or hope in terms of what’s codified in state law.”

In Ohio, for example, a new budget bill would fine teachers up to $5,000 for instruction condoning “gateway sexual activity”—essentially heavy petting. Tennessee passed a similar law last year, with a fine of $500. Teachers, then, will think twice before telling kids that, for example, they can’t catch a sexually transmitted disease by going to second base. But telling students that the birth-control pill could kill them? You can get paid for that.