When I tell people that once, when I was in 7th grade Sunday school class, I was shown a video starring Kirk Cameron and his wife Chelsea Noble that illustrated the dangers of sex with laughing carnival workers and evil clowns, they don’t believe me. Well, here it is (presented in three parts, after the jump).
Every time I see Kirk Cameron — especially now, speaking out about how homosexuality is “unnatural” and “detrimental” — I think of my 13-year-old self sitting in a dark classroom, terrified, watching the 1993 Focus on the Family abstinence-only “educational presentation” called “Sex, Lies & … The Truth.” The beginning of the film isn’t subtle: Shots of Kirk and Chelsea talking about delaying sex until marriage are interwoven with warped shots of haggard carnival workers laughing maniacally; close-ups of antiquated games, a cackling clown, and menacing rides; and a frightening-looking roller coaster in motion, camera placed firmly at the front car’s helm. “I think it’s real easy sometimes to look at life like it’s just this great ride or it’s just this awesome game, and you’re out to have as much fun as you can,” Kirk begins.
What follows is a mind-boggling mishmash of sexualized 1990s imagery (including a Madonna album cover) and soundbytes from ill-informed children and teens discussing what they’ve heard about sexual intercourse. “By the media promoting condoms, they’re actually letting the majority of the people have more sex,” says one teenage boy. “They’re actually promoting sex as much as protection.” One girl talks about her unintended pregnancy and the child’s father, who is now in jail. Chelsea Noble adds, “There’s not only the risk of teenage pregnancy or the risk of disease, but there’s a risk of a broken heart, and there just isn’t any protection that can protect you from a broken heart.”
Soon after the children’s testimonies, the video interviews a grieving mother whose son, as well as his wife and young child have all died of AIDS. “If you can abstain, do not have sex before marriage,” she says, through tears. “I say this because I know what it means if you should get AIDS … A few moments of pleasure and a lifetime of regret.” Next up, an AIDS patient near death speaks from his hospital bed. “The safe sex/condom campaign is simply a matter of continuing in promiscuity and continuing in sexual behavior that really is not safe,” he says. We’re soon informed that he did, indeed, die from complications of AIDS.
The final portion of the video shows commentary from a dizzying array of pro-abstinence actors, athletes, and musicians, including, former Phoenix Sun and current Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson (who has since been accused of sexual harassment and assault), and Christian boy band DC Talk, one of whose members asserts, “Sex isn’t safe emotionally either. A man and a woman aren’t made up the same way sexually. Sexual confrontation might leave a woman more hurt than a man. We’ve gotta realize that’s why marriage is so important for a sexual relationship.”
The film’s crowning shot is that of a gravestone, with the carnival in the background.
I think it’s possible for some young teens who are exposed to extreme conservative media to shake it off or forget about it completely. I am not one of them. A well-behaved child who wanted to be “good,” I was imprinted by Kirk Cameron’s video in a way that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to totally get over. Almost two decades later, before re-watching it, I was able to recall the video in explicit detail.
I have no problem with abstinence. It’s a critical option to emphasize to teens. If and when a person has sex is a personal choice (unless they are forced), and I have the utmost respect for people who decide to wait until marriage. What I do believe in, however, is personal choice made with accurate information, and Kirk Cameron’s worldview does not embrace that. A 2006 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that about 95 percent of adults have sex before marriage. The Kirk Cameron video’s rigged carnival that wants nothing more than to “use you” as an illustration of sexual activity doesn’t give children a message of empowerment or choice; it’s a message of futility. Even if you decide to have premarital sex with someone you love and who loves and wants only the best for you, metaphorically, you played the water-gun game, and even if you did win a cheap teddy bear, the carnival still took your money, you idiot.
There’s also a deeper, less tangible meaning to the video for girls: Chelsea is an absolute knockout in the video. She looks model-perfect in belted jean shorts and ankle socks. And to be perfectly honest, Kirk is no slouch either. Look closely, and there’s a subtle message that this is God’s ideal couple: To be perfect in His eyes, you must look like them and make their same choices. Anything less and, well, you’re just one of the world-weary carnies. To girls in their awkward teenage years who might be having a hard time simply getting a boy to notice them, that can be overwhelming. It was for me.
Beyond the general creepiness of the video, the film implanted half-truths about the emotions and morality surrounding sex deep in my subconscious. When I finally did choose to have sex, despite the fact that I knew intellectually that the video had a very specific agenda, I still couldn’t get over the thought that I had “fallen” and there was no going back — that I, too, had been tricked by the circus barkers. More cutting still, I thought that because I didn’t wait to have sex until I was married, I had somehow missed out on this magical, beautiful, otherworldly sexual experience that Kirk and Chelsea assure viewers will take place if they can just hold out. That “loss” felt crushing sometimes.
Needless to say, I’m not a big fan of Kirk Cameron and what he endorses. The fact that Kirk was all too willing to put his personal stamp on a film like this, targeted to children at their most impressionable, is socially irresponsible. I think I had assumed that, after the 1990s, Kirk largely went away, confined to his own corner of evangelism. Seeing him on television again, spewing anti-gay rhetoric on Piers Morgan, made me sad and angry at the same time. It riles up my inner 13-year-old that he’s still out there, up to his old tricks, potentially devastating young people — especially young gay people — in a way that he’ll never truly own up to or even understand.
Before I wrote this, I forced myself to watch “Sex, Lies & … The Truth” in its entirety on YouTube. At the very end, the credits rolled, and I read something strange: “’Laughing Sal’ appears courtesy of Musee Mecanique at the Cliff House, San Francisco, CA.” So I did a little bit of research: “Laughing Sal,” or, more accurately, “Laffing Sal” is an antique, proto-animatronic clown from the 1930s with corkscrew-curly hair and a deliberately missing front tooth. Part of Laughing Sal’s Wikipedia entry describes the clown as such: “she produces a raucous laugh that sometimes frightens small children.”