Dissecting the Outrageous, Inaccurate Claims Made at a High School Abstinence-Only Presentation

A presentation in Tennessee made headlines after a student recorded the inaccurate, misleading, and extremely biased information presented in his high school class. Here's what was said, and what's wrong with the presentation.

Hillsboro High School, Tennessee. USA Today

In the wake of April’s controversial talk by abstinence-only speaker Pam Stenzel, another controversy emerged in Tennessee, where a student recorded a sex ed presentation that included biased and inaccurate information. The presentation was given by Joi Wasill, founder of the nonprofit Decisions, Choices and Options, and Beth Cox, a member of the Sumner County School Board who serves as a presenter for Wasill’s organization. Cox also has ties to the Republican Party in the state, having served on Gov. Bill Haslam’s 2010 campaign and as a delegate to the 2008 Republican National Convention. Wasill, a former marketing teacher at a nearby high school, told a radio show in 2009 that she founded her organization after God spoke to her through one of the radio show’s guests, urging her to promote the “pro-life” beliefs she’d always held.

The presentation included many familiar abstinence-only tropes, inaccuracies about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), abortion, and infertility, and biases that I suppose are not surprising given the organization’s goal to promote anti-choice beliefs. Even after a Vanderbilt University physician listened to the tapes and declared the presentation not entirely accurate, Wasill stood behind what they had said, telling USA Today, “I’m an educator. Just as with any educator, my personal opinions and personal faith do not come out in my presentation.” I also am an educator, and I can acknowledge that as much as I try to keep my beliefs out of it, that’s not always possible. More to the point, however, the quotes simply speak for themselves.

The principal of the school simply brushed aside the inaccuracies that his students heard and told USA Today, “Fortunately, I believe the Hillsboro High School kids are smart enough to separate fact from fiction and that some of the opinions and scare tactics used in the presentation they will know are incorrect.”

It shouldn’t be a high school student’s job to weed through the crap and tease out the truth in any given presentation. I mean, does he expect his students to do this in a physics or calculus class? Plus, no matter how smart the kids at Hillsboro are, I don’t know if they will be able to tell fact from fiction in this case. I listened to the tapes, and the presenters were quite convincing—flat out wrong, but quite convincing. I’m sure there are some adults out there who would buy this presentation hook, line, and sinker.

So, here is my attempt to set the record straight. I listened to nine minutes of audio excerpts that were posted on USA Today’s website and picked out a few gems that I thought would be worth refuting on a point-by-point basis. To be clear, I do not know which presenter is responsible for which quote. According to the newspaper, Cox spoke first and discussed sex and STDs, and then Wasill took over for the discussion of abortion, but I was unable to discern when or if the voice of the presenter changed in the audio clips.

Nonetheless, here is what they said and my response to their comments:

Sex and Spit

One speaker suggests that they pass a cup around the classroom, each student spit in it, and then the last one drink out of it: “What do you all think about that? Pretty disgusting, right? You wouldn’t do it because you’re exchanging bodily fluids, and that’s what you do in sexual activity; you exchange bodily fluids so you see how rampant you can go in terms of your sexual activity.”

This is not the first abstinence-only speaker to focus on spit. It’s pretty common. In fact, the spit game, of which there are many versions, has made its way into numerous abstinence-only curricula. It usually goes something like this: A teacher lines a few kids up facing each other (girls facing boys, of course, because we’re all heterosexual); gives them a cup of water and something edible that once chewed looks gross, like Cheetos; and asks them to take a swig of water with the gross item and then spit the contents of their mouth back into their cup. One line (usually the boys) pours their spit into the cup of the girl across from them and then turns their cup over to learn it was labeled with an STD that they’ve now spread.

In my favorite variation, all the cups are then poured into an empty glass pitcher, which is placed next to a pitcher of clean water, and students are asked to choose which pitcher they would like their “future husband” or “future wife” to come from. The messages here are pretty clear: STDs are inevitable (all of the cups have STD labelled on them) and people who have had sex are dirty.

The interesting thing about how the Tennessee speaker framed this discussion, however, is that she pretty much said all sex is gross because it involves exchanging bodily fluids. We might not want our kids to have sex right now, but I don’t think most parents want their children to grow up thinking sex is disgusting—not exactly the way to set them up for a happy and healthy sex life.

Oh, the Oxytocin

“There’s also an emotional factor with sexual activity, and ladies you are very emotional when you’re engaging in sexual activity, and that bonding agent, there’s an agent called oxytocin. … You know those couples that keep breaking up and getting back together and getting back together? It’s because the woman has emotionally given herself to someone else and it’s very hard to break that bond, because again we were meant for the oxytocin of someone that we bond with.”

Abstinence-only speakers are even more obsessed with oxytocin than they are with spit, possibly because they think the existence of this hormone will make their message of waiting until marriage to have sex sound scientific. Like this speaker, they suggest that oxytocin is released during sex and once this happens a person is somehow bonded with another forever, so much so that breaking that bond does permanent damage. I’m surprised that the speakers didn’t bring out some duct tape like so many other presenters do to illustrate this point. They put tape on a kid’s arm to represent a relationship, rip it off to represent the break up, and then point out that it’s not nearly as sticky anymore. Many curricula attribute this to the oxytocin effect; having sex with multiple partners will eventually mean that one is no longer able to bond at all. They’re not sticky anymore.

Oxytocin is a hormone that is released during certain activities, such as sex, childbirth, and nursing, and while it is associated with feelings of love and bonding, suggesting that this is a capability we lose if we use it too much is ridiculous. A peer-reviewed article in the journal Psychiatry said that attempts to prove that “too much sex can cause women to lose their ability to bond” were just pseudoscience. The author went on to say that “the cautions we give to teens should be based on honest concerns about health and values, not misinformation such as the statement that they will never be able to bond with a partner or have loving attachments in later life.”

I also think it’s interesting that the speaker in Tennessee suggested that this was only a problem for the girl because she had “emotionally given herself” to someone. Apparently, boys are not affected by emotions, love, or bonding.

New, Deadly STD That’s Deadly

“I just got some information last week from the Department of Health and Human Services. There’s a new STD that they’re saying is gonna be the new AIDS. It’s deadly and it’s and it’s fast. Like before you even know you have it, it’s gone beyond treatable. And it’s deadly.”

This one has me a little stumped, because while abstinence-only speakers frequently play fast and loose with the truth, they rarely make things up out of nowhere. Neither I nor anyone else I know has gotten a memo about a new STD that fits this description.

In her article for ThinkProgress about the speech, Tara Culp-Ressler speculates that this is about antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea, which is a good guess because it has gotten a lot of press lately as a potential epidemic and a CNBC headline suggested it might be worse than AIDS. The speaker’s description, however, doesn’t really fit because antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea has not killed anyone, as of yet; it’s not a fast-moving infection, and whether you can treat it or not has nothing to do with how fast you realize you have it. If the speakers were talking about this new so-called “superbug,” they missed the follow-up headlines, like this one from Fox News which said “Antibiotic-Resistant Gonorrhea Not Worse Than AIDS, Experts Say.”

Given how many puzzle pieces didn’t fit, I started to wonder if instead they were talking about the new strain of bacterial meningitis, which has broken out among gay men in New York City. This also was compared to AIDS recently in the media, because of the community it is affecting, and things seem to add up better here; it is deadly, it is fast-moving, and many of the victims don’t seek medical treatment until it’s too late, because their symptoms mimic much less serious illnesses. The only problem is: This isn’t an STD. This type of meningitis is transmitted through close contact, so sex would obviously count, but you also can get it by kissing, cuddling, or sharing a spoon.

Ultimately, I really don’t know what they are talking about, and I fear the student audience will believe it without question.

Swiss Cheese Condoms

“Condoms break, they tear, they have holes in them, they have a failure rate of about 14 percent.”

To hear these speakers tell it, condoms are much like Swiss cheese, or maybe Christmas wrapping paper, and there’s no way they will prevent pregnancy or the spread of the deadly STD no one else knows about. These myths have been around forever and have never been true.

In truth, condoms rarely break. Breakage and slippage rates vary but are estimated to occur somewhere between 1.6 percent and 3.6 percent of the time. We have to remember though that sometimes the condom “breaks” because the user made a mistake, like putting the condom on wrong or not pulling out after ejaculation.

Most condoms are made out of latex, which is an extremely strong and flexible material. Condoms undergo rigorous testing, including tests in which they are filled with air until they are bigger than a basketball or filled with water and squeezed. Every condom is electronically tested for holes. Before being wrapped, a condom is placed on a metal rod called a mandrel that is then run over a pad that emits more than 1,000 volts of electricity. If no current flows through the condom, it is intact and has no holes. If current flows through, the condom is defective and is discarded.

As for the failure rate, the speaker uses outdated information and explains it poorly (or, really, not at all). The speaker is referring to use rates, which suggest that 18 couples out of 100 who say they use condoms as their primary contraception method will experience an unintended pregnancy in the first year of use. We have to remember that this includes couples who were not using condoms when they got pregnant, couples who did not keep the condom on for the entire act of intercourse, and couples who used a condom incorrectly when they got pregnant. If condoms are used correctly and consistently, they protect against pregnancy 98 percent of the time.

It’s All There at Conception

“Ok, we’ve already established through your health textbook that life begins at conception, what is conception? That new union of sperm and egg creates that new human being. All of your DNA is there, nothing else gets added in, everything is right there at that moment. So, according to your health textbook, and all of the medical textbooks, and science textbooks, and biology texts that’s when life begins.”

I have two biology textbooks in front of me, and neither of them says that life begins at conception. They don’t actually answer the question of when “life” begins, because it’s not a biological question or a medical question. The biology books tell me that conception happens when the sperm and egg meet; that the fertilized egg then travels down the fallopian tube; that along the way cells keep dividing and it becomes a zygote, a morula, and a blastocyst; and that pregnancy begins when, as an embryo, it implants in the wall of the uterus. As to when life begins, that’s for theologians and philosophers (and perhaps comedians) to determine. Anyone who says there is a factual or even a widely agreed upon definition of this is lying.

Dismembered Fetuses and Dead Tissue

After describing how the cervix is “forced” open and a “dissected and dismembered fetus” is sucked out through a tube during abortion procedures, one of the speakers said that abortion commonly leads to infertility: “Those instruments that are used to remove the fetus from the woman’s uterus can sometimes puncture the uterine wall. It’s called a perforated uterus, and when that happens she’s probably not ever going to have babies … and sometimes there could be scar tissue. I have two personal friends who that happened to in college.”

I don’t know how old this speaker is or when she went to college, but maybe it was in the days before Roe v. Wade, when back-alley abortions were common and dangerous. This is not the case anymore. Research has shown that abortions do not lead to scar tissue, nor do they affect future fertility. According to the National Abortion Federation, “Surgical abortion is one of the safest types of medical procedures. Complications from having a first-trimester aspiration abortion are considerably less frequent and less serious than those associated with giving birth.”

Later in the presentation, one of the speakers goes after medical abortions, suggesting that women frequently suffer from toxic shock and sepsis and can die, because they don’t shed all of the fetal tissue and it begins to decay. While it is true that some women don’t expel all of the tissue and need to have suction to finish the procedure, this is rare; it happens in less than 6 percent of cases. The scenario she mentions is incredibly rare and is the result of an infection with a specific bacterium. (It has happened in 0.001 percent of cases in the United State and Canada.)

No Morning After

According to one of the speakers, in order to use emergency contraception (EC), a girl needs to know three things: when she had her last period, when she had unprotected sex, and when she ovulated. This speaker then explains why: “What happens if she ovulates on Wednesday, has sex on Thursday, and then says, ‘Oh, I better go take that morning-after pill,’ and she takes the morning-after pill on, say, Friday. Well, she could have already conceived, conception could have already happened, and if that happens the chemicals in this drug harden the walls of the uterus and the fertilized egg can’t plug in. So then what happens to that tiny fertilized egg? It’s going to die, because it can’t get nourishment. So then this becomes a chemical abortion. See how that happens?”

This comment almost seems logical, which is scary, because it’s just plain wrong. Emergency contraception can prevent pregnancy if taken within 102 hours of unprotected intercourse. (A woman or teen does need to know when she had unprotected sex so she can do that math, but no other information is needed.) Like all hormonal methods, EC works primarily by preventing ovulation, because if there is no egg there can be no pregnancy. Research has shown that EC does not affect an existing pregnancy, but in this scenario the woman isn’t pregnant yet because pregnancy begins at implantation. This should be enough to prove that EC is not a chemical abortion—if a woman isn’t pregnant, she can’t have an abortion.

But I’m sure my logic wouldn’t work on the speakers. I was curious what would happen in the scenario they described, so I spoke to Eleanor Schwarz, an associate professor of medicine, epidemiology, and obstetrics/gynecology at the University of Pittsburgh. Professor Schwarz said that EC has a very limited impact if taken after ovulation. If the woman was going to get pregnant that time around, she still would. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that the progesterone in the EC pills would harm the fertilized egg.

I have spent a good deal of my career listening to presentations like this one, and they never cease to amaze and infuriate me. It is not OK to go into a high school class and present inaccurate information, half-truths, and personal opinions as facts. Unfortunately, nothing in Tennessee’s laws prevent speakers from doing just that—remember, this state has a law prohibiting discussion about anything that might be a gateway to sexual activity. Even worse, the principal of this particular high school seems to think it’s no big deal, because students have an innate sense of what’s fact and what’s fiction.

There is some truth to that—clearly, the student who recorded the presentation and leaked it to the press knew all was not right with what he was hearing. Still, it took me hours to explain exactly what was wrong with what these speakers said, and I have a graduate degree in human sexuality. We can’t expect high school students to put in that effort. So either the audience believed what they heard and are walking around talking about the new plague, or they ignored it and remain woefully uninformed about sexuality. Neither scenario seems right to me.