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Flashy Marketing and Packaging Newest Trend Among Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs

In an effort to reach more teens, many abstinence-only-until-marriage groups have begun to use MTV-style marketing and packaging. The best example of this may be Revolve, a new edition of the complete New Testament that, at first glance, looks more like an issue of Cosmopolitan than a bible.1 Revolve is published by Thomas Nelson, one of the world's largest Christian publishers, and is geared toward young women. The Extreme Teen Bible, the first teen bible marketed by Thomas Nelson, was primarily read by young men. In an attempt to appeal to young women, Revolve is packed full of quizzes, personal stories from guys, and beauty secrets.

Organizations promoting abstinence-only-until-marriage are also taking advantage of public spaces to utilize their new marketing techniques. Currently, the Washington, D.C. metro and bus system is carrying advertisements featuring the slogan "Give me a chance, not a condom." Created by the Targeted Abstinence Group of America, the ads portray teenagers explaining to their parents why they want to hear them preach about abstinence rather than the birds and the bees or condoms. The ads cite the above-average rates of teen pregnancy and HIV and STD transmission in the D.C. area, but ask readers not to assume that their children are participating in pre-marital sex. The truth, however, is that high school students in D.C. are having more sex, more often than most teens across the nation and getting pregnant at double the national rate.2

With millions of tax dollars pouring into their bank accounts from federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding streams, some state departments of health have also created flashy websites designed for teens. Taxpayer-funded websites like http://www.saynoway.net and http://www.greattowait.com, developed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Florida Department of Health, respectively, incorporate the Revolve approach to marketing. They repackage the traditional message of abstinence with flash media plug-ins and rock music and use attractive teenagers as their spokespeople. With these websites, Florida and Colorado have taken the lead in utilizing the Internet to get their messages across.

Advocates of reproductive and sexual health point out that many of the statements presented as fact do not hold up when closely examined. The "Say No Way" campaign describes the effectiveness of condoms against sexually transmitted diseases like Chlamydia and trichomoniasis as "uncertain." Although the website names the National Institute of Health (NIH) as a reference, it seems that they have interpreted facts and statistics to suit their message. In contrast, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) clearly states, "latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of transmission of gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and trichomoniasis."3

The "Great to Wait" website asks, "What are some risky behaviors that might lead to HIV/AIDS?" The first two behaviors listed are "Having unprotected sex with anyone who could possibly have HIV,"4 and "Having protected sex with anyone who could possibly have HIV." These statements insinuate that protected and unprotected sex carry the same risks. Nowhere does it mention that studies have shown that using a latex condom to prevent transmission of HIV is more than 10,000 times safer than not using a condom.5

In addition to the misinformation on the sites, the "real life stories" that are included show that this new packaging fails to distance itself from the fear and shame approach of many abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. The "Great to Wait" website in particular takes numerous opportunities to present personal stories of teen women who share their feeling of guilt and shame about having engaged in premarital sex. "Sharyn's" story, for example, explains how she became sexually active with her boyfriend and ends with the statement "I lost the one feeling I thought I could never lose. I lost my feeling of self-worth."6 In a similar story "Erica" expresses her wish that she had waited and explains that she "doesn't feel very special" anymore.7 In "Mark's" story he describes a high-achieving female friend of his that contracted HIV from someone she had sex with. His story ends with the realization, "I don't think she took the time to really get to know him. I learned that even girls who have everything can get one of the worst infections imaginable if they make bad decisions. We all know she's going to die."8 Despite being awarded the 2000 International Webpage Award for Creative Excellence, http://www.greattowait.com still falls remarkably short of fully informing its teenage audience about sexual health.

According to SIECUS' research on federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funds in the states, Colorado's Department of Public Health and the Environment received $544,383 and Florida's Department of Health received $2.2 million in federal taxpayer funds in Fiscal Year 2003.

Ultimately these websites prove to be all flash and no substance. While they may be holding the attention of teens a bit longer, these abstinence-only-until-marriage providers are simply pushing the same factually inaccurate and fear and shame based message in a new package.

References

  1. Revolve: The Complete New Testament, Nelson Bibles, July 2003.
  2. Jo Anne Grunbaum, et. al., "Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance - United States, 2003," Surveillance Summaries, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 53.SS-2 (May 21, 2004): 1-95. Available online.
  3. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Latex Condoms and Sexually Transmitted Diseases-Prevention Messages (Atlanta, GA: CDC, 2001), p. 2.
  4. Why Should I Wait, Great to Wait, accessed 12 November 2004.
  5. R. F. Carey, et al., "Effectiveness of Latex Condoms As a Barrier to Human Immunodeficiency Virus-sized Particles under the Conditions of Simulated Use," Sexually Transmitted Diseases, July/August 1992, vol. 19, no. 4, p. 230.
  6. Protecting Yourself, Great to Wait, accessed on 12 November 2004.
  7. Ibid.
  8. STIs, Great to Wait, accessed 12 November 2004.

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