Sex Ed in Mississippi: the complete Mississippi Public Broadcasting series


Interview with Cristen Hemmins that Mississippi Public Broadcasting wouldn’t run

Chicago. Mississippi.

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One of the key issues with teen pregnancy prevention campaigns is the shaming of teen girls. Bulging, stretchmarked bellies, crying black babies screaming out from subway ads. But lets take a look at what Chicago has been getting up to. One of the main questions I had when interviewing Mississippi officials and ab-only proponents was “how do we address boys?” or, “why are you placing the entire burden of teen pregnancy on the shoulders of young women?” or, “do you really, really think shaming teen girls is helpful, I mean, really?” You know, stuff like that.

HB 999: one curricula allowed as both “ab-only” and “ab-plus” = bad

One of the many issues with HB 999 and the implementation of it is the decision to allow curricula to qualify as both ab-only and ab-plus.  So let that sink in a moment.


Ab-only – abstinence only until marriage no exceptions using “Sexual Risk Avoidance” (aka: don’t dress provocatively ladies, travel in groups ladies, control your body girls and that the body of the boy who cannot be held accountable for his raging hormones…)

Ab-plus – abstinence best but here’s some contraceptive options to protect yourself from pregnancy and disease if you do have sex before marriage (as does a plurality of Mississippi teens)

What curricula adjustments would a program like WAIT (Why Am I Tempted?) Training have to make to transform from ab-only into ab plus?  This is from the WAIT Training teacher’s guide.

I highlighted two paragraphs of note.  Here is the most important part of those paragraphs in my estimation:

We strongly urge you not to demonstrate the use of contraceptives. Classroom demonstrations that take place across the country are frequently offensive and unnecessary to ensure effective communication of the message.  Remember, sexual harassment issues apply as much to the classroom as the workplace.  As educators, it’s essential that we be informers – not promoters – with respect to contraception…

WAIT Training is being implemented as BOTH in Mississippi.  My educated guess is that Mississippi is a proving ground for the new messaging of abstinence only (WAIT and others).  Which is that they have never been abstinence only until marriage – that they are sexual risk avoidance (SRA is what they are using officially) programs that are medically accurate (not necessarily so) and evidence based (almost none are).
Note:   The other main ab-only curricula implemented 2012 – 2013 in Mississippi is Choosing the Best.  I am still working on what magic phrasing makes that program ab-plus.


Mississippi HB 151: seizing cord blood of underage mothers without permission. Yep.

Updated – this was passed and signed into law.


UPDATE:  This bill was signed into law by Governor Phil Bryant.  I attended a teen pregnancy prevention task force summit last week and this bill was championed as one of the gov’s signature piece of legislation.  Here is a link to the final language of the bill as sent to the governor.  

I don’t think I have seen anything like this yet (except of course when Mississippi tried it last year).  In the war on women this appears to be a relatively new one.  It attacks women on so many levels it is hard to wrap my head around:

1.  Further criminalizing abortion in a state that is poised to close it last abortion clinic
2.  Shames teen mothers
3.  Teen mom is damned if she does damned if she don’t – there is tissue seizure in both the case of abortion and live birth.  

The paternalistic HB…

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Thursday, May 23

Today was interview day at MPB.  I kicked it off with by speaking with Dr. Currier of the Mississippi Department of Health about ab-only vs. ab-plus.  The interview was as I expected, very matter of fact about the differences between evidence  based/medically accurate programs and non-evidence based medically dubious programs.  Ab-only unfortunately under the non-residence based umbrella.  There are a couple that have been proved effective in delaying sex among teens.  But, is delaying the inevitable – teens having sex which statistics show is reality – the goal?  Or, is teaching teens all they need to know about sex and how to remain disease and baby free more important and effective?

Next up was Dr. Freda Bush.  Dr. Bush is on Governor Bryant’s task force on teen pregnancy.  An OBGYN, Dr. Bush lobbied hard for personhood in Mississippi.  She made a video claiming the indisputable scientific evidence that life begins at conception.  Which is not accurate.  The belief that life begins at conception is that – a belief.  She is also against birth control and abortion.  She runs an extremely successful practice just outside Jackson.

Dr. Bush was joined by Larry McAdoo – which was a complete surprise.  I contact Mr. McAdoo of Redemption Outreach Ministries to come on the program.  He returned my call yesterday, I told him Dr. Bush agreed to come on and so he bowed out.  But, there he was.  Then, curiously, he told me that he hadn’t been invited on the show.  I considered this odd and told him so since I had in fact invited him and in fact talked to him, well, yesterday.  Regardless, the two were in the room.  I found a lot of what they had to say fascinating – you will just have to wait until the good people of MPB are done with the edits to hear just what.  But, one thing that is terribly unfortunate is  that fact-checking stats on condoms, sti’s, etc., can’t be done during the immediacy of a radio interview.  So, when I have a chance to review the audio – I will have a lot of work ahead of me checking Dr. Bush’s quoted stats.

Then, I spoke with Betti Watters.  I have written about Betti before in my piece at The Atlantic.

One of the experts, Betti Watters, was a 30-plus-year advocate for young women and head of Teen Pregnancy Mississippi Campaign. A tiny powerhouse of a lady in her 60s with perfect white platinum hair and pearls, Watters started her career in social work specifically in the area of adoption. Over the years, she turned her energy toward pregnancy prevention. Along with many others, she’d been pushing for sex ed in public schools for decades.

The passage of HB 999 should have been a fulfillment, at least in part, of Watters’ life’s work. But when the subject was mentioned, she laughed and rolled her eyes. Although she concedes that getting any sex education bill passed in Mississippi is a minor coup, Betti says the bill has changed beyond recognition since it first entered the political process. “I laugh even though it’s not funny,” she explained, “because if I didn’t laugh, I wouldn’t be able to keep fighting this fight.” The group around the table shared a series of knowing looks that I’d come to recognize during my month reporting in Mississippi. The looks meant, For better or worse, this bill, as hobbled as it is, is progress.

She loved the article though denied having perfect platinum hair and couldn’t remember if she wore pearls the day we met or not.  I assured her she did.  Betti shared insight into the actual writing, debate, revision and eventual passage of HB 999.  She was deeply involved with the initial push to bring sex education into schools.  She is dismayed at much of what was added into the bill (homosexuality is a crime, abortion cannot be discussed and proper condom use cannot be demonstrated).

And I interviewed perennial favorite Cristen Hemmins as well.

Stay tuned.

The Great Wall of Mississippi

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It is important to understand the difficulty of reporting in the South.  Establishing trust.  Finding those people willing to talk to a reporter – let alone one from the North and gasp! the Northeast – is a painstaking challenge.


Is near impossible.

I am beginning to feel guilty – defeated.  Why am I not doing enough?  Is it something I said?  Is it the way I talk?  Oh, no, it’s the way I talk isn’t it?  Why are my sources so willing at one turn – yes, Ms. Andy! – now drying up?  Are these just a bunch of scared liars without courage of their convictions?  Too polite to say no straight away yet possessing the power of willful amnesia applied expertly  in uncomfortable circumstances.  Involuntary reflex, just like drawing breath.

My story – the story of religion in Mississippi public policy is falling apart!  No one is talking.  MPB is drying up.  My experts are running for the hills.  The administration refuses to talk although Governor Bryant brags about the awe-inspiring transparency he’s brought to the office.


That is part of the story.  The Great Wall of Mississippi. (Especially all this talk about sex! Religion! Race! Uncomfortable City).

The personal side of this wall, the private citizen, the teen mother, the people who work for privately funded organizations or the simple passer-by have a clear right to refuse to talk.  I understand this and am grateful and at times shocked when someone agrees to sit with me and talk for a while. Setting aside the “yes” then “no” breach of etiquette – I get it.*

The real problem comes in when publicly funded entities, governmental agencies, NGOs the administration refuses to answer questions.  They are accountable not just to Yankee reporters but to the public at large – especially the state’s own citizenry.  Mississippi takes in so much federal funding why would no one question how they are using those funds?  About legislation, about goddamn everything?

Here’s an example.

A news outlet here in Jackson recently contacted the Governor’s office.  They spoke with Julia or Mick (the governor’s unhelpful spokespeople) to try to track down the governor for a few questions.  The outlet was told of the Governor’s schedule and told they could of course ask questions at the event Bryant was presiding over.

But!  Julia asked the news director to please not ask any questions about Medicaid.

Stop a minute here.  This is what you need to know about Medicaid in Mississippi:  it is due to run out first of July.  A special session of the legislature must be called, a vote taken, to affirm continued funding of the program in the state (which desperately needs it).  Governor Bryant doesn’t like all that fancy Obama money and made a political hot potato out of Medicaid like so many of his like-minded right-wing republican Governors.

Okay – so – Julia asking a news outlet to please not ask about that whole Medicaid business…this is typical of how that office rolls.  And Julia’s response was to a local news outlet – to reporters and writers Byrant’s office is very familiar with.

So when I called Julia then Mick it wasn’t surprising (although exceedingly frustrating) that both shut me down flat.  Mick went so far as to not call me back but to call MPB to ask who I was and let them know that he wouldn’t and therefore the governor wouldn’t be talking to any ole’ blogger.

That is why I have to show up places.  Its really the only way to get things done – to get a fleeting chance to ask “Governor Bryant, can you comment on the ACLU investigation into misuse of ab-only federal funds?” or, “Governor Bryant, can you comment on your administration’s partnership with the anti-gay, anti-abortion, Florida organization Truth in Action Ministries?”

Things like that.

With that, I am off to the Capitol.  The Governor is speaking this morning on the steps of some old building.  Maybe I can get a moment of his time.

*NOTE:  I am from Iowa – I know about defending one’s home – Iowans are just a bunch of cow-tipping potato growers after all.  

Girls as chewing gum, spit cups and transparent pieces of soiled tape

HB 999 states that abstinence only shall remain the state standard for sexual education, despite the fact it opens the door a crack for “ab-plus”.

Here is a pretty forceful voice against that kind of education from a young woman who should know.

From the Christian Science Monitor:

[Elizabeth] Smart said she “felt so dirty and so filthy” after she was raped by her captor, and she understands why someone wouldn’t run “because of that alone.”

Smart spoke at a Johns Hopkins human trafficking forum, saying she was raised in a religious household and recalled a school teacher who spoke once about abstinence and compared sex to chewing gum.

“I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you know longer have worth, you know longer have value,” Smart said. “Why would it even be worth screaming out? Why would it even make a difference if you are rescued? Your life still has no value.”

Ms. Smart (who made headlines after she was rescued after being abducted and held captive for 9 months) doesn’t name the program she sat through but don’t think it is just a Mormon thing.  This is a federally funding public school thing.  From Westword and my piece on WAIT (Why Am I Tempted?) Training based in Colorado.  WAIT Training is currently operating in Mississippi (Tupelo and Canton – two of the biggest school districts in MS)

These programs are inextricably linked to religion though in my experience administrators of the programs deny it (Joneen Mackenzie, head of WAIT has repeatedly told me this.  Pam Mullarkey of “Project SOS” in Florida told me the same thing as did Children’s AIDS Fund who operates primarily in sub-Saharan Africa teaching ab-only).

Ab-only is absolutely borne from the religious belief that abstinence from sexual activity until heterosexual marriage is the only acceptable outcome for teens.  Since the programs can’t overtly say it is a Biblical belief – or a sin issue – they do get the message across in other ways.  Principally through shaming young women and making them the only ones accountable when it comes to having sex and the possible consequences.

This way of thinking is societal of course but has been with us since Eve made Adam eat the apple.  I wrote an article for The Atlantic about the “reality” program Preachers’ Daughters.  This may help illustrate the pressure a young woman feels having to be afraid of sex, be charged as the keeper of purity and measuring much if not all of her worth on whether her hymen is in tact or not:

The first teen we meet is Kolby, and she just wants to date. She is 16 and thinks it is high time. She runs this by her dad, Nikita, a former professional wrestler turned preacher over a “daddy-and-daughter lunch.” Nikita with his shaved head and bulging muscles explains he doesn’t think there is any need for Kolby to “experience” dating. He doesn’t agree with the dating “lifestyle” but he doesn’t entirely shut her down. He tells Kolby she has to run it by her mom, Victoria, who turns out to be the real challenge.

Victoria is a preacher just like Nikita. She also works at a Christian “crisis pregnancy center” and is a Christian radio talk show host. After a conversation between mother and daughter Victoria decides she will let Kolby date. Kolby is thrilled, as any 16-year-old would be. But Victoria has one condition: Kolby must sit through one of her “sex talks” at church.

The next scene presents us with a horrified Kolby smack in the front church pew as her mom excites a crowd of teenagers by exclaiming from the altar, “sex is great!”

Kids clap and giggle, Victoria giving dramatic pause, then says, “But only after you’re married!” Victoria goes on to discuss “finger sex, backdoor sex, and oral sex,” in her abstinence talk. Her daughter sits with eyes wide and turning red, her jaw on the floor.

This could all be laughable—Victoria’s dirty talk, the kids shifting in their seats, light streaming through stained glass windows. But then, Kolby’s 30-year-old sister Teryn drops a bomb. She reveals to the family that she was not a virgin when she got married. It is in this scene we glimpse how damaging this supposedly Biblically mandated purity pressure is on young Kolby.

She is devastated; she sits weeping uncontrollably at the dinner table her head down, wiping her eyes with her napkin. Everything she ever believed, she says, was ripped away when Teryn revealed her secret.

During Teryn’s private, to-the-camera confessional she is clearly upset with the way her mother enforces her interpretation of Biblical law. Teryn says that this is what happens when you are raised within a “warped” Christian box. She and her sisters were taught a successful life was predicated on making it to marriage a virgin.


Clamming Up


It is religion that motivates Governor Phil Bryant. When I first came to Mississippi, I thought perhaps Bryant was a political opportunist, playing along with the wishes of the many.  But Bryant is a True Believer.

The idea of the true believer vs. the pragmatist:  the place where religion truly meets politics (implementation of a Christian worldview) and not just for votes (“I hate abortion now come vote vote vote!”).  The opportunists of the 80s (working before that toward a more active role in national politics) who  joined Evangelicals and Catholics on the abortion issue (mostly abortion) to drive the one issue voters to the polls.  It invited would be public servants to mix their ideology into policy-making in a very, very real way.

The unintended or intended byproduct is radical right-wing legislation that impacts women. Almost always without fail, it is women that suffer at the wrong end of radical ideology.  Anti abortion bills, “Personhood” bills, limiting access/removing access to reproductive health services, TRAP laws, trans vaginal ultrasounds (forced), and on and on.  These are rooted solely in religion, nothing more.

I have said this to several people who bemoan the current administration: it is a weird state of affairs when you wax nostalgic for the days of Haley Barbour.  Barbour was a pragmatist – a social conservative as much as needs be but really, a fiscal conservative.  Phil Bryant is an ideologue – he couldn’t find real conservative fiscal policy with both hands.  He excels, however at social conservatism – the true believer.  When he signed the school prayer bill, with all earnestness and an air of sanctimony he said, simply finally it is done.

The political opportunists – like Nycole Campbell Lewis, the governor’s head of the teen pregnancy prevention program (which is less teen pregnancy prevention, more praising the Lord).  People – black and white, men and women – tell me the exact same thing about her:  she was put in the position because she is a black woman and Bryant needed a black woman to head his teen pregnancy coalition.

Lewis is very, very intelligent.  She is a PhD. LMSW. The fact that her intellect figured far, far less into the decision to bring her into the mix is disturbing.  Tokenism is alive and well in Mississippi.  Ms. Lewis has a bright future in politics.  That is if the ACLU investigation doesn’t make her the fall guy for a corrupted* Bryant administration.

People talk until they won’t.  Until it becomes real.  My contacts within health and human service agencies and even pro-women, pro-church state separation groups are clamming up now that it is almost time to go into the studio.

This is what happens when elections are at stake, legislation is threatened by speaking truth to power, funding can be cinched at the throat.  People stop talking.

I may not have a radio program at this rate.

* A note about “corruption” – true believers do not see using public funds to preach as corrupt – even though proselytizing and using federal/state fund for revivals is against the law.  It is a calling.  It is how things must be done.


Long talk on the porch last night with my friend Betty about the project.  Since it is coming to a close (the grant that is) I have been thinking about what this thing has meant, where it can go, what people can do.  Did I ask the right questions?  Have I been able to speak to enough people?  Why did I really choose this subject in the first place?

Although I can’t be sure and answers are fleeting, I think I chose it because I see God being used as a sword, not a shield.  That religion is so entrenched in every aspect of Mississippi government – bad religion – it is causing harm to the least among us.  In the case of Mississippi, young women and teen moms (for the purposes of my project).

Let me explain what I mean by bad religion.

A few years ago I was speaking to the head of the Interfaith Alliance, Reverend Welton Gaddy.  Welton is a proper southern gentleman who works in DC during the week and flies home to Monroe, Louisiana at week’s end to minister to his flock.  I consider him a friend.  Welton introduced me to the concept of bad religion.  Or, more accurately, put a name to it as I had seen it all around but didn’t have the go-ahead of a religious man to call it for what it is.

We were talking about a group in Iowa that I had been reporting on.  The group took millions in federal funding while simultaneously lobbying for a ban on gay marriage.  They said homosexuality was worse than the cancerous ravages of second-hand smoke and advertised retreats where one could  pray themselves out of the “homosexual lifestyle”.  The organization was founded, it claimed, on family values rooted in an abiding belief in Jesus Christ.  They were the true believers who had caused a lot of harm by with their callous words, their sponsorship of bad bills, their constant rhetoric.

I spoke to the leaders of the organization many times.  I tried to find a shred of common ground – something that would suggest to me that there could be a dialog between the left and the right politically and spiritually.  But, I found there was none.  There was no give in their belief of what is and isn’t “sin”.  They co-authored a letter circulated to hundreds of Iowa pastors which likened liberals to Nazi’s and gays to the jack-booted “Brown Shirts” that were Hitler’s chosen, vicious henchman.

Their refrain of love the sinner hate the sin was cold and convenient. The Iowa group displayed what Welton called bad religion.  Although “bad” religion can take any form, in any belief system, in the US it is right-wing Evangelical Christians who hold sway.


The State Capitol is empty.  I was able to walk the building, domed and stained glass without interruption.  I walked through both chambers of the legislature taking photos and gawking at hallways lined with life-sized oil paintings of the great men of Mississippi’s government(s), the empty rows of comfy chairs, and the silence.  A silence so obvious I took its picture.


The session is over, for goodness sake, the  chambers assuredly would be silent.  But the offices were quiet, the governor’s office was shuttered and locked the Lt. Gov’s office was open but no one was around so I went in and walked around there too.

I had some time to kill between my meeting with the ACLU of Mississippi and Mississippi Public Broadcasting.  The ACLU offices were so close to the Capitol – why not?  I was hoping to bump into someone, anyone I spoke to last fall during my long stay.  Maybe Governor Bryant himself would be knocking around the halls and I could finally get him to talk to me about his love of ab-only and how the program was going thus far.  Or Nycole Campbell Lewis, his head of the teen pregnancy prevention program who won’t return my calls or emails.

But, I did leave the Governor a note: