Miss America resists pressure to silence abstinence message

WASHINGTON (BP)--Sexual abstinence is a taboo subject for the new Miss America. At least, the pageant's officials apparently would like for it to be.

Erika Harold, who was crowned in September as Miss America 2003, said Oct. 8 pageant officials have ordered her not to talk publicly about sexual abstinence, The Washington Times reported. The decree was issued despite Harold's advocacy of sexual abstinence in recent years. She has been a spokeswoman for Project Reality, an abstinence-centered education program in Illinois, and made chastity her platform in her successful bid this year to be Miss Illinois.

"Quite frankly, and I'm not going to be specific, there are pressures from some sides to not promote [abstinence]," Harold told The Times.

Harold, however, resisted efforts by Miss America officials to silence her pro-chastity views during her first visit to Washington.

"I will not be bullied," she said Oct. 8 at the National Press Club, where officials tried to prevent reporters from asking questions about her abstinence message, according to The Times.

Harold was "furious" as she arrived for the press conference, an acquaintance said, according to The Times. George Bauer, interim chief executive officer of the Miss America organization, and other pageant officials had told her to avoid saying anything about sexual abstinence but to discuss only the issue of youth violence prevention, said Harold's acquaintance, who asked not to be named, The Times reported.

"They laid it on her coming over here" not to promote abstinence, the acquaintance told The Times prior to the news conference. "She's furious about it."

The Times requested a comment from Bauer, but he did not respond to calls to Miss America headquarters in Atlantic City, N.J.

Harold, 22, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois, has been accepted to Harvard Law School.

For the last four years, she has delivered a sexual abstinence message to more than 14,000 students in Illinois, according to Project Reality. Her platform for the Miss Illinois pageant was Teenage Sexual Abstinence: "Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself."

State pageant officials, however, chose youth violence prevention as her Miss America contest platform because they considered it more "pertinent," her father told an Illinois newspaper, according to The Times. According to the Miss America website, Harold's platform is Empowering Youth Against Violence: "Respect Yourself; Protect Yourself."

Harold told reporters in Washington she is "still in the process of coming up with what it is that I can say" in mingling her abstinence views with her official platform.

After she was crowned Miss America, she received an e-mail from a girl in an inner-city Chicago school asking her to continue the abstinence campaign, Harold said, according to The Times. "She said, 'You changed my life because of what you said, and now I made the decision to be abstinent because of what you said. And I really hope that as Miss America you continue to share that because it changed my life and I think it can change lots of others.'"

Harold said, according to The Times, "And I would hate to think that there are kids all over the country who now wonder, you know, 'Did I make the right decision in making that commitment, if this person who inspired me to do it no longer is willing to share that commitment on the national stage?' And so I would feel a hypocrite if I did not."

Harold and Project Reality say abstinence education is an important part of preventing teenage violence, because violence is directly related to sexual promiscuity.

"I think that if a young person is engaged in a promiscuous lifestyle, it makes them vulnerable to other risk factors, so I definitely see a tie-in there," Harold said, The Times reported.

On Project Reality's website, spokeswoman Libby Gray says, "Erika sees the connection between helping teens to avoid all risky behaviors in order to prevent violence. Erika's work with abstinence education will greatly enhance programs and efforts to address teen violence during her reign as Miss America."

Harold told reporters, according to The Times, "Many victims of sexual harassment believe what is said about them, and they become very promiscuous. When they're called a whore, when they're called a slut, they think, 'That's what I want to be,' and so they engage in a pattern of self-destruction that can be very detrimental to their lives.

"And when I went through that experience, I took the opposite approach and said, 'I'm going to believe in who I am. I'm not going to be defined by what other people think about me.' And so I felt very, very fortunate that I had parents, I had a faith community who reinforced this decision, and I was able to speak about this. I didn't take the route of becoming promiscuous; I took the route of reaffirming what I believed was right and stood for it. And I was very fortunate to be able to speak to thousands of young people about this."

Project Reality's programs, which are funded in part by the Illinois Department of Human Services, reached 71,000 students in the state during the last school year.

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