Miss America's stealth virginity campaign

With the coveted tiara firmly in her grasp, beauty queen Erika Harold quickly unveiled plans to promote her pet cause: Abstinence-only sex education.

Published October 28, 2002 5:17PM (EST)

When Erika Harold, an articulate, multiracial Harvard Law student, aced her Miss America interview to take the throne, organizers of the pageant claimed an important victory of their own. Quoted in a Salon story headlined "Brains 1, Barbie 0," they crowed with satisfaction, believing that by rejiggering the scoring to emphasize intelligence, and directing judges to reward academic chops over bathing beauty, they had brought new respect to a politically incorrect ritual.

In a letter to the editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, five of the pageant judges wrote, "She [Harold] will spend the next 365 days trying to eradicate harassment and violence from schools. Is Miss America relevant? You bet."

And best of all, the Miss America organization had dodged the bullet of sex scandal, driving from serious consideration a Miss North Carolina whose spurned fiancé had threatened to expose topless snapshots of her, taken, allegedly, without her permission.

Alas, less than a month after the festivities, sex looms once again as a spoiler -- after the fact -- of the Miss America proceedings; but this time it is not the revelation of wanton ways that has created headaches for contest officials, it is the queen's abrupt shift from a platform against youth violence to a campaign for sexual abstinence that threatens to disrupt the event's smooth transition from tawdry bikini fest to a bare-midriff college bowl.

It all began when Harold, shortly after receiving her tiara, announced at a press conference her intention to publicly advocate chastity before marriage. This was a pet topic, Harold told reporters, and she had every hope of speaking of it often and officially, despite perceived resistance from Miss America organizers. The implication that Harold had somehow been warned away from sex talk, albeit anti-sex talk, fired up the Washington Times, which immediately ran an article titled "Miss America told to zip it on chastity talk." Harold's ardent supporters in the abstinence movement went to other media brimming with indignation.

"In an age where beauty queens are regularly disqualified for inappropriate behavior, who would have thought a virtuous one would be silenced for her virtue?" said Concerned Women for America President Sandy Rios in a press release. "This is blatant censorship that betrays a hidden agenda of political correctness and religious bigotry among pageant officials."

The Times and press releases from family values groups further suggested that pageant officials demonstrated a clear liberal bias when they allowed Miss America 1998 Kate Shindle, whose platform was HIV prevention, to advocate condom distribution and needle exchange during her reign.

Media outlets from the Austin American Statesman to People magazine ran with the story, saying pageant officials tried to silence Harold's pro-chastity opinions, and that the brainy beauty queen refused to be "bullied." Already elevated to heroine status in abstinence-only circles, Miss America was quickly embraced by the Bush administration's conservative ranks, many of whom met with her in Washington to discuss her platform. And 38 members of Congress immediately sent Harold a letter encouraging her to "stand up for your beliefs and promote the healthy message of abstinence until marriage."

Finally, as controversy threatened to overtake all positive spin, Miss America officials warmed to Harold's abstinence stance, a change of heart, according to Focus on the Family and Family Research Council, inspired by the demand of angry conservatives to loosen the new queen's "muzzle."

Miss America's interim CEO George Bauer has been unavailable for comment, as has Erika Harold. But in an Oct. 9 press release, the new Miss America said that she had thought she wouldn't be able to talk about abstinence in an official capacity, but after her press conference, she met with contest officials and "clarified the role abstinence will play in the advocacy of my platform." Youth violence prevention would still be part of her platform, said Harold, but, she added, "I will be speaking this year about abstinence in all forms -- including abstaining from drugs, alcohol and sex ..."

In an interview with her hometown paper, the News-Gazette, the Urbana native went a bit further, saying, "It was always my intention to incorporate some form of abstinence education into my youth-violence platform. I never desired to be subversive or to have a double platform. It baffled me that there was a controversy about it."

Perhaps doubly baffled are those who see the platform switch as controversial, if not downright sneaky. "When I went to bed, it was youth violence and I breathed a huge sigh of relief," said Susan Wilson, executive coordinator for Rutgers University Network for Family Life Education, advocates of comprehensive sexuality education. "I think the judges should take her crown away for lying. What a role model."

But according to Carol Radtke, president of the board for the Miss Illinois scholarship program, all local contestants understand that youth violence prevention is the state's official platform in the Miss America competition. They can weave into their own personal cause, she said, should they win the state pageant. "Erika was encouraged, for the youth of the United States and internationally," said Radtke, "to work with the big picture of youth against violence, and to draw upon her own personal experience of bullying and harassment."

Harold responded to the "encouragement" by sticking to the subject of youth violence during the national pageant and immediately after, when she flew to Brussels for the launch of the World Health Organization's Report on Violence and Health, and garnered the support of several other social and political advocacy groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the National Center for Victims of Crime. She repeated a litany of heartbreaking stories about the racial and sexual harassment she suffered in the ninth grade, a brutal time in which she said she was called a whore and a slut, and discovered that kids were pooling lunch money to buy a rifle to kill her.

Incredibly, Harold had never publicly spoken of this torment before taking on the youth violence platform as Miss Illinois. Libby Gray, one of Harold's mentors at Chicago-based Project Reality, an abstinence-only group that trains beauty contestants to advocate premarital chastity, says of Harold's torment: "I've known her for four years and I didn't know about it."

Harold, Gray said, has since explained that she wasn't "emotionally ready to talk about her bullying history" prior to winning Miss Illinois. And also, Gray said, "the state people gave Erika the impression that it wouldn't be savvy to mention abstinence (at the national pageant)."

Even more likely is the possibility that Harold believed staying mum on chastity would help her win. "We had conversations too," Gray said, "and she felt it wouldn't be prudent for her to talk about it."

That prudence, Gray suggested, was grounded not just in the coaching of state handlers, but in the conventional wisdom of abstinence activists. Gray produced as evidence an article posted online two years ago by conservative World Magazine accusing "liberal cultural forces" of pressuring beauty queen contestants to "abstain from having abstinence platforms."

The story quotes one such contestant, Brooke Buie, who allegedly couldn't advance with her platform "Sexual Abstinence and Self-Worth." So she took the "sheep in wolf's clothing" approach to win Miss Texas runner-up with the broader platform of "Aids Awareness."

"You just have to decide what your goal is," Buie told World. "Do you want to stick to sexual abstinence no matter what? Or do you want to get as high up as you can so that you can have a national platform to say what you want once you have the title?"

As Miss America, Harold has repeated her stories about racial and sexual harassment, recently adding that a school principal responded to her request for help during the bullying by saying, "If you'd only be more submissive like the other girls, this wouldn't happen to you."

Harold and her father have said that she will continue to talk in generalities about the harassment, but will not name names. Gray, meanwhile, explains that for Harold, abstinence was such a positive thing, "a great choice that empowered her as a young woman," that she naturally chose abstinence over violence as her pageant cause.

Certainly Gray, and others on the frontlines of America's abstinence-only movement, have not been surprised by Harold's passion for the chastity cause, which she has promoted throughout her pageant career as a contestant and as a spokeswoman for Project Reality. Funded primarily by the Illinois Department of Human Services, Project Reality adheres to such teaching principles as "sex outside of marriage can cause physical or psychological harm." Contraceptives cannot be mentioned except to discuss failure rates.

In her written testimony for Welfare Reform's reauthorization of more abstinence funding, Harold wrote of being accepted and receiving awards for speaking out about sexual abstinence. "This was recognition that not only is the abstinence movement an important new sexual revolution," she said, "but it is also a movement that my generation must lead."

In a 1999 Eagle Forum Education Reporter article, Project Reality director Kathleen Sullivan called Harold and another beauty queen "the wave of the future" and "role models ... emerging at the start of the new millennium who may spark a new type of sexual revolution." Continued Sullivan, "The fact that these lovely, confident young women not only know the importance of reserving the marital act until marriage, but were willing to make abstinence their platform in the Miss Illinois Pageant, is very refreshing."

A letter of recommendation from Project Reality for Miss America's Community Service Award further documents Harold's longtime involvement in the pro-abstinence movement.

"For the past three years, Erika has served as a field representative for Project Reality, a national organization promoting adolescent health through abstinence education," wrote director Sullivan. The letter outlines Harold's achievements with Project Reality, including speaking to more than 14,000 young people, meeting with more than 100 legislative offices, and submitting written testimony to pass the House bill for more abstinence funding through Welfare Reform reauthorization.

However, the letter speaks of general abstinence from "risky behaviors" and mentions sex only once. "Although Erika's platform has been centered on the message of sexual abstinence," says the letter, "Erika's presentations touch upon other issues pertinent to youth, such as violence prevention and bullying."

Harold, who as Miss America 2003, will travel 20,000 miles each month to advocate her social cause, seems to have embraced this strategy not just to win the coveted tiara, but to eventually attain public office. Immediately after September's pageant, in a National Review piece called "The 'Right' Miss America," conservative columnist Joel Mowbray wrote, "Ironically, Harold thought of quitting pageant life a year ago, convinced that judges would never crown an outspoken conservative as Miss Illinois. She told me two months before the state pageant that she strongly doubted she would win the state title, let alone the national one."

Mowbray goes on to comment on Harold switching to a youth violence platform for the national contest, saying "here's why Harold will shine as a politician: She is cunning enough to know that you can't talk to teens about violence without discussing the risk factors that contribute to dangerous behavior: drugs, alcohol -- and teen sex."

Harold has made clear her political ambitions. Staunchly opposed to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, she has said she will probably run as a Republican for governor or for the Senate, and ultimately for president. Her Miss America bio says she plans to work with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on her platform.

After her National Press Club appearance earlier this month, Miss America met with Attorney General John Ashcroft, Surgeon General Richard Carmona and Education Secretary Rod Paige. The Department of Education's press office said an aide who attended most of the meeting didn't hear "talk of abstinence" while there, that Harold and Paige discussed bullying and harassment prevention efforts in America's schools. However, reports indicate chastity will slip into policy discussions in time.

Bob Harold, Erika's father, told the News-Gazette before last week's public spat that his daughter "had to take on the new platform [of youth violence]," but that she would "eventually integrate both issues."

Erika, in her interview with the News-Gazette, suggests the priority of her two passions. "Sometimes you take flak for what you say, but if you really want to see teen pregnancy rates decline and violence decrease you have to stand up for what you believe in," she said.

To the Daily Illinois, she called Miss America, "a job opportunity of a lifetime ... to get the opportunity to travel around the world and speak to young people about issues that are important, and to be able to talk to policy makers in terms of making decisions that are really going to impact lives of young people."

Immediately after her Miss America win, Harold reportedly began organizing the other beauty queens to advocate sexual abstinence. Before that, according to the letter of recommendation from Project Reality, Harold helped Project Reality "connect with over 20 pageant titleholders from across the country who have advocated a similar platform [sexual abstinence]."

In fact, Harold and 11 other beauty queens went to Capitol Hill in April to push for more abstinence-only funding and, according to the Family Research Council, to participate in a weekend "boot camp" on politics, lobbying and media training. According to Project Reality, the crowned virgins ultimately were instrumental in helping pass welfare reform reauthorization of more abstinence-only funds, which came after the defeat of two amendments calling for abstinence programs to include medically accurate information and for state flexibility with abstinence curriculum.

Opposition to the measure increasing abstinence-only funds has come from nearly 100 youth, health and civil rights groups who signed a letter to President Bush asking him to reconsider abstinence-only funding. The emergence of Miss America as a glittering symbol for premarital chastity is a setback for these activists.

Tamara Kreinin, president of Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States said, "Bottom line, we respect anyone's choices for their own lives. But it's cause for concern when someone with a lot of notoriety, especially with young people, advocates a position that can cause harm to their health and well-being."

Adds Wilson of Rutgers University Network for Family Life Education, which publishes the popular Sex, Etc. Web site for teens, "The chance to give all young people the opportunity to be responsible goes out of the window when Miss America starts using her own personal choice as the yardstick for sexual behavior for every teen in the United States."

Laurel Martinez, 20, a volunteer for Scarleteen, a Web site founded to counter the abstinence-only movement by providing comprehensive sexual health education, and which includes moderated message boards, said Harold's stance on abstinence "is not only unrealistic and intolerant, it is dangerous."

Adds Martinez, "At Scarleteen, we spend the majority of our time answering questions that could easily be addressed in a comprehensive sexuality curriculum. Due to lack of funding for any program which is not abstinence-based, teens are not being taught even the fundamentals of taking care of themselves."

James Wagoner, director of Advocates for Youth, which supports a more comprehensive Family Life Education Act still in the House, hopes that research, and the support of education and health professionals, will overcome the effects of Erika Harold's polished politicking.

"America's leading scientific body, the Institute of Medicine, has called abstinence-only programs 'poor fiscal and public health policy,'" he said. "With all due respect to the current Miss America, I think that statement carries more weight than her personal views when it comes to how we should address the 10,000 cases of sexually transmitted disease, the 2,400 pregnancies, and the 55 new cases of HIV infection which occur among teens in the U.S. each and every day."

At this point, it hardly matters just how much the Miss America judges knew about Harold's primary political passion or whether they attempted to silence her. Harold is America's beauty queen, a bright, beautiful and poised 22-year-old who will use her position to promote abstinence unless married -- most likely with the help of like-minded politicos such as Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson. And if she is as successful with her bid for office as she was in her reach for the tiara, Harold, an unabashed Christian conservative and perhaps the most famous virgin since Britney Spears, just might become president one day, not just queen of the new sexual revolution.

By Lara Riscol

Lara Riscol is the author of "Ten Sex Myths That Screw America" and a member of the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality.

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