The miracle of rebranding: abstinence = health

by on July 1, 2009  •  In Culture, Health

By Jessica Valenti, from The Nation:

…[A]bstinence organizations are not going away. In fact, they're getting organized. Well aware that their cause is in trouble and unpopular, purity proponents are revamping their image to appear more mainstream. …

One of the "Strategic Objectives" now listed on the National Abstinence Education Association (NAEA) website is "Rebranding the abstinence message." So when the NAEA met for its annual lobby day in March, high on the list of priorities was developing a strategy for continuing to receive federal dollars. Joe Sonka, managing editor of the Advocates for Youth blog Amplify, wrote of the lobby day, "Instead of abandoning their demonization of condoms and adherence to social conservative ideology over sound science, they would simply rebrand themselves as a curriculum that 'wasn't just about abstinence,' but was all about 'holistic approaches' to 'healthy lifestyle choices.'"

At an April 29 Capitol Hill briefing, [the head of the NAEA] told the room that abstinence-only education is "not a 'just say no' message." "This is not abstinence only, this is a holistic message that prepares and gives students all of the information they need to make healthy decisions," [she] said. In fact, the NAEA isn't even calling its programs "abstinence only" anymore–now they're "abstinence centered."

Similarly, WhyKnow–a major provider of abstinence-only education curriculums–recently changed its name to On Point, its tag line to "Direction for Life" and hired PR company Maycreate Idea Group to help recast its image. Lesley Scearce, executive director of On Point, said in an article for the Chattanoogan that the organization is trying to "get teens involved in new, positive directions that lead to a healthier, more fulfilling life. Without a re-naming, re-branding and re-positioning, this new direction wouldn't have been possible."…

The good news in all of this is President Obama's budget cutting most abstinence-only education funding and seeking to redirect the funds to "teen pregnancy prevention programs." The bad news is that 25 percent of the $164 million marked for teen pregnancy prevention would be open to abstinence-only programs, and the language in the budget doesn't make room for initiatives to curb sexually transmitted infections….

James Wagoner, president of Advocates for Youth, says that while there are reasons to be optimistic, "there are also reasons to be vigilant…. It would be a mistake to assume that the election of Obama and a Democratic Congress means failed abstinence-only programs will be eliminated." Wagoner says that now is not the time to "sit back and put our feet up," and he notes that programs stemming from the virginity movement are not just about public health but about "very negative gender stereotypes, promoting homophobia and undermining rights to information and education."

So while the virginity movement re-evaluates its image and messaging, progressives have to be just as prepared to battle back with renewed energy, with an eye toward legislative and policy gains and toward assuring that these groups don't regain their cultural footing. As Wagoner points out, this is about a lot a more than bad-faith messages about condoms and pregnancy. It's about stopping a movement committed to the regression of women's rights, enforcing gender norms and teaching America's youth–especially young women–that sexuality is wrong, dirty and dangerous.


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