Pam Stenzel was one of the first individuals that SIECUS became aware of who made a career of traveling from school to school providing abstinence-only-until-marriage assemblies and presentations. The influx of federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding has meant that more schools are able to pay for these kinds of services (or receive them for free as part of a grant to a local community-based organization, crisis pregnancy center, or church), and Stenzel and her peers have been very popular in recent years. There is much to suggest that there is now a network of abstinence-only-until-marriage speakers that help promote each other’s work and materials.
Stenzel describes herself as a “world renown abstinence educator.” According to her promotional material, Stenzel “combines her personal story and extensive pregnancy counseling experience into a hard hitting look at the consequences of sexual activity outside of a monogamous, lifetime relationship.” One of her websites claims that Ms. Stenzel speaks to 500,000 students each year and also offers seminars about teen sexuality issues for parents and educators. She founded Enlighten Communications to tackle “today’s tough issues of sex with candor, insight, humor, and the challenge for young people to get the abstinence advantage.”
Stenzel has numerous websites including www.sexstillhasapricetag.com and www.pamstenzel.com, which includes advice to young people, provides information about Pam, and allows visitors to book a presentation. Another website, www.shoppamstenzel.com, sells abstinence-themed materials including audio cassettes, videos, curricula, jewelry, and t-shirts. While most of the material available on her websites is produced by Stenzel, there is some crossover with other abstinence-only-until-marriage providers. For example, visitors to her site can buy both Navigator and Game Plan, curricula written by Scott Phelps and Libby Macke and distributed by Project Reality. (See SIECUS’ reviews of these curricula at http://www.communityactionkit.org/curricula_reviews.html for more information.) Similarly visitors can book presentation by Stenzel or a number of other abstinence-only-until-marriage speakers including Phelps.
Stenzel began her career as a counselor at a number of crisis pregnancy centers. Crisis pregnancy centers typically present themselves as providing medical services and then use anti-abortion propaganda, misinformation, and fear and shame tactics to dissuade women facing unintended pregnancy from exercising their right to choose. During her presentation, Stenzel explains that she decided to become an abstinence-only-until-marriage speaker after nine years of having women whining in her office that they didn’t know the “consequences” of sex.
Stenzel charges between $3,500 and $5,000 for her speaking services. As with her videos and curricula, Stenzel offers both a public school and a faith-based version of her presentation. Her posted schedule suggests that she primarily addresses youth rallies and schools, including speaking at Parent Nights. The name of the school is often not posted, however, and it is not clear whether her school-based audiences are typically associated with public or parochial schools.
SIECUS has not attended one of Stenzel’s presentations in person. Instead, this review is based on the public school version of the video “Sex Still Has a Price Tag,” released in 2006. The video appears to be a recording of her school-based presentation and was taped in front of a live audience of young people. It is broken into two sessions to allow for teachers to show it over two class periods and comes with a 10-page brochure referred to as the Teacher’s Guide, which includes additional information, possible activities, and discussion questions.
Message and Tone
In “Sex Still Has a Price Tag,” Stenzel delivers two 40-plus-minute monologues to a studio audience of high school students. Walking an empty stage, Stenzel, who attended Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, comes across as somewhere between a stand-up comic and a televangelist. She uses a preacher’s cadence and often yells at her audience in attempts to emphasize her points. Throughout her presentation, Stenzel lowers her voice to a meek whine in a series of unflattering parodies of former clients and students whom she refers to as “little girls.”
Early in the presentation, Stenzel explains that her purpose is to make sure that “no one will be able to leave this place and ever again have to say to a physician, to a counselor, to your future husband or wife, ‘Well nobody told me, I didn’t know.’” This last part is said in a pathetic whimper mocking those who have said something similar to her over the years. To ensure that her audience is sufficiently aware of the consequence of sex, Stenzel focuses her two sessions on unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases touching briefly on other negative outcomes of sex such as emotional pain and the inability to bond.
Although Stenzel frequently tosses out statistics and medical information (much of which is exaggerated or inaccurate), her presentation is much more about drama than substance. She provides little direct information about related topics such as puberty, anatomy, or conception. Stenzel does seem to assume her audience has a basic knowledge of these concepts. At one point, when explaining why STDs primarily “damage” women, Stenzel pokes fun at audience members for possibly having forgotten the essentials of the reproductive systems. Other topics such as the failure rates of condoms and contraception that are frequently elaborated on in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are all-but ignored in her presentation.
While many other abstinence speakers focus all or part of their presentation on the importance of marriage, Stenzel barely touches on this point. In fact, she seems to purposely avoid the use of the word marriage, instead discussing sex as occurring either inside or outside “one permanent monogamous relationship” which she defines as meaning “one partner who has only been with you.” While this may be an attempt to be more inclusive of young people who don’t wish to marry or those who are gay and lesbian and cannot legally marry in this country, the concession is merely one of semantics. Stenzel frequently refers to young people’s future husband or wife, and never acknowledges the existence of same-sex relationships.
Relying On Negative Messages
Messages of Fear—Portraying Premarital Sex as Harmful
Stenzel explains that “Today we’re going to talk about the physical and the emotional consequences of sex outside of a monogamous relationship.” She begins her litany of fear by acknowledging that young people are often most afraid of an unintended pregnancy. She explains that in the nine years she spent as a counselor at crisis pregnancy centers, “I have had to tell a lot of young girls that their test was positive. Immediately they want an easy painless way out of this pregnancy they didn’t plan, and I have to look at this little girl and say guess what sweetheart, your choices at this point are bad, terrible, and even worse. You had a good choice, that was before you had sex, now all the choices you have are going to carry life-long consequences.”
To illustrate the problems of teen pregnancy and parenting, Stenzel tells the story of Sean, a young man who spoke to her after a performance. Sean met a girl who was vacationing in his hometown at a party, one thing lead to another, and he got her pregnant. Sean now has to pay $350 a month out of his Burger King paycheck to support a daughter he can only arrange to see every few months. When asked to give advice to his peers, Sean said “don’t drink” and explains that he made a decision drunk that he would never have made sober. Rather than use this as an opportunity to help young people understand the impact alcohol may have on decision-making abilities, Stenzel simply emphasizes her message of fear: “Not only will Sean pay but so will the little girl from Minneapolis and so will their daughter and so will every other relationship either of them have for the rest of their lives.”
In fact, Stenzel frequently asserts that sex outside of a committed relationship may lead to death. At one point she brushes quickly by AIDS and HIV, forgoing information in favor of fear and rhetorical questions: “And then there is HIV. We won’t spend time on it. It’s the virus that causes AIDS. It’s deadly. You don’t want it. Equal opportunity virus, hurting boys and girls the same. Death is death. In light of that what are we telling you to do to make sure you don’t get this virus that will kill you?” In a discussion on the importance of secondary virginity, Stenzel goes as far as to compare sex to holding a gun to your head. She admits that some sexually active young people have escaped thus far without permanent damage but warns, “Who’s to say the next time you decide to put this gun to your head it doesn’t go off.”
Her basic premise is quite simple: “No one has ever had sex with more than one partner and not paid.” At one point later in her presentation, Stenzel suggests that the average 30-year-old has had 27.2 sexual partners. While this is a gross exaggeration (the median number of sexual partners for adults ages 30–34 is 6.4 for males and 3.8 for females), it reminds us that most adults have more than one partner during their lifetime. It is neither accurate nor informative to suggest that all of these people are now permanently damaged.
Punitive Messages—Doling out Punishment for Bad Behavior
Stenzel’s on-stage persona vacillates between the friend and confidant, sharing an inside joke with her audience, and the stern authority figure, angry at those who sit in front of her. She frequently appears to be threatening young people with punishment should they step out of line.
In one rather long diatribe aimed at the young men in the audience, Stenzel explains that “we” are going to punish any young man who gets a girl pregnant. “It’s costing us about $30 billion a year to support teenage girls parenting their children, we can’t pay this bill… the laws have all changed, boys I don’t care if your older brother, some uncle or a cousin got away with this, it’s not happening to you.” She goes on to explain that “we are now requiring in all 50 states the social security number of both parents on every birth certificate for every baby born in this nation” and describes in detail the process by which the county health department will contact a young man to give him the bad news that he’s been named as a father. Girls, she says in a mocking whine will no longer be able to say “I don’t know who the father is” or “I don’t feel like naming him.”
She then asks her audience why “we” ask for the social security number and makes fun of an eighth grade boy (“middle schoolers are so cute”) who suggested it was so that the child could know who his father is. “No,” she yells, “Money is what we are after and it’s going to cost you….” She goes on to explain, again in detail, the process of having one’s wages garnished and seems to suggest that this is standard practice in all cases of teen parenting. “Let me make it clear,” she barks at her audience, “this is not a bill the state’s going to politely ask you to pay, we’re not collecting, it’s coming out of your pay check taken out by your employer before you ever see it.”
Not only is Stenzel’s tone in this discussion condescending and overly harsh, her facts are wrong. Women are never required to reveal paternity or provide the father’s social security number. In truth, unmarried fathers may have a hard time getting their names onto their child’s birth certificate. Laws about birth certificates vary from state to state, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has developed the U.S. Standard Certificate of Live Birth, a model birth certificate. According to the CDC, if the parents are not married both parents need to sign a paternity acknowledgement form before any information about the father can be included on the birth certificate. States across the country adhere to similar rules. For example, Vermont explains that “If the mother does not wish to identify the baby’s father, she is not required to do so. If the parents are not married, no record of the father will be entered until both parents complete a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Parentage, or a court or agency has established paternity. The form must be signed and both signatures witnessed.” Similarly, Arizona law (§36-334) “requires that if a mother is not married at the time a child is born and has not been married any time during the preceding 10 months, no father will be named on the birth certificate unless both parents file sworn statements or unless so ordered by a court of competent jurisdiction.” 
In addition to presenting false and misleading information, Stenzel resorts to the same fear-based tactics here that she does in her discussions on STDs—she skips numerous steps and presents worst case scenarios as commonplace. In fact, garnishing wages is the method of last resort when parents (whether teens or adults) cannot agree on child support or one parent fails to pay court-ordered child support. Although Stenzel seems to want her audience to fear the state’s punishment of teen parents, the state does not automatically step in.
Stenzel’s tone of anger and punishment extends to numerous other conversations especially those about sexually transmitted diseases in which she presents both the diseases themselves and medical tests as a form of punishment. (See the STD section for more information.) Throughout her presentation Stenzel—who consistently uses the term “we” to describe any authoritative body— seems to have appointed herself legislator, judge, and jailer. She tells young people the rules, dares them to break these rules, and detail the horrors they will face if and when they do. In reality, however, Stenzel has no authority; the rules she presents are based not on laws but on a set of conservative social values that are not universally held; and her “punishments” are exaggerations designed to scare young people rather than help them think critically about their actions.
Messages of Shame—Creating a Dichotomy between “Good” and “Bad” People
This reliance on a clear set of “rules” around sexual behavior ultimately creates a dichotomy between those who follow these rules and those who don’t. Stenzel presents sex with more than one partner as the ultimate litmus test of a person’s moral character and not-so-subtly suggests that young people who have had sex have failed this test.
According to Stenzel, “Opposites never attract when it comes to character—you will get exactly what you are.” Stenzel recounts numerous boys who have told her that their plan to “fool around and sleep with every girl who’s stupid enough to sleep with me but when I get married then I don’t want that girl—who has slept with half the football team—then I want a virgin.” Her response to these foolish young men: “Why would a virgin want you?” She elaborates by saying, “You think you can be a player and then someday you can marry someone who respects themselves and respect you, you’re insane, crazy.” She goes on to say that many young people she has met have argued that they are not going to wait for marriage to have sex because they won’t find someone who has also waited. Her response to these young people and her entire young audience, “Want to make sure you don’t? You get exactly what you are.”
The message—virgins are good, girls who sleep with the entire football team are not—is clear. This messages gets clearer (and louder) when she defines virginity. Stenzel explains that the medical definition of sex is genital contact of any kind. She says this is “the medical line over which you cannot step, and if you have stepped over this line, you’ve risked disease, you’ve risked disease and you need to get tested and don’t you DARE tell anyone you’re a virgin. Don’t you dare.” Stenzel seems to feel that there are numerous teenagers out there who are committing the crime of thinking, and worse reporting, that they are a virgin despite the fact that they have had genital contact such as oral sex. The punishment for this crime, other than her wrath, appears to be the shame of not being a virgin, and the fear of having to admit your sins to future partners, “If you have had oral sex, you’re not a virgin and you will have to tell every partner you have, everyone you’ve done that with. Is that clear? Anybody confused?”
While this message is often aimed at young people of both genders, she does take a moment to further caution young men. “If this is one of those girls that is dressing in that manner—and you know what I’m talking about that says to you and every other boy in the county take me now— a little word of advice boys Run.” She continues, screaming for emphasis, “Run from this girl, run away. I did not say walk, I said run from her. Let me tell you about this girl, I know her well, I have had her in my office for 15 years. This is a little girl that’s bought the lie of a culture that has told her what makes her valuable is her body and to make her feel good about herself she has to turn your head and his and his and his…. This will not end when she’s 25, 30, 40.” Instead of using this as an opportunity to explore the “lie of the culture” that she has mentioned, further discuss why young women might believe that they are only valuable for their bodies, or suggest ways to help those young women who feel this way, Stenzel merely asks young men “Who do you want to be the mother of your children?”
It is important to remember that 47% of high school students (and 63% of high school seniors) have had sexual intercourse. It is irresponsible and potential harmful to suggest that these young people lack character and integrity and are no longer marriage material. Stenzel does suggest secondary virginity for these young people but she makes it clear that full redemption is never truly possible.
She tells the story of a “little girl” who approached her after a talk in Alaska and excitedly announced “Pam I’m a recycled virgin.” This young woman had had sex at 15 but realized that it was causing her pain and decided that she would stop and not have sex again until she was married. Pam’s response to her is mixed at best: “Sweetheart that’s so awesome. Some day when you get married, you’re going to have to tell that boy what you did when you were 15, you will have to rehearse your past. But you’re going to be able to tell that boy that for the last 3 years, 5 years, 7 years, ‘I have waited for you.’ And we’re going to know what kind of damage was done because we’ve had some years to make sure she’s okay.” While she encourages sexually active students to stop what they are doing right away, she never lets them forget that they might have been permanently damaged and that at the very least their “punishment” will be having to explain their evil ways to their future spouse.
Perhaps, the best illustration of Stenzel’s dichotomy between “good” young people who remain virgins and their misbehaving peers, comes when she tells the story of a 6’8” basket ball player who ran up to her after a performance saying that he was virgin. He complained that there was little support for boys who chose not to have sex and that his teammates often teased him about his choice. Though she might have used this as an opportunity to discuss peer pressure and the importance of sticking to your personal values, she instead supplied this answer: “I said young man, the next time your friends start to tease you because you’re saving yourself for your wife I want you to look at your friends and I want you to say this ‘Any day, tonight, I could choose to be like you but you will NEVER again be like me.’”
Stenzel relies on statistics and medical information to underscore her messages of fear and prove that sex does indeed “have a price tag.” In detailed discussions of STDs and brief mentions of condoms and contraception, Stenzel provides information that is often misleading, exaggerated, or just plain false.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases—Misleading Students
Stenzel dedicates much of the first session of her presentation and most of the second to discussing STDs. Her presentation on this topic contains various levels of detail. When convenient she throws out statistics and medical information that can support her overall messages of fear and shame. These discussions exaggerate the consequences of STDs and blatantly discourage testing.
Worst Case Scenarios
Rather than focusing on how STDs are transmitted, how young people can avoid these diseases, or what they should do should they suspect they have one, Stenzel chooses to focus her presentation on the inevitable life-altering consequences of contracting an STD.
For example, she acknowledges that Chlamydia is easily curable but suggests that no one ever knows they have it and that, more often than not, young women end up infertile. In a scornful tone she tells the story of a girl who “messes around” in high school but now has a college education, a good job, and has finally found a good guy. This girl wants to be a mom but when she can’t get pregnant she runs to the doctor only to learn that she can never have children because her fallopian tubes are scarred from Pelvic Inflammatory Disease caused by a Chlamydia infection she never knew she had.
Nonetheless, Stenzel inaccurately quantifies her threat: “Ladies, you contract Chlamydia one time in your life, cure it or not, and there is about a 25 percent chance that you will be sterile for the rest of your life.” This is not true. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) approximately 40 percent of cases of untreated Chlamydia lead to PID and approximately 10 percent of acute cases of PID (not all PID becomes acute) lead to infertility. Instead of presenting them with alarming and ultimately false statistics, young women would be better served by a discussion of how Chlamydia is transmitted, how they can prevent transmission, the symptoms to look out for, and the need for regular testing.
Infertility appears to be one of the punishments that Stenzel seems anxious to dole out to those women who have been sexually active and she mentions it quite often. Early in her presentation, she says “Girls please hear this, this is primarily going to affect the girls, infertility, the ability to have children, has risen over 500 percent in 10 years.” She goes on to say that many of the “girls who graduated from your high school in 1996 are just now finding out that they will never have children because of choices they made when they were sitting where you are.” Although the media has focused a great deal of attention on infertility in recent years, much of this is tied to the fact that women are delaying pregnancy well into their 30s and 40s (meaning the class of 2006 has yet to attempt pregnancy). In fact, research suggests that infertility rates have remained unchanged. Young women should understand that protecting their ability to have children in the future is an important part of being sexually healthy, but using inaccurate statistics to get this point across is unacceptable.
Stenzel also emphasizes the possibility of infertility when she discusses HPV, the virus that causes genital warts and cervical cancer. She begins by telling her audience that if they have sex with someone who is not a virgin, it is almost statistically impossible for them not to come in contact with the virus. She goes on to detail the “inevitable” long-term health consequences of HPV, discussing the need for multiple treatments to get rid of genital warts and explaining, “We now have girls as young as 18, 19, and 20 undergoing radical hysterectomies, will never have children because of invasive cervical cancer.” Stenzel then tells the story of a senior she met who contracted HPV in ninth grade and was scheduled to have a hysterectomy three weeks before graduation as a result of cervical cancer. This young woman spoke to Stenzel after a presentation and somewhat tearfully explained that she is fine with not having kids but dreads having to tell the guy she wants to marry that he won’t either.
Even if this unlikely story is true, it is incredibly rare. In truth, the majority of HPV infections cause neither genital warts nor cervical cancer but, instead, resolve themselves spontaneously without medical intervention. Even HPV infections that cause warts can resolve without treatment. And, if young women do contract one of the strains of HPV that can cause cervical cancer, it typically takes 10–15 years once cervical cells begin to change before invasive cervical cancer develops.
What Stenzel seems deliberately to leave out of this story is the need for and benefit of routine screening for cervical cancer. Pap smears can detect changes to the cervix long before they become cancer, and, if these changes are present, treatment can prevent them from ever becoming cancer. In fact, the CDC estimates that approximately half of the cases of cervical cancer that occur each year will occur in women who have never had a Pap test and an additional 10 percent will occur in women who were not screened in the last five years.
STDs are a serious public health problem and young people, whether they chose to be sexually active or not, need to know how these diseases are and are not transmitted, how they can prevent transmission, the signs and symptoms they should look out for, and how they can seek testing and treatment should they need it. Stenzel’s treatment of STDs as punishment for bad behavior and insistence on focusing on worst-case scenarios will not help young people in the long run.
Perhaps the most harmful element of Ms. Stenzel’s discussion on STDs, however, is her seeming dismissal of STD testing. She begins her discussion on this topic by scoffing at young people who assume they don’t have an STD saying “they think they’re not sick because they don’t feel sick” and yelling “you don’t get tested so you don’t know.” Although the obvious conclusion might be to encourage young people to get tested, she does just the opposite by portraying it as difficult and useless, as well as a brand of punishment and a source of shame.
Her discussion on Chlamydia, for example, suggests that if “we” knew young people had it, “we” could cure it but argues that “you can’t treat a disease you don’t know you have.” While this is perfectly logical, if her goal was to protect the health and well-being of young people, Ms. Stenzel would have followed this statement with an explanation of the importance of routine Chlamydia screening and a judgment-free suggestion that all sexually active young people speak to a medical professional as soon as possible. Instead, she settles for reiterating the threat of infertility.
This is, of course, not entirely true. If a young person is tested for Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and HIV for example, and the tests come up negative, the health care provider is going to do exactly what Stenzel says is impossible—tell them what they do not have. Perhaps she is trying to caution her audience that not all tests are conclusive and that some STDs are most easily (or only) diagnosed when there are active symptoms (like HPV in men). What she is actually doing, however, is discouraging testing. After all, if testing can’t give you good news – why do it?
Stenzel further discourages testing by treating it like a punishment for bad behavior and suggesting that young people are and should be ashamed of it. When she jokes that teens would be unlikely to admit to having been tested (parodying a young woman who tells her friends “I went to doctor the other day, got tested for Herpes—tell everyone by lunch”), Stenzel reinforces the notion that testing is a source of shame. And, when she once again adopts the tone of the stern authority figure and speaking in the “royal” we, Stenzel seems to suggest that it is punishment: “We are now requiring every woman who has had sex to get a pap test yearly, if you’re under the age of 24 and you’ve had sex you are at highest risk and we require you to get a pap test every 6 months.” Although this invokes an image of a criminal being brought in against her will, what Stenzel is actually discussing are medical recommendations made by physicians and other health care providers who want to help young people take care of their present and future health.
Young women (and men) should know that no one is going to forcibly test them for STDs, but that it is in their own best interest to get tested. In fact, young people should know that STD tests are not a routine part of a well-patient check-up, for example, and that they may have to take active steps to ensure that they are getting the tests they need. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that Ms. Stenzel’s presentation would motivate a young person to do this.
Although Stenzel’s presentation is devoid of many of the gender stereotypes and sexist remarks often found in other abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, it is worth noting that she targets her discussions about STDs to women. She argues that of the 30 STDs that are out there, 26 primarily damage women and only four damage men. Asking the young women in the audience, “Girls can I love you for just a minute?,” Stenzel proceeds to explain that life is unfair, “Girls, that boy could dump you, break up with you, leave your school, go to college, meet another girl, marry her and have a family, this is absolutely not going to hurt him. Ladies you’re scarred for life.”
While it is important for young people of both genders to understand that the physical symptoms and complications of STDs do vary for men and women, Stenzel’s single-minded focus on young women is disturbing. First, it may leave young men with the inaccurate idea that they don’t have to worry about STDs. Moreover, by frequently reminding men that they will escape unscathed save for the embarrassment of having to tell their future wives that they misbehaved as teens, Stenzel perpetuates the double standard that suggests virginity and purity are more important for young women.
Condoms and Contraception—Discouraging Use
Many fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and speakers treat condoms as the enemy. They operate on the illogical assumption that if young people think condoms don’t work, they won’t have sex, and spend a great deal of time detailing the ways in which condoms can and will fail. Pam Stenzel, on the other hand, devotes less than a minute of her stage time to discussing condoms. Nonetheless, she, too, seems to believe that condoms serve as a license to have sex and that it is important that young people be told that they do not work.
This is blatantly untrue. Condoms provide proven protection against both pregnancy and STDs and young people need to know this. Moreover, young people who are sexually active should be applauded not scoffed at for never having had “unprotected sex.”
In the Teacher’s Manual, Stenzel adds “There is not a condom in the world that can protect your heart, your reputation, your character and your values.” Condoms were never intended to protect young people’s emotions, they were intended to prevent pregnancy and STDs and years of scientific research shows that they do this quite effectively.
Stenzel’s offhanded comments about condoms are neither educational nor helpful as they provide no information but may very well discourage young people from using condoms when they do become sexually active.
Unfortunately, Stenzel is equally dismissive of other forms of contraception though she spends even less time discussing these. Early in her presentation, Stenzel explains that young people are too worried about pregnancy and not worried enough about contracting an STD. To prove this point she says that every time she goes to a high school some girl comes up to her and explains that when her mother found out she was having sex, she put her on the pill. Stenzel, her voice nothing short of yell, tells her audience, “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. This girl could end up sterile or dead….Thanks mom.”
This disturbing diatribe is clearly an attempt to scare young people rather than educate them about their contraceptive options. Ms. Stenzel does not elaborate on how or why she believes that hormonal contraception increases a woman’s risk of contracting an STD ten-fold and this statistic is nowhere to be found in the medical research. Yet, young people who hear this performance are likely to walk away thinking that the pill causes STDs and perhaps even that it is deadly.
It is important that all people have accurate information about how to prevent pregnancy and disease when they do become sexually active. Even those people who follow Stenzel’s parameters and do not have sex outside of a permanent monogamous relationship will benefit from knowing all of their contraceptive options. It is unconscionable to spread misinformation in an attempt to control people’s sexual behavior.
As mentioned earlier, Pam Stenzel begins her presentation by suggesting that she is not attempting to make decisions for the young people in the audience but wants them to be informed of the consequences of sex in order to make their own decisions. Throughout her highly biased presentation, however, it becomes clear that in saying this, she is merely paying lip service to teens as independent decision makers, and does not, in fact, view them as a capable of making their own choices.
At one point, when making fun of senior boys and freshmen girls who date (“…we can usually tell who those 9th grade girls who will date anything are because they’re dating senior boys who couldn’t get any girl their own age to touch them with a 10 foot poll…”) , Stenzel tells young people that no one under 16 “should be dating ever ever ever for any reason.” She explains this rule by saying “You’re brain damaged, it gets better.” Stenzel’s biases and desire to make decisions for her teen audience is never more apparent than in her long discussion about pregnancy options.
Pregnancy Options—Mandating Choices
After using unintended pregnancy as one of the inevitable consequences of sex with more than one partner, Stenzel all but tells young women that if they do become pregnant outside of marriage they should give the baby up for adoption.
Crisis pregnancy centers exist to prevent abortions and often use questionable practices and inaccurate information to do so. It is not surprising, therefore, that Stenzel is vehemently anti-abortion. Still, she touches on abortion only briefly, saying that “Abortion is painful,” and adding that “I’ve counseled hundreds of women 5, 10, 15 years after an abortion still hurting. I’ve counseled teenage girls with anorexia, bulimia, depression, suicide from an abortion they couldn’t take back.” Deriding young women who see abortion as a way out of an unintended pregnancy, she says, “It’s not like going to the dentist and getting your tooth pulled. There are consequences, lifelong.”
Although, crisis pregnancy centers frequently point to the existence of a post abortion stress disorder in an effort to dissuade women from exercising their right to choose, there is no scientific research to suggest that women who undergo an abortion suffer physical or mental consequences as a result.
More of Stenzel’s discussion of pregnancy options is focused on the outcomes of teen mothers. Using detailed statistics and a reference to her travels in Kenya, Stenzel reminds young people that there is real poverty in the United States and that the “number one predictor of poverty” has to do with whether a household is headed by a single parent and the age of the mother. She directs this piece of the conversation to young women, saying “Girls listen carefully…” and goes on to say that 80 percent of teen moms will live in poverty for at least 10 years if not for their whole lives.
Young people need to know that choosing to parent as a teen is a difficult decision with many challenges including financial ones. Stenzel is correct in telling young people that many teen parents live in poverty. However, like many other things she presents this as a form of punishment for past transgressions. It is important to remember, some young people that Stenzel addresses across the country will likely be already pregnant and parenting, to suggest that they have no other option than a bleak future in poverty does nothing to help these young parents and instead denies them the encouragement they need to succeed. In addition, some young people who hear this presentation may already living in poverty or on welfare, hearing their circumstances referred to as a form of punishment is likely to have a detrimental impact on these people as well.
Stenzel is not shy about her belief that adoption is the best choice though she acknowledges that it is not without its price she says, “I happen to think it’s the most positive option a girl has.” She starts this discussion, like so many others, with a hint of fear by telling the hypothetical story of one of the young women in the audience. This woman (who she refers to as “you”) learns in about 6 years or so that she is infertile and can’t get pregnant. She explains, “…all the money you and your husband have spent trying to get pregnant hasn’t worked,” and goes on to say that “the chances that you’ll be able to adopt an infant are not good.” Stenzel does not elaborate on this or point out that the shortage of infants up for adoption is based on the preference of many couples to adopt only a Caucasian child. Instead, she goes on to say that international adoptions are not as easy as Angelina Jolie makes it look.
The fear of not being able to have or adopt a child when you want one is then used as the reason that all young women faced with an unintended pregnancy need to choose adoption. As Stenzel explains, “It takes a lot of love for a parent to give that child away and to give that couple a chance to be parents who otherwise might not have been.” In fact, the description of young women who choose adoption as brave and selfless is just about the only time that Stenzel expresses anything other than contempt and derision for sexually active young people.
It is around the discussion of adoption that the conversation turns personal. Stenzel explains to her teen audience that, “42 years ago a young 15-year-old became pregnant, she had a lot of difficult choices to make, maybe more than some 15 year old girls—she was raped. Abortion was legal in Michigan for rape in the 60’s but this young girl chose to give her child life and then to place that child with an adoptive family, and that child was me.” She goes on to say that “I have not met my birth mom, some day I hope to. And if someday I get that chance, I’m going to wrap my arms around her and I’m going to tell her I love her because she loved me enough to give me my life, and she loved me enough to give me the next most special gift I was ever given and that’s my family.”
The most biased and inflammatory language, however, comes when Stenzel discusses her biological father, “My biological father is a rapist. I don’t even know my ethnicity. But my life isn’t worth any less than any of yours just because of the way I was conceived. And I did not deserve the death penalty because of the crime of my father.”
All women need to know that if they face an unintended pregnancy as a young person or an adult, they have options that are equally valid and available. It is not the place of an educational program to choose for them.
Yet, Stenzel not only provides young people with her own opinion on the topic but directs students facing an unintended pregnancy to her website where they can put in their zip codes and find a crisis pregnancy center near them. Early in her career, Stenzel served as the Director of the Alpha Women’s Center in Prior Lake, Minnesota. The organization describes it mission by saying, “Alpha Women's Center was founded for the purpose of assisting women who are experiencing unplanned pregnancies, saving the lives of the unborn, and ministering healing and hope to women exploited by abortion….We seek to lift up the name of Jesus Christ over everything that we do.” It is inappropriate for an educational program in a public school to refer young people to patently religious sources.
Pam Stenzel’s presentation, “Sex Still Has a Price Tag,” represents the worst kind of abstinence-only-until-marriage programming. It is based on fear and shame; designed to control young people’s sexual behavior by instilling in them feelings of dread, guilt, and embarrassment. In both her tone and her words, Stenzel appears to have an intense dislike or at least distrust of the young people she is speaking to, and seems to see her goal as that of a drill sergeant or prison guard who is there to keep them in line and dole out punishment. Moreover, Stenzel relies on inaccurate statistics and passes off gross exaggerations and complete falsehoods as fact.
As part of our review, SIECUS asked a summer intern (a 17-year-old about to enter her senior year in high school) to view and evaluate this video. She was struck by the hypocrisy Stenzel exhibits when saying that the media treats teenagers as unthinking animals. Our intern felt Stenzel did the same thing saying: “She imitates teenage ideas, using pathetic voices and mocking tones, as though she’s trying to be funny, but comes across as nasty.” She found Stenzel condescending and felt that if this presentation were given at her school the “entire student body would be offended by her portrayal of teenagers.”
Ultimately, Stenzel’s presentation does nothing to educate young people about their sexuality, and, by relying on fear, shame, and misinformation may, in fact, be harmful.
This speaker review was written by Martha Kempner, SIECUS’ vice president for information and communications. Thank you to Annabelle Moore SIECUS intern for her insightful evaluation and to Bhavana Nancherla and Michael C. Lott, SIECUS interns, for their research assistance.
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