Not going away: National Abstinence Clearinghouse comes to Minnesota, Part One

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I know the St. Paul Crowne Plaza Riverfront hotel like the back of my hand. It used to be the base hotel for the Minnesota YMCA Youth in Government program, in which I participated as a student and adult volunteer. I spent better than a month of my life there, stretched over a dozen years.

So as I descended to the pool level on a Monday afternoon, I was walking into familiar territory. And yet, as I got off of the stairs, I couldn’t help feeling like I was in very alien territory. It took me a long moment to put my finger on why things felt disjointed; it certainly wasn’t that a convention was set up on that level. More than once I’ve walked through on the way to a meeting only to have to wade through a conclave of insurance salespeople or someone’s holiday party. No, it was more strange than just that — more like someone had gone into my living room and replaced all of my furniture with bean bags. It just wasn’t right.

And then I became aware of one of the booths, which was advertising “Just 4 Girls” and “Just 4 Guys” magazines. I looked a moment longer, and realized it was a booth for the Human Life Alliance.

Then it clicked.

I was in the middle of the National Abstinence Clearinghouse’s convention floor.

I should have expected it, I suppose. I was there, after all, to cover the event. The NAC was holding its annual international leadership conference and a press conference to kick it off. But somehow I hadn’t quite been prepared to see the cheery, trade-show booths lined up with their neat, professional banners advertising the urgent need for everyone not to have sex.

A helpful exhibitor directed me downstairs to conference check-in, where I encountered three pleasant, middle-aged women staffing the fort.

“I’m here for a press conference?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. Do you have any I.D.?” a bespectacled woman replied.

I fished out my driver’s license and she dutifully photocopied it, and had me write my name and media affiliation on the copy. She handed me a license and a nametag simply marked “PRESS” in large, red letters. As another cheerful woman guided me to the elevators, I had to admit I wasn’t certain I wanted the NAC to have my I.D. on file.

The press conference was held in the Presidential Suite, in a corner of the 20th floor. Another reporter and I gathered in a corner, perusing the conference guide. It was sharp and jazzy, and probably pretty expensive because of the layout and design. Still, I noted, the guide was pretty thin.

“OK, come on in!” came the voice from the dining area, where a group of black-suited men and women were gathering. The voice belonged to Leslee Unruh, who offered water and chocolates to the press. When they were declined, she said, “You know, the American press never takes anything. The international press does. We always ask them why they eat and the American press doesn’t, and they say, ‘because we’re hungry,’ ” she said, beaming, as she sat at the head of the table.

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Jeff Fecke :: Not Going Away: National Abstinence Clearinghouse Comes to Minnesota, Part One
unruhTo say that Unruh is a polarizing figure in reproductive circles is to trivialize the meaning of the word. She was a leader in South Dakota’s failed bid to outlaw all abortion, including in cases of rape and incest. She and her husband founded the Alpha Center in South Dakota, a staunchly anti-abortion organization that in 1987 pleaded no contest to charges of providing unlicensed adoption services, mainly centering on cases where Unruh allegedly paid women to not have abortions. The organization is still active, and provides abortion recovery counseling for women who, like Unruh, come to regret their abortions.

Unruh founded the National Abstinence Clearinghouse in 1997 and has been its president ever since. Its website offers “faith, hope, and love” and “what would Jesus do?” purity rings for sale, with prices ranging from $29 for the women’s silver “I’ll Wait” ring to $329 for a men’s yellow gold cross ring. The NAC also hosts the notorious purity balls, which young women attend with their fathers. There, they take their fathers’ hands and pledge “to remain sexually pure … until the day I give myself as a wedding gift to my husband,” according to Generations of Light magazine. Fathers, in turn, recite:

I, (daughter’s name)’s father, choose before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity. I will be pure in my own life as a man, husband and father. I will be a man of integrity and accountability as I lead, guide and pray over my daughter and as the high priest in my home. This covering will be used by God to influence generations to come.

* * *

“We feel it’s a privilege to be here,” said Unruh, after spending the first 10 minutes of the press conference chatting amiably with a cohort at the table. Indeed, it’s hard to describe it as a press conference, exactly. It was more like a brief gathering of conference leaders that invited the press to hang out.

At long last, Unruh began to call on members of the table to give their paeans to abstinence. The first was Lakita Garth Wright, a longtime pro-abstinence-based education speaker, author and former Miss Black California, who argued that the abstinence movement has been getting a bad rap.

“There are a lot of fallacies that need to be undressed,” she said, explaining that she had decided at age 11 to be abstinent until marriage, after seeing how her grandfather missed her late grandmother.

“I run a business. If you come in for a job washing my bathroom floors, I ask you your name — and your real name, not ‘Pookie’ or ‘Ray-Ray’ or whatever you’re calling yourself today. I ask you your address, so I can see if you’re still living with momma. I ask you where you’ve worked…and that’s to clean my floor. That’s more than some girls ask guys they sleep with.”

Wright says she views her abstinence-based message as the “Ultimate in teaching feminism. I had no need for a man while friends [were] addicted to ‘Sex in the City.'”

* * *

Amanda Marcotte, a feminist writer and head of the blogging community at Pandagon.net, disagreed strongly with the idea that Wright’s is a feminist message.

“Obviously she’s not feminist or she’d know that real feminism isn’t about hating men or wanting to be apart from men, but having equality with men,” Marcotte said, in an interview with Minnesota Monitor. “She’s setting up a false definition of feminism to back her ideals.”

Marcotte is withering in her criticism of abstinence-based education, which she says pushes proscribed gender roles as part and parcel of its message. She notes the report commissioned in 2004 by U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., that showed program after program pushing girls into one model of life and boys into another. Saying she lives in Texas where the ‘silver ring thing’ began, she observed, “I’ve heard some boys wear them, but I’ve never seen any. But I’ve seen plenty of girls wearing them.”

Marcotte also notes something not discussed by the abstinence-based education community: what it means for a student who is gay.

“By definition, [abstinence-only] is heterosexist,” Marcotte said, “because gays can’t get married. And if they have to maintain abstinence until marriage, they can never have sex.”

Part Two: ‘Every young person deserves to know they have the choice to be abstinent.’

Part Three: ‘The message is good with or without federal dollars.’