Bristol Palin, abstinence spokeswoman.

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Jan. 29 2010 6:49 PM

Is Bristol Palin a Good Spokeswoman for Abstinence?

She could be worse.

Last February, Bristol Palin told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren that abstinence was "not realistic at all" for teens. Then this month in an interview with the tabloid In Touch, Bristol said that although she is obviously no longer a virgin, since she has a baby and all, she is now going to be abstinent until she is married. "I can guarantee it," she said. When Oprah questioned Bristol's commitment to a second virginity last week, Bristol responded, "I just think it's a goal to have and that other young women should have that goal."

Of this Oprah appearance, Jezebel's Tracie Egan Morrissey wrote, "Bristol seems like she … hates her own message." And it's true: There's a dissonance between Bristol's real life and her public persona. In reality she's suing her baby's daddy for child support and is in the middle of a messy custody fight. On Oprah, she's a cleanly scrubbed role model for America's girls who says she's going to be celibate until she gets a ring. It seems like a big gap, but there's sociological research to support the notion that Bristol really believes that she will wait to have sex until she's married this time around. That is, if her motives are genuine.

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

If the statistics are anything to go on, Bristol is unlikely to meet her goal of remaining celibate. According to Mark Regnerus, the author of the forthcoming Premarital Sex in America, among women who made virginity pledges and are now married, only 13. 9 percent waited until their wedding night to have sex. There aren't good data on women who make virginity pledges after they are sexually active—who try to become "secondary virgins," as researchers put it. What we do know is that some young women—often born-again Christians, like Bristol—believe that repledging virginity can erase their sexual histories. These teens "typically reconcile their memories with their present beliefs," according to a study called Reborn a Virgin: Adolescents' Retracting of Virginity Pledges and Sexual Histories, published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2006. This mind set would mean that Bristol could think of herself as pure again, despite her sexual relationship with Levi.

If anyone would want to spin a new narrative and forget her past, it would be Bristol. Every story about her is marred by the taint of professional ne'er-do-well Levi. Who wouldn't want to start fresh? Regnerus also notes that Bristol's choice makes some sense emotionally. "It's not unusual, especially for women, to have a failed sexual relationship and feel really badly about it. [They think] I don't want another failed sexual relationship, I want some security." What if Bristol truly learned from her relationship with Levi, and her experience, rather than making her an absurd spokesperson for abstinence, actually makes her a credible one. She can say to young women: Don't make the same mistakes I did. Don't have sex, because it's hard to be me and raise a baby.

That's the generous interpretation of Bristol's behavior. However, there are two interested parties who suggest an alternative, more self-interested explanation for her renewed commitment to abstinence: the Candie's Foundation and her mother. Bristol is the teen ambassador for the foundation, the nonprofit arm of the trashy shoe purveyor. Its mission is "to educate America's youth about the devastating consequences of teen pregnancy." The message relies heavily on abstinence as the best way to prevent teen pregnancy. The foundation hawks tight wife beaters that say, "I'm sexy enough … to keep you waiting" and includes "tips for teens" on its website like "Over half of all teens are not having sex, and of the half that are, most regret it and wish they had waited." I couldn't find any information about safe or nonpenetrative sex anywhere on the site. Bristol's earlier statements about abstinence not being realistic don't gibe with Candie's call to purity.

And maybe Candie's isn't the only company Bristol hopes to become a professional spokeswoman for. She has created a company called BSMP LLC. The most plausible reason for this company's creation, according to Rachel Maddow, is that Bristol has set herself up to be paid as an incorporated entity—this is a move that many freelancers make for tax purposes when they're getting money from different sources. A publicist from the Candie's Foundation says that Bristol is not paid for her role as spokesperson but is compensated for travel and other expenses. Maybe she's hoping for more. With a great initial platform, replete with appearances on Oprah and the Today Show, who's to say that a different pro-abstinence organization wouldn't pay mucho dinero to have pretty Bristol appear at its fundraiser?

And then there's the more cynical read of Bristol's recent abstinence promotion: It's all orchestrated by Sarah Palin, who wants a new spin on her daughter's unfortunate teen pregnancy and failed romance. If Sarah Palin decides to run for president in 2012—which the former governor refuses to affirm or deny—she will be questioned about her daughter's missteps. If Bristol can pull off a second virginity and an image resurrection, Sarah can point to her daughter's triumph over adolescent misfortune. When reporters ask her about Levi and his Playgirl spread, she'll say the relationship was a one-time gaffe her daughter made—one that Bristol learned from. Americans are extremely forgiving of teenage indiscretions. Just ask former pot smokers Presidents Obama and Clinton and ex-alcoholic George W. Bush.

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