Payson High School Requires Girls to Attend Abstinence Assembly; Boys Get Optional Dating Talk

Officials at Payson High School in Gila County say they have some regrets about requiring female students to attend an assembly last month that featured a guest speaker who espoused abstinence.

Taxpayers may have some regrets, too: The Payson Unified School District used taxpayer money to pay for the abstinence oration.

To some, guest speaker Brad Henning's abstinence message sounded like "slut shaming."

According to a story published in the Payson Roundup, Henning told 350 girls at the mandatory assembly on September 28 that girls "should make sure they do not turn on a guy by dressing or acting in a way that unleashes a guy’s God-given sexual urges," adding that girls "have a low sex drive so the planet will not get overpopulated."

Later, in an after-school session to which the boys were invited but not required to attend, Roundup reporter Michele Nelson writes that "Henning had suggestions for the boys on how to ask a girl out, what to do on a date, what to talk about on a date, and how to get a second date with a girl.

"At no point did Henning admonish the boys to take responsibility or to avoid taking advantage of a girl, no matter what she’s wearing."

Nelson's October 4 story, which raised the issue of whether Henning's message was appropriate at a time when sexual assault is part of the national discussion, exploded across social media. Some bashed Henning and the school district, while others defended the presentation.

In fact, Henning has been a thorn in the sides of liberals, feminists, the LGBT community, and secular groups for years. Rants and articles critical of his "outdated" message are easily found on the Internet. Three years ago, his scheduled appearance at a Washington high school's mandatory assembly was met with one internet campaign informing students about some of Henning's eyebrow-raising statements and how they could opt out of the talk and another demanding that the school cancel the presentation on the grounds that by excluding the LGBT community, the assembly violated the school district's discrimination policy.

Debate likewise raged over the Henning presentations in the small town of Payson, about 70 miles northeast of Phoenix. Other media outlets followed the Roundup story, and the school district issued a statement to provide "clarifying facts" about the assemblies — plus its note of regret.

The statement, sent to to New Times by PUSD board assistant Lisa Conley, provided some information about the cost of the events, though the district could not immediately provide the total cost of the Henning appearances or full details about how it was funded.

According to the statement, Henning has been to the school before. In fact, it was student response to the same assembly two years ago that spurred the district to invite him back. Funding was secured after meetings with parents and school staff, the Gila County Health Department, "and a couple of local entities." The school also used funding from Credit for Kids, a state program that allows Arizonans to donate money to a school for extracurricular programs, then take a dollar-for-dollar credit off their tax owed for the year.

"The message of building healthy positive relationships when dating is an important message for our students to hear." — Payson (Arizona) Unified School District

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The district statement explains that the school sent parents a message on Sunday, September 25, letting them know about two assemblies. Henning spoke to both boys and girls that Tuesday, and the separate assemblies were held on Wednesday as a "follow up question and answer session." The district gave parents the option to excuse their children from the assemblies, as well as the chance to attend a parents-only assembly on Tuesday evening. (Only five parents showed up to the latter.) Henning had requested that the students be split up.

"The District regrets the implication of the message as a result of the decision to separate the assemblies and takes responsibility for not providing more specific information on the format of the Wednesday assemblies," the statement reads. "The message of building healthy positive relationships when dating is an important message for our students to hear and that was the intent and focus of the presentations."

Henning didn't return phone calls from New Times. But in 2010, he told the Western Catholic Reporter that he had reached about 3 million students nationwide since honing his Christian-based relationship speech for the masses more than three decades ago, after beginning his career as a Christian youth group leader outside Tacoma, Washington.

"He discovered that Grade 8 is the average time when girls become sexually active," writes reporter Chris Miller, quoting Henning as saying that "'[t]he number one killer for these kids in their relationships with Christ was their relationships with each other."

Henning's presentations, which he offers in videos and in live appearances around the nation, are entertaining and full of graphic talk about sex that both interests and titillates young teens. But they're also based on Henning's religious, unscientific, and often eyebrow-raising notions about sex, psychology, and the differences between men and women.

On his website, Henning elaborates: "[God] had to make the desire for sex so pleasurable that most guys would do just about anything to have sex, baby or no baby ...," he writes in the "For Girls Only" section under the question, "Why are guys so horny?"

If everyone had "the same sexual intensity as most women" do, he writes, "we'd die out in one generation."

His theory that guys want a "fair maiden" and not the "town slut," covered in another answer, spurred writer and yoga instructor Jen Pastiloff to make a YouTube video about him, entitled, "I'm pissed off!! This is NOT OKAY!!! No slut-shaming!"
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.