Op-ed: Fear and Scolding in Las Vegas

In Las Vegas, high school students are being taught to 'choose purity' instead of how to protect themselves against STIs and pregnancy.

BY Caitlyn Caruso

May 19 2014 6:00 AM ET

Scene from Mean Girls

My home, Las Vegas, is known for its “anything goes” nature. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right? Meanwhile, we're making national news for a "purity" event cosponsored by Las Vegas Metro Police. I consider it a serious throwback to the famous Mean Girls scene when the gym teacher charged with teaching sexual education warns, “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die.”

About 125 youth and parents attended this event, marketed specifically to girls, under the name "Choose Purity." It was hosted in North Las Vegas, my old neighborhood, which has high concentrations of black and Latino people.

Officer Regina Coward, with her church Victory Outreach, facilitated this event, which is one of a series of similar events. Attendees are told that if you have premarital sex, then you risk becoming part of a gang, becoming addicted to drugs, becoming a victim of human trafficking, or even dying, as told in the “Toe Tag Monologues,” a performance by local girls that ends with them carted out on gurneys in body bags.

As a young woman in high school who has seen the utter lack of sex education that our city offers, I am appalled our police department contributed to the storm of medically inaccurate, shameful misinformation. Nevada’s sexual education curriculum is abstinence-based. The curriculum is not mandated. And the quality and amount of sex education that we students get varies from class to class.

In fact, my high school's sex education was scarily similar to the Choose Purity event, and as someone who didn’t get a choice in beginning my sexual behavior, I found it triggering and upsetting.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 47 percent of high school students are sexually active. Sex is a reality. Preaching purity and shaming premarital sex accomplishes nothing. Remaining abstinent until marriage isn’t possible for some youth. As a queer woman, if I fell in love with another woman, I wouldn’t be able to marry her in the state of Nevada. As a poor woman of color, I probably wouldn’t have the ability to leave the state to get married, as Coward said was possible.

Our police department and Coward are out of touch with reality. Abstinence is the only 100 percent effective way to prevent pregnancy and HIV/STIs, but there is a vital need to give youth the information to keep themselves safe. Telling us to “choose purity” — an archaic term in the first place — is misguided and won’t do anything but shame and scare us further. We trust adults to give us accurate information. If they won’t give us the information we need, we’ll have to find it ourselves.

As a peer sexual health educator, this event only continues fueling my fire to provide my peers with the knowledge I didn’t have when I needed it. If our adults won’t do it properly, then we must. How about we choose empowerment, knowledge, and acceptance? Because I refuse to show up for “purity.”

 

CAITLYN CARUSO is a high school student and activist in Las Vegas. She works with Advocates for Youth and with the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada and the Southern Nevada Health District to educate her peers about sexual health and rights.

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