It’s high school graduation season, which means it’s time for private Christian schools to show the love of Jesus to their students by refusing to allow pregnant students (but very often, not their boyfriends) to walk at commencement.
This year’s big story is out of Boonsboro, Maryland, where class president and 4.0 student Maddi Runkles isn’t being permitted to join in the festivities because she’s pregnant. She initially faced a short suspension from her conservative Protestant school (where her father led the school board at the time) for breaking the “no sex until (heterosexual) marriage,” but the school also elected to do what so many other school boards do in these situations: kicked her off school leadership positions and refuse to let her don her cap and gown.
The logic behind this decision is that graduation is a celebration, and if the school celebrates Maddi Runkles, it communicates to other girls in the school that if they get pregnant, they, too, will be celebrated. And the school thinks that would be bad because it would lead to more teen pregnancies.
If that doesn’t make sense to you, it’s because it doesn’t make sense. It is, though, just about the only way that conservative Christians can address the inherent tension between their “sexual purity” and anti-abortion stances.
Above, a pledge card from True Love Waits, an abstinence-only movement. Similar pledges appear in public schools without the religious language, though the public school abstinence-only effort is still tightly tied to conservative churches. In public school, the language may focus on “freedom”–to be free from worry about STDs, STIs, and pregnancy.
Teen girls do or do not get pregnant irrelevant of their desire to participate in graduation ceremonies. I can 100% guarantee you that the last moment before a teen has sex is not spent thinking about the school board. Also, the real risks of sex–STDs, STIs, and, pregnancy and its huge social costs, are far more meaningful “punishments” for sex than not being able to toss your mortar board in the air. If the fear of having a baby (or the fear of the chronic judgment of people like the good folks at Heritage Academy) doesn’t dissuade you from having sex, no school board’s decision is going to do it.
And no one decides to have unprotected sex because they saw a girl the year ahead of them in school wear a graduation gown while pregnant.
Teen girls get pregnant because they have sex without accurately using reliable contraception. And THAT happens because they are not provided with comprehensive, factual sex ed that makes the risks of sex clear and also explains how to lower them. It happens because their sex ed focuses on their promise not to have sex, not on how to negotiate not having sex when you might really really really want to, how to make the decision to have sex a mindful one, or how to have safe sex if you choose to have sex. It happens because they have no adults to ask honest questions of and no one to help them secure contraceptives if they want them. It happens because they lie to their parents because they know that being honest with them will mean they are shunned. It happens because girls’ value is reduced to an unbroken hymen (not a real thing!) and once they have sex, they told they are worthless, damaged, and broken. And it actually makes marital sex difficult for a lot of people who stick with their promises to be sexually abstinent. These messages are sometimes overt and sometimes signaled more quietly, but they are the core messages of Christian purity culture.
Above, conservative Christian sex educator Shelly Donahue talks to students about “God’s purposes for sex.” Her techniques include asking a student to tape a piece of Scotch tape on their arm, then pull it off and then stick it to another teen’s arm. As the tape gets passed along from teen to teen, it loses its stickiness. Her point is that sex bonds us together, and each time you have sex with a person who isn’t your spouse, you weaken your ability to have a permanent bond with your future husband or wife. Tape that isn’t sticky is useless–and no one wants it.
The result isn’t impressive: teens who take purity pledges delay the onset of sexual intercourse by a bit compared to their peers, but not by much. More worryingly, they are less prepared for it, which means that they are less likely to use birth control or condoms. And the sex they have is often infused with guilt, shame, and loneliness as they are unable to speak to their parents about it. They are more likely to get pregnant. And, on a longer timeline, these teachings are spiritually destructive.
If shaming Maddi Runkles doesn’t prevent teens from having sex, why do it? Perhaps out of a concern for the Heritage Academy brand, which the school fears will be tainted by a pregnant girl wearing the school colors. Her pregnant body tells all the friends and family gathered that the tuition dollars didn’t do their job: Heritage wasn’t able to bring a chaste, straight girl to the Christian marriage market.
Heritage Academy writes it right into school policies that students’ failures are theirs, not the schools. In enrolling their children, parents are asked to sign a parental pledge that states, in part,
We pledge that, if, for any reason, our child does not respond favorably to the school, we will not try to change the school to fit their individual needs, but will quietly withdraw him/her.
In short, Heritage Academy imposes its standards on your child, and if your child is defective in meeting that standard (for example, gets pregnant), it cannot possibly be because the school’s purity culture is the problem. It must be because your child was not following the dictates of the student pledge, which demand that students associate “with people of high moral character” (that is, the high quality boys Christian private schools make available to them).
The shaming of Maddi Runkles is part of an effort to insure that conservative Christians came shame women for having sex, shame them for getting pregnant, and shame them for having an abortion while doing everything possible to also undermine their ability to choose abstinence (because abstinence is not a choice for these girls; it is part of a transactional relationship, a promise to their future husbands and they are getting a “pure” girl), their ability to have good sex, their ability to avoid unwanted pregnancy, and their ability to provide for their children as single mothers.
Shaming pregnant girls is a way that conservative Christians can discharge their duty to be outraged by abortion without having to do a single thing that would actually prevent it.
Heritage Academy won’t let Maddi Runkles grace the stage at her own graduation. I am not even sure that the good Christian folks there could offer space for her or receive the grace she could extend to them. That’s a sin and a shame for them, not her.