by Lori Kuykendall, MPH, President and CEO of Medical Institute for Sexual Health
When the United States Supreme Court made the decision to legalize abortion in 1973, a cultural war had been raging in America for over a decade. Roe v. Wade was another battle won by the sexual revolutionaries who were advancing ironically under the banner of “Make love, not war!” Their war had as its objective to overturn the cultural values of sex within its God-intended context of marriage.
The so-called “science” of Alfred Kinsey from the 1940s and 50s espousing more sex, earlier sex and sex with multiple partners combined with the pharmaceutical advances of widely accessible birth control to the millions of “baby boomers” coming into their rebellious adolescent years created a perfect storm to set off dramatic cultural change. Sex without commitment or consequences became the norm, and immediately divorce rates climbed from 1 in 6 to now nearly 1 in 2 as did sexually transmitted diseases, then just two to be concerned about and now more than 30.
Consider the many “ills” of our society that have resulted from sex outside its intended context of healthy marriage. Add to climbing divorce rates and STDs abortion, sex trafficking, sexual abuse, cohabitation, pornography, rape, exploitation, out-of-wedlock births, prostitution, and adultery. We walk daily through the fallout in our own lives and in the lives of our friends and neighbors, and I wonder as we trudge through all the rubble if we can even imagine a different world.
Pregnancy help centers are positioned perfectly to compassionately help those left in the rubble. Other groups are fighting divorce or trafficking or pornography or rape in public policy, media, churches, and schools. Yet, somehow, we have not recovered a lot of the lost ground in spite of our individual efforts. We have not really gotten to the root of the problem.
Like the Hydra in Greek mythology, we have worked tirelessly to cut off a few heads—only to see more heads grow back in their place. Now, we must strike at the base—and we must do that together. We have the opportunity to join together and attack the Hydra at its core, by working together to restore sex to its intended context and start a “new sexual revolution.”
Ushering in this “new sexual revolution” will require the united strength of all of us—combining our knowledge and efforts and working in close coordination in a stronger, more strategic way. We must step out of our silos, link arms, and wave the victory flag of hope and wholeness as we rebuild the walls of our nation, one family at a time.
Lori Kuykendall, MPH is President and CEO of Medical Institute for Sexual Health. Her first job in health education was at the Women’s Pregnancy Center in Houston. She later was the director of LifeTalk Resource Center in Frisco, Texas. Together with Medical Institute Founder Dr. Joe McIlhaney, they are leading a national “coalition for a new sexual revolution.” She is presenting A New Sexual Revolution: Positioning for Cultural Change at the Heartbeat International 50th Annual Conference.
by Pam Stenzel, MA, MFT
Let’s face it, talking about sex is hard. But the conversation has become increasingly difficult in the midst of a culture that is constantly “triggered” and will need extensive therapy when “their truth” is questioned. It is also complicated by a generation that puts far more emphasis on “feelings” over facts and are willing to create their own personal reality while dismissing the evidence of science.
How do we have honest, difficult conversations with the highest risk group for STI infection, unexpected pregnancy and sexual dysfunction? Young people between the ages of 15 -24 currently account for close to 60 percent of new STI infections, according to the latest CDC Surveillance published in October of 2019. [https://www.cdc.gov/std/stats18/default.htm] Since 2014, there has been a 19% increase in cases of chlamydia, an astounding 71% increase in cases of primary and secondary syphilis, and a whopping 185% increase in congenital syphilis. These facts matter, especially to the clients we serve.
When I first began to engage with clients about sexual health and ask them if they had been tested for STI infections, I would get a look of confusion. “Why would I worry about STI’s? I used a condom, most of the time. I have only had 3 partners. I shower right after sex, every time.” I would proceed to provide what I thought was very basic information about sexually transmitted infections, how they are transmitted, how many people were infected and what the possible consequences could be to themselves, or their future fertility, or their unborn baby. Almost every single time, the response was “I didn’t know” or “nobody told me!”
One of the benefits of beginning the conversation about sexual health and hopefully moving to a bigger conversation of healthy relationships, is that we are reaching young women and men amid a crisis. Waiting for the results of a pregnancy test, or certainly an STI test, is the most teachable moment you will ever encounter. All the typical dismissive reasons for not dealing with the consequences of their behavior have flown out the window. I now have the opportunity, by simply and carefully asking questions on the intake, to begin to break down all the resistance to the discussion and the denial that has prevented them from considering consequences, and without judgement begin to give facts. Facts must prevail over feelings.
When we begin a discussion dealing with the sexual health information, which is objective and can be discussed in the context of optimal health and concern for the physical safety and wellbeing of the client, we have established a level of care and concern that then allows us to delve into the more subjective area of emotional and relational health. It is on this foundation that we can begin to chip away at so many myths about sex and intimacy that have been foisted upon us by the culture.
Recently, when discussing with a client her chlamydia tests results, she confided that she had tested positive for chlamydia the year before and even once in high school. This college sophomore was now in my clinic to be tested because she had a new partner and wanted to be given the “all clear.” I began to describe the possible consequences of repeated infections to her, especially as a female, which include pelvic inflammatory disease and possible future fertility issues. She said she never knew that information, especially that she would most likely be the one dealing with these physical consequences, not any of her male partners. I asked her directly, “Was the sex worth it?” She paused for a second, then laughed and said, “Definitely not!" With that kind of start, we have the foundation to move the discussion into the deeper issues of healthy relationships.
It is so important that our staff and volunteers are well prepared to not only have these conversations, but make it a priority to provide this information that so many of our clients have never been given. Just as with a pregnancy decision, we are not making choices for the client. The choice is ultimately theirs, but we never want anyone making life and death decisions without having all the information. They deserve to know the truth about the consequences of the choices they are making, both physical and emotional. We cannot let our fear, or our discomfort with discussing sex, prevent us from having these important conversations. Each one deserves our respect and deserves to hear that they are fully capable of making good, healthy choices for themselves and their future.
Pam Stenzel, M.A.; M.F.T.
Pam Stenzel is the current Senior Regional Clinic Coordinator for Community Pregnancy Clinics located in Florida. She has spent over 30 years speaking to students on sexual integrity both nationally and internationally. She is married, the mother of 3 adult children and grandma of 2 beautiful granddaughters.
by Melissa Hopper
In an age where technology is king and information is easily accessible, it’s no surprise that young people are becoming more autonomous at an earlier age. Today’s teens are enjoying higher levels of independence than ever before, and it seems like they are comfortable leaving their parents out of big decisions like getting an abortion or accessing medical care. Although teen birth rates are decreasing, lack of parental support means that teens experience increased pressure to choose abortion over parenting.
by Jennifer Wright, Editor/WriterHeartbeat International
Medical science is truly amazing to me. I’m constantly surprised by how well we as a society have come to understand how the human body works and how we can help the body return to health.
But we don’t always work to improve a body’s function with the knowledge we’ve uncovered. Sometimes, our society tries to break something—like a woman’s fertility—in the name of fixing a problem that may or may not have something to do with her sexuality.
It confuses me that stopping a woman’s fertility—a sign of her body working the way it should—is a solution that the medical community is willing to offer so easily to women with acne, endometriosis, PCOS, hormonal imbalances, and more. It’s so common in fact that, as the Guttmacher Institute reports, about 60% of all women of reproductive age are currently using a contraceptive method.
Even when a woman requests birth control from her doctor for the purpose of sex without children or to protect from STI/STDs, the result is rarely, if ever, a completely positive experience.
I hear stories consistently from women about the various side-effects of hormonal contraceptives. Massive weight gain or loss, changes in mood and sexual desires, intense pain, bleeding – it’s no wonder “green, organic” methods of family planning, like fertility awareness-based methods are on the rise.
But then I am reminded of how many doctors and medical professionals treat hormonal contraceptives. It’s not uncommon for a doctor to prescribe a teenage girl with menstrual cramps some form of birth control. After all, the assumption is that she’s probably having sex or about to start anyway, so it’s a good idea to prevent pregnancy too. At least that’s the reason most cite. (Nevermind the psychological effects known to accompany casual sex.)
It can be difficult to find a doctor willing to explore other avenues of treatment.
A few of my married friends dealing with endometriosis have discovered this. After discussing with their doctors their hopes to start raising a family, they are still told that their best treatment option is hormonal birth control. One was even told her period was the real problem and the only way to fix her symptoms was to halt it.
When the world is so dead set (and I mean that in all it’s implications) on preventing children, who is willing to stand for life and women?
For these and many reasons, Heartbeat’s Commitment of Care and Competence states “We do not offer, recommend or refer for abortions, abortifacients or contraceptives. We are committed to offering accurate information about related risks and procedures.” (Click here for Heartbeat's full official statement.)
Hormonal methods can serve as abortifacients and have negative side effects for women, and it’s been proven that even barrier methods make individuals more likely to engage in “risky” sexual behavior that could lead to an unintended pregnancy, and sometimes, as a result, an abortion. The pregnancy help movement is committed to other solutions – better solutions – for women. It’s one of the primary reasons I love being a part of this movement.
When a pregnancy help organization provides medical services (STI/STD testing, well woman care, ultrasound, etc.) without providing contraceptives, it supports women more than any of the doctors or medical centers out there willing to “solve” a problem by breaking a working part of a woman’s body. Even more, that organization is ready to give a woman the holistic spiritual and emotional care she deserves to make the best decisions for herself that are healthy and empowering - true reproductive healthcare.
Women are waking up to the dangers of hormonal birth control and are relieved to have better options!
Through the compassionate care of the pregnancy help movement and strong sexual risk avoidance programs, a woman is emboldened to make positive choices for her future. Maybe she will find the strength to leave an unhealthy relationship, draw safer and healthier boundaries, or recognize her own self-worth in Christ that she’s never seen before — all because she was offered something different than the secular mainstream line of “just take this pill," "don't think about it," "safe sex."
Nothing beats the credibility that we gain with our clients when we prioritize them, address their real issues, and treat them holistically without treating their fertility as a problem to be solved.
For more information and FAQs about Heartbeat International's official statement on the provision of contraceptives by pregnancy help organizations, click here.
by Jennifer Minor, Editor/WriterHeartbeat International
In seventh and eighth grade at my Catholic school in suburban Cleveland, Ohio, I went through a program with my class called Operation Keepsake. When I started working at Heartbeat and interacting with the leaders of classes and programs in schools and out, somehow I didn’t make the connection. Then, I attended a presentation by Mary Anne Mosack where she shared about her journey with Ascend and Sexual Risk Avoidance Education (SRAE). It was only then that all the pieces fit together at last.
You see, Operation Keepsake was a step on the journey for Mary Anne doing her work spreading SRAE in schools. And here’s the thing, that class affected me in ways I didn’t realize at the time.
Fifteen years after my SRAE experience, I’m about to get married. I’m constantly overwhelmed with excitement (and sometimes stress), and I know that part of it is that my fiancé and I have done things in order.
We’re following the success sequence that SRAE teaches. We both got our educations, we have full time jobs, we’re getting married, and then we’ll think about kids, and we both made the choice to have one partner for life. Not only does this fit both of our Christian values and match up with God’s plan for our sexuality, it has demonstrable, research-backed benefits for society. Following all three behaviors in the simple success sequence (graduate, work full-time, marry before having children) leaves a millennial with only a 3% chance of living in poverty as an adult. The statistics are pretty clear, and you can see all of the data that Ascend has gathered here.
Now, I’ll admit, I didn’t walk out of Operation Keepsake with the success sequence in my brain. I walked out with much more information about STD/STIs than I wanted to know. I was hyper-aware that crossing certain lines would make it difficult to back up. It was the nature of my teenage brain, I suppose, but the success sequence stuck anyway (in part certainly due to my own family’s values).
While I didn’t have much of a dating life in middle school or high school, the dating I did in my twenties did make me think back to Operation Keepsake. I remembered that love is not sex. I remembered that there was a holy and healthy way to approach my sexuality, and while I had certainly learned more since those classes when I was about fourteen, SRAE was a part of my foundation.
That’s why I am grateful that Heartbeat International makes sure there’s opportunities for pregnancy help organizations to dive into Sexual Risk Avoidance Education at the Heartbeat International Annual Conference. My experience with SRAE was certainly supported by family and friends that stood by its teachings, but as I continue to prepare for marriage and my future, I’m so glad that more students will have the experience I did and gain the tools to make healthy and holy decisions for their lives as well.
I’m an SRAE success story, and I fully hope that more and more will be able to say the same.
Mary Anne Mosack, president/CEO of Ascend, will be presenting an In-Depth Training on Sexual Risk Avoidance at the 2020 Heartbeat International Annual Conference. You can click here to find out more or to register for this training opportunity. Additional resources from Ascend can be found at weascend.org.
by Dr. Joe McIlhaney, MD
Editor's note: Dr. McIlhaney will be presenting on the topic of Brain Science and Sex at the 2020 Heartbeat International Annual Conference. You can join him to learn more in his workshop on Wednesday (Day 2) of the Conference. Below is an exerpt from the first chapter of his book on the same subject.
Now that we have defined sex according to physical activity—according to what our bodies are doing—we’re ready to talk about the rest of the story. In order to truly understand why sex sells and why it is so pervasive in our society, we have to understand that humans are not just sex machines or animals. We, as human beings, are so much more.
If we think of sex as only a physical activity to be engaged in at our pleasure, and only for our pleasure, we will be blindsided by problems produced by the misunderstandings and miscalculations of our human nature. If we think our makeup is limited to satisfying appetites, we’ll conclude that we can engage in sexual activity, enjoy it on a physical level, and totally disassociate these acts from the rest of what we are as human beings—but we’ll be sadly mistaken and be blindsided by what might happen to us.
Going back to the time of sexual awakening, important research into the phenomenon of puberty has yielded some important discoveries. It has been found that teenage boys with high testosterone levels were more likely to engage in sexual behaviors than boys with lower hormone levels.1 In girls, early puberty has been linked to early age of first sexual intercourse.2 Yet research has found that parental relationships had the greatest influence on teen sexual behavior.
So, what’s the point? It is worth remembering that every child’s body and brain transforms as he or she gets older, and this transformation has a huge physical and psychological impact on all things sexual. An intense fascination and desire for sex often accompanies these changes. Yet simply going through puberty or having a sex hormone coursing through a young person’s bloodstream, or even a specific genetic disposition, does not determine the decisions they make about sex. Beneficial factors, such as home environment and adult guidance, can help shepherd an adolescent through this tumultuous period in life. Negative guidance, if it dominates, from peers or the media can make the journey much more difficult.
Finally, it is clear that the brain is still developing during puberty and will continue to do so far after the external physical changes have reached their conclusion.
A 2017 survey of high school adolescents illustrates that sexual activity has more ramifications beyond the physical. The survey showed that both boys and girls who have had sex are more likely to be depressed than their friends who have not. The survey also asked questions regarding considering making a suicide attempt, making a suicide plan, and actually attempting suicide. Those students who had not had sexual contact consistently had lower percentages than their sexually experienced classmates on all questions regarding suicide.3
In all likelihood, none of these young people were aware that depression and suicidal thoughts might be caused in part by their sexual behavior. Consider the following questions:
The answers, of course, lie in the fact that human beings are creatures who are much more than physical bodies. We possess the ability for cognitive thought, which includes judgment, abstract thinking, planning for the future, moral intelligence, and other processes that govern our lives. Our decision-making ability, coming from the highest centers of the brain, can guide an individual to the most rewarding sexual behavior—unless bad programming from premature and unwise sexual behavior during the adolescent years has occurred, adversely affecting the brain’s ability to make healthy decisions.6
This is a risk about which most young people and most parents are totally unaware.
Fortunately, modern neuroscience of the past few years has opened a door of understanding that provides incredibly helpful guidance away from trouble. Many of the answers to the questions above, and others, may be found in modern neuroscientific research, the study of the human brain and nervous system, which has revealed startling new information about how sex affects the brain.
In the past, efforts to accurately assess the connection between sex, love, sexual desire, sexual risk-taking, and so on with brain activity were limited. But with the aid of modern research techniques and technologies, scientists are confirming that sex is more than a momentary physical act. It produces powerful, even lifelong, changes in our brains that direct and influence our future to a surprising degree.7 This new neuroscience information, which has greatly expanded over the past three decades, has transformed the scientific discussion about sex. Perspectives from medical, public health, and social science literature will also be utilized in this book to enhance our understanding of sexual behavior in adolescents and young adults in the larger cultural context.
The uniqueness of becoming an intimate part of another person’s mind and body—emotional and physical bonding, both experienced in a healthy way, and the vital role this plays in one’s health, happiness, and hope for the future—are the central issues we will be explaining in this book. It is probably the most important outcome of healthy, positive sex.
by Jennifer Minor, Heartbeat Editor/Writer
I didn’t really think a lot about my body growing up—unless it was to lament that I wasn’t as pretty as someone else, but that’s another story. Later, I came to see that most people thought about their bodies in one of two ways: as something like a cage for the soul full of temptation or as nothing more than a tool to make them feel good.
When I did start thinking this way, as a good Catholic girl, I went with the first. Yes, my body is a “Temple of the Holy Spirit,” but it’s also a stumbling block on the way to Heaven, right? Yes, it’s “fearfully and wonderfully made,” but that’s more about ME than just my body.
It wasn’t until I was in college that I was first introduced to Pope St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body.” Discovering that changed everything.
The basic concept is simple. John Paul II spent about five of his years as Pope sharing his reflections on the creation story in Genesis, which just goes to show you there’s always more to scripture. These short reflections that he shared were eventually gathered together under the title Theology of the Body—and widely ignored for about 20 years.
Fortunately for me, “Theology of the Body” is currently all the rage in the Catholic Church, so I got introduced to the concept about eight years ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
In the reading that I’ve done, the talks that I’ve attended, and the homilies I’ve heard on the subject, I’ve been reminded of many things that are often simply overlooked by Christians with “body as cage for the soul” mentality.
The “resurrection of the body” is an explicitly stated belief in the Apostle’s Creed. Jesus, after His resurrection, still has a body and can eat and drink, but it isn’t bound by space or time in the same way we are now, and his followers don’t recognize Him immediately in it. It’s been glorified.
Our bodies matter! And more than that, our bodies are a symbol of our whole selves. My body is a reflection of myself, and I am made in the image and likeness of God.
Knowing this, how could I continue to act as if my body didn’t matter? Or worse, as if it was merely a cage or stumbling block to living a holy life?
No. The way I express myself with my body means so much more than that. The way I dress can tell the people around me how much I respect myself. The way I care for my body—exercising, eating well, getting stronger—is as important as the way I care for my spiritual life—regular prayer, time with God, and practicing silence.
And of course, this means that my body can’t be nothing more than a tool to make me feel good. It’s no mere object for pleasure; if I make it that for any reason, I’m doing myself and everyone involved a great disservice.
I’m grateful to be a woman, and I know that my body is made to be able to bring life into the world. That is an incredible thing!
It’s extremely empowering to know that your body is built to create and sustain life.
But when I look around me, I see that my peers don’t see themselves that way. Their fertility to them is an obstacle, a prohibition against some kind of free expression of their sexuality. But then again, was my perspective so different when I saw my body as only a cage and a temptation?
Falling into thinking of ourselves as only body or only spirit doesn’t work.
I’m living best, and acknowledging the best in others when I remember that human beings are body AND soul. Both have eternal significance, and for me, “Theology of the Body” helped me discover that essential truth, and change the way I think about—and treat—my body.
For more information on the Theology of the Body, check out Fr. Joel’s recorded workshop from the 2018 Heartbeat International Annual Conference How “Theology of the Body” Helps Us Today. You may also be interested in Pia de Solenni’s keynote from the same Conference.
There is an extraordinary amount of wisdom packed into Proverbs 4:23, which not only directs our lives but our ministry. It says to “above all else, guard your heart,” or watch over it with all diligence, “for everything you do flows from it.” When we think of pro-life ministry, we often think of helping a mother and her baby when the mother is in a situation where she is considering having an abortion. But we know there is a story behind what led to that point. Heartbeat’s vision is to make abortion unwanted today and unthinkable for the future.
Training people to guard their hearts will make this possible. But how?
1. Building Good Relationships
Doing anything that’s wrong starts with evil desires. James described how they lead one to give in to temptation and to sin, which brings about death. One way of avoiding this wrong path involves promoting transparency and trust in relationships, opening up ourselves to others and giving of ourselves. We are designed to be people in relationship who love God – who first loved us – and who love our neighbor as ourself. Whether we have fears, anxieties, sins, or sorrows, they can be overcome through sharing them with God and other wise people. Paul the apostle said that in bringing everything before God, His peace will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, and James said that healing comes through confessing our sins to one another and praying for one another.
Promoting healthy relationships, where we enjoy God and cherish one another, leaves no room for destructive desires. Without such relationships, we end up, as Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal said, trying in vain to fill our emptiness with everything around us, seeking in those things help that they do not provide; they cannot satisfy us, “because the infinite abyss can be filled by an infinite and immutable object...God himself.” Developing relationships with grace and truth, though, gives us moral strength that drives out desires that lead to sins against our own children or others. Consider, then, how you might do this more in your own life, as well as how to encourage others in it.
2. Developing the Mind
A second key way to guard our hearts, or our whole being, is to develop the mind, using both God’s general and special revelation. The ideas we believe in, when we live them out, have consequences. That is why it’s so important to work on identifying and getting rid of false beliefs that we have, learn more true beliefs, and strengthen the true beliefs we have.
In Paul’s terms, we must be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we can know and live according to God’s good commands. Peter said to be on your guard so that we are not carried away by error, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We must know, for example, that every human being has inestimable moral value, and therefore we should not use someone either mentally or physically as merely a means to our own pleasure. Furthermore, the great good of sexual intimacy is rightly enjoyed only within the context and safety of a lifelong, exclusive commitment to one’s husband or wife. Being equipped to show why these ideas are true is also a critical part of serving others, especially when so many conflicting views influence our culture.
3. Nourishing the Imagination
Finally, we guard our hearts by nourishing our imagination in God-honoring ways. Speaking to his son, Solomon said not to lust after an immoral woman’s beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes. On the one hand, we need to stop taking in images that tempt us toward lust and sin, whether it is movies, television, indecent websites, or immodesty – many things are designed to catch our attention, but we need to not take the bait (or be the bait), even if it is unintentional.
On the other hand, we need to nourish our imagination with good images. For example, consider the beauty of God’s character and His creation, whether it’s getting outside and enjoying a sunset, having pictures of scenic things combined with Bible verses to meditate on, or if you’re married, enjoying your spouse. Watch wholesome movies with good messages. Listen to uplifting music. As Paul exhorted us, focus on whatever is true, noble, and right; whatever is pure, lovely, and admirable; and anything that is excellent or praiseworthy.
Building good relationships, developing our minds, and nourishing our imaginations must be prioritized in our own lives, but we must also teach them to our children and encourage others with these ideas. All of this is part of life-affirming ministry by preventing any inclination toward abortion from even having a foothold.
If this article was helpful, check out the webinar recording, available in our online store, Guarding Hearts.
by Crystal Kupper, Citizen Magazine
When Valerie Huber tells people what she does for a living, she knows the risk of ridicule she could be facing. “Our critics like to pigeonhole this as a religious issue,” she tells Citizen, “but the truth is that this has value for every student regardless of faith or moral framework—or lack thereof.”
“This” is abstinence education, or, as Huber refers to it, sexual risk avoidance (SRA) for young people. The first term often conjures caricatures of middle-aged teachers lecturing on the evils of sex, but that’s an image that Ascend—formerly known as the National Abstinence Education Association, or NAEA—is working to reframe.
As president and CEO of Ascend, a professional association that supports, educates, represents and equips those with a hand in the SRA conversation, Huber has a message for America: This ain’t your grandma’s sex ed.
“Sexual risk avoidance is actually a term taken from public health,” she says. “I bristle at the terminology ‘abstinence only,’ because our programs are so holistic. They contextualize a whole battery of different topics that surround a young person’s decision whether to have sex or not. Rather than someone telling a young person, ‘Do this, don’t do that,’ it’s casting a vision for a young person’s future.”
Huber, meanwhile, envisions a future where Ascend is seen for its focus on SRA as a public health issue, using what she says is an “approach that sits so clearly within a public health model for optimal health.”
A 56-year-old mother of four, and a Christian since age 17, Huber’s impetus to get involved in public health policy began when her oldest son was in middle school. His health class, in her view, was sending mixed messages about sex and healthy relationships, and ultimately normalizing the age-old myth that “everyone is doing it.”
“I didn’t want to be a parent that complained about a problem,” she says. “I wanted to be a parent that helped with the solution.”
To that end, Huber encouraged the school to introduce a more age-appropriate curriculum in her son’s classroom. The effort was eventually successful. One thought kept returning, however: What about kids in other schools in their Ohio county? What sorts of messages were they hearing in their health and sexual education classes?
So in 1999, Huber founded and directed REACH, a character-building and risk-avoidance educational organization. The program, which Huber ran until 2004, served an average of 25,000 middle- and high school students in southwestern Ohio each year, emphasizing the fact that waiting to be sexually active has major benefits.
From there, Huber made the move to managing the Ohio Department of Health’s Abstinence Education Program. The job, created through a Title V federal-state partnership aimed at improving the health and well-being of women and children, offered the chance to oversee and grant awards to community abstinence programs serving more than 100,000 students statewide every year.
“I kind of started a career that I didn’t necessarily anticipate,” Huber admits. “When I had that first meeting with my son’s health teacher and principal,
I had no interest in having a career in sex education. It never entered my mind; I was only concerned about the well-being of my own child. But I count it as a real honor to today be in that particular place—to have an impact that can really change the trajectory of a young person’s life.”
The two positions culminated in a spot for Huber on the National Abstinence Leadership Council. In late 2006, after meeting to discuss the trends and needs in the field, the Council voted to form the NAEA. Huber assumed the position of NAEA president when the 501(c)4 organization officially formed in 2007. Its board members represented more than a century’s worth of experience in the fields of public health policy and abstinence education.
“Really,” she says, “the organization was a topic expert from the very start.”
Yet NAEA board members noticed an odd quirk about that topic almost immediately: Even though emerging research was proving that teens benefit physically, mentally and socially when they avoid premarital sex, the narrative surrounding the abstinence approach was attacked from the beginning.
For example, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States—founded in 1964 by Planned Parenthood’s medical director at the time, and which maintains strong ties to the abortion-selling group—called abstinence education a “failed approach” in an official February 2016 press release and blamed the movement’s backers for “wasting” nearly $2 billion in related federal support over the last three decades. Advocates for Youth, a reproductive and sexual health organization that often joins forces with Planned Parenthood, says on its web site that abstinence-only programs “ignore youth’s basic human right and the fundamental public health principle of accurate, balanced sex education.”
Huber and the NAEA board knew that they had to, as Huber says, “correct misinformation, and give an accurate portrayal of what SRA is actually about, in terms of making sure the policies are going to help young people thrive.”
What are those policies, exactly?
First off, Huber wants the nation to know which policies SRA programs are not advocating. For starters, SRA is not a message exclusive to the church; instead, it finds its footing on “a public health standpoint,” as Huber says.
“When we’re talking about any potential risk behavior, the messaging and the skills around that should be designed to help that individual avoid all the risks,” she explains. “We’ve done that for smoking, but we don’t do it for teen sex. When we talk about the merits of sexual risk avoidance, that erases all those caricatures that our critics have tried to attach to our approach.”
That caricature certainly was a powerful image for Irva Antoine, a 27-year-old health educator in North Plainfield, N.J. As a teenager, she viewed any lesson that discouraged sexual activity before marriage as nothing more than a “Christian message.”
When Antoine graduated high school, however, she had a firsthand perspective on promiscuity’s universal consequences.
“I entered college with six other friends. We were all virgins,” Antoine tells Citizen. “By our sophomore year, only two of us (still) were. I saw the drama that revolved around casual sexual relationships. I also saw the pain and hurt it caused my closest friend.”
It’s a story Huber has heard hundreds of times through her work.
“In terms of health outcomes, what would you rather your child do? Avoid risk?” she asks. “Or do you want to say, ‘Go ahead, engage in everything, and let’s hope you just reduce that risk a bit’ ? ”
Something that often surprises well-intentioned people: SRA talks very specifically about avoiding those risks, including discussions on sexually transmitted infections and contraception. The difference between SRA and “comprehensive” sex education lessons, Huber says, is context.
“We don’t distribute or demonstrate [contraceptive methods]; we educate about it,” she says. “You may be told that ‘sex plus condoms equals safety,’ but it’s not true. We don’t want to over- or underestimate any of the facts.”
At the dawn of 2016, the NAEA changed its name to Ascend, but a key characteristic remained: its reliance on sound, scientific research to back up SRA’s efficacy. So Huber and the Ascend team regularly gather and analyze raw data on teen pregnancy, sexual activity and the like and post the conclusions on the organization’s web site, as well as compile related research-based studies and articles.
The research matches up with Ascend’s stated goal of “providing research expertise to evaluate raw data, interpret research trends, and correlate findings to healthy youth behavior.” Published studies like “Teen Relationship History Linked to Future Romantic Patterns” and “Age of First Sexual Experience Affects Future Relationships” help health and sexual education teachers—as well as parents and youth leaders—quickly navigate the science to find real-life statistics related to SRA.
Peggy Cowan, the founder and president of the New Jersey Physicians Advisory Group (NJPAG), a nonprofit research organization addressing teen pregnancy, STIs and single-parent adolescent families in the Garden State, says the research truly distinguishes Ascend from other teen-focused organizations.
“They’re a phone call away. Ascend really is the premiere organization with information that’s current and targeted on how we can help kids maneuver through the minefield of early sexual decisions,” she tells Citizen. “Sexual risk avoidance is not marginalized anymore—because it is now seen for the true health message it is, just like avoiding drugs, alcohol and violence.”
Besides research, Ascend also certifies SRA specialists—training that Antoine, Cowan and hundreds of others have completed. NJPAG utilizes that training each fall in seven-day conferences held across New Jersey.
J.T., a health teacher in Hudson County, N.J., who completed an Ascend-based educator workshop, told Cowan the message is vital. “Attending this conference taught me more information about keeping students safe than any course I took in four years of college,” he said. “The information debunked many things I was taught that sound true, but are not.”
Beyond educating parents, teachers and youth leaders, Huber frequently works in the political arena, both nationally and locally. As Cowan says, Ascend “not only deals with issues in Washington, but also has tentacles into every state and supports those people who are looking to build credible support within their state.”That’s a job the current administration has made complicated. This February, President Obama proposed cutting funding for abstinence programs in the 2017 federal budget by $10 million, while increasing funding for a program that emphasizes birth control and safe sex by $4 million. His reason? According to the official budget, “the [SRA] program is not focused on funding evidence-based models.”
Huber disputes that claim, pointing out that the number of teens who have never had sex has actually increased 15 percent in the last two decades, while funding for abstinence education has been at its highest. Still, Huber is unafraid of the future for the simple reason that SRA education has made great gains in the last decade, even with Obama in office.
“Despite the fact that almost eight years of Obama’s administration, with unprecedented hostility against sexual risk-avoidance education, and despite the fact that every budget he sends to Congress calls for the elimination of our funding, we have seen this field continue to improve,” she says. “That’s because when people understand what our programs actually do, they’re supportive. The more we are able to have that conversation, the more young people are served.”
At any rate, Huber plans to meet with the next president to discuss the future of SRA in America, as she has with Obama’s staff. She doesn’t think we’ll be “in any worse state than we are right now,” no matter who wins this November.
In the meantime, celebrities who have publicly announced their commitment to save sex for their future spouses have been making headlines nationwide. Men like NFL quarterback Russell Wilson and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow have kept the SRA conversation in the spotlight. Huber appreciates the support, but continues to depend on the science more than the spotlight.
“Take it back to public health message: We know more today than yesterday on the dangers of smoking,” she says. “Just because someone begins smoking doesn’t mean that suddenly the value of not smoking diminishes. It just means that this is a risk behavior that has an allure.”
Though many church-goers believe in SRA, they sometimes doubt its effectiveness outside Christian homes. Antoine has something to say about that: “I wish that everyone could understand that the Ascend message is not a ‘Christian message.’ It’s a life-saving message. You can live to the fullest if you focus on your goals and enjoy that great sexual life within that loving, committed relationship, preferably in a marriage.”
That sort of talk gives Huber reason to hope for the future of America’s young people and SRA’s “pretty good trend line” that she’s “hopeful will continue.”
“We have to remind ourselves that if we care about the future of our nation and youth, we always have to side on what is in their best interest. SRA education is the only sex ed approach that does that, and does it well,” she says.
“The sexual risk avoidance approach and terminology just opens up the conversation so much differently than in the past.”
To learn more about Ascend, visit weascend.org.
The New Jersey Physicians Advisory Groups website can be found at njphysicians.org.
From the August 2016 issue of Focus on the FamilyCitizen magazine. © 2016 Crystal Kupper. Used by permission.
by Jennifer Minor, Editor/Writer
In the follow-up to the Heartbeat International Annual Conference, one of my favorite things is the chance to listen to workshop recordings I might be interested in (Did you know you can order recordings of these workshops here?).
This year, Stephanie Libertore’s "Discover the Key to Authentic Intimacy" jumped out at me.
And I’m glad it did.
As Libertore says, “We have a need to know, a need to be known, and a need for love and acceptance—that’s our need for intimacy. We want intimacy.”
Being a young woman pretty close to the target audience of the pregnancy help movement, I’m always fascinated by how we approach the topic of intimacy. My experience has been so colored by movies, music, television, and the "cool" culture that I couldn’t begin to say what might be an expression of intimacy other than sex.
Though I know intimacy involves much more than one physical expression, Libertore gets it right when she says most young people equate "intimacy" with sex as a one for one.
“If sex is not the indicator of true intimacy, then what is?” she asks.
It’s a great question. If it’s really true that we long for intimacy, to know and be known—and we do—then how can we fulfill that need?
One comfort is the reminder that God wants this kind of intimacy with us. Libertore speaks straight to my heart (with scholarship in etymology) when she points out the Hebrew word yada, most often translated "to know".
Now yes, the first use of the word yada is in Genesis with Adam and Eve where Adam “knew” Eve and she conceived and bore a son. But yada is used for so much more. Yada is about perception, understanding, seeing, experiencing, and willingness. It’s the way God wants to know us and wants us to know Him.
Intimacy, as Libertore points out, is best expressed in the phonetic rendering: "into me see."
“I think the key to genuine intimacy is vulnerability,” Libertore says.
Being vulnerable does allow us to know and be known, and if shared with someone who loves us, to be accepted for exactly who we are. It’s the way the psalmist speaks of God in Psalm 139. “O LORD, You have searched me and known me... Search me, O god, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts.” Psalm 139:1, 23
The same word, yada, being used for both of these instances, tells us something about God, intimacy, and sex. It is the great reminder that sexual intercourse should be a reflection of the kind of intimacy God wants with us.
But sadly, as Libertore points out, young people often fall instead for what she dubs a "virtual intimacy"—an incomplete parody of the genuine article.
This is why so many make the same mistakes over and over again, hoping the same poor decision will lead to a better result next time around. The problem is, between the emotional and physical bonding forged through sexual intercourse, it becomes more and more difficult to form healthy relationships with the opposite sex.
No wonder the Bible tells us over 100 times to avoid sexual immorality. Maybe this is why some women come to our pregnancy centers over and over again for the same meeting.
What’s the key to unlocking the right conversation—one that might finally open the door to seeing sex as something holy, with a purpose, and only to be shared between husband and wife?
I’ll let Libertore give you the specific keys, but it all starts with understanding where a young woman is coming from. (Here’s a clue: she doesn’t think of sex as holy. She might think it’s dirty, overrated, a tool, or harmless fun, but she doesn’t think it’s a reflection of the type of intimacy God wants with us.)
It’s our job to show her that and help her to unlock authentic intimacy.
Click here to order recordings of this workshop, or any of the 2016 Heartbeat International Annual Conference keynotes or workshops at egami.com.
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