“As a mother and a nana…this makes me ILL,” wrote one commenter on Facebook.
She was looking at a picture of Norah Langweiler, a social justice advocate with a Masters in Human Sexuality Education from Widener University. The photo had been taken ten years before, backstage during a high school production of Pippin. In the photograph, Langweiler and a female friend embrace in the same innocuous, playful way many friends do — legs and arms wrapped around one another, one hand mock-cupping a friend’s chest.
For most of us, the photo is harmless. It’s good fun. For a mother in Mississippi, a member of a Facebook group called “Mississippi Common Core,” a thousand-person circle lobbying against the state’s standardized curriculum, this was enough kindling to start a modestly-sized, no-holds-barred Facebook smear campaign against Langweiler. Eventually, it cost her a job.
The issue, like many, starts with sex.
Prior to 2011, Mississippi schools weren’t required to teach any kind of sex ed, including instruction on HIV/STD prevention. If individual schools did choose to, they had to stress abstinence-only-until-marriage. With the introduction of House Bill 999 in 2011, all schools were required to adopt a sex ed program — either abstinence-only or abstinence-plus. Abstinence-plus would provide comprehensive sex ed but with the same patented emphasis on abstinence. Of Mississippi’s 151 school districts, 81 chose abstinence-only while 71 districts adopted abstinence-plus — the same kind of sex education curriculum Langweiler planned on using in her new position.
Just days before the Facebook posts, on October 15th, Langweiler had been hired as Adolescent Health Training Coordinator of Mississippi First, a non-profit specializing in education advocacy and reform. On October 16th, Mississippi First had published a blog post [since taken down] welcoming Langweiler to her new position — one in which she would design and implement a training center to train educators and medical professionals on abstinence-plus sex education. According to the outline of her job description, Langweiler tells me, she would never set foot in the classroom.
Still, over the next few days following the blog announcement, the online harassment beat on. Group members mined through Langweiler’s Facebook, Etsy, and Twitter accounts to find and repost any “objectionable” material they could find on her, current or years-old. “So, she’s a pro-abortion feminist,” one commenter posted after seeing Langweiler’s tweet about the independent film Obvious Child. “How in the hello kitty does a group of people trying to lobby for children find this person even remotely appropriate. I know there is agenda and all, but when you’ve got this much ‘stuff’ on someone…how can you justify her legitimacy,” said another group member. The incriminating ‘stuff’ the small guild dug up included a link to a cartoon about vibrators, mild cursing, and most humorously, a photograph of Yoda-shaped pasties.
Soon, Republican state Senator Michael Watson of District 51 caught wind of the protests and made a public Facebook post disparaging Langweiler’s abilities in her new role. A role — it should be noted — she had held for a mere 48 hours. “Please take the time to look into the newest member of their team,” Senator Watson wrote, encouraging the social media background investigation.
The online harassment took on a force of its own. That weekend, Langweiler was instructed by her employer to lock up her social media accounts and to cancel a trip to the upcoming National Sex Ed Conference, something she’d been looking forward to. Later, she was asked by the Executive Director of Mississippi First to resign from her position.
“I was told that it had been on a state senator’s Facebook page and it was spiraling out of control,” Langweiler tells me. She cited the momentum of the online harassment, the state senator’s involvement, internal politics, and the potential impact this would have on securing future funding for Mississippi First as reasons for her dismissal. In 2013, the non-profit received most of its revenue from foundational grants, income, and individual gifts. Officially, Mississippi First gave no public reasoning, but they quickly took down the blog post containing her hiring announcement.
Langweiler was terminated effectively the following Monday, the 20th. Her life uprooted by the extensive month-long interview process and planned move to Mississippi that the role had required, Langweiler saw her future washed away by a few Internet trolls. “I had quit my job, I had packed. This is still devastating for me,” she tells me. “Before this, I had been looking for a job for two years.”
In a matter of days, the Facebook fiasco blew over like most Internet scandals do. Had Langweiler’s social media accounts passed muster during Mississippi First’s rigorous interview process? She assured me they had. “I didn’t really think about it and I didn’t really close up my social media in part because a lot of what I post is part of my field. It’s sort of part of my professional development to post things about sexuality, gender, and culture. I like to say ‘This is how I’m informed and this is how I’m active,'” Langweiler tells me.
Mississippi First has not responded for comment about their social media screening process.
The truth is, this story is not that exceptional. It’s just another discouraging chapter in Mississippi’s bleak and wayward journey towards comprehensive sex education. A fight in which the state remains at odds with the statistics.
As of 2012, Mississippi placed #2 in the country for rate of teen pregnancies, #2 for rate of teen births, #2 for gonorrhea and chlamydia infections among all ages, and #7 in the country for the rate of HIV infections among all ages. During their high school years, 58% of Mississippi teens are sexually active compared to the national average of 47%. In Senator Watson’s own district, Jackson, the teen birth rate for females ages 15-19 is 35.3 per 1,000 compared to the national average of 29.4.
Still, Mississippi claims the title for the most religious state in the U.S.
It shows. In the 2014 Mississippi classroom, boys and girls are split up for sex ed, students are required to have a signed permission slip to opt-in, condom demonstrations are banned, and abortion talks are prohibited. There are still laws on the books which state that it’s okay to teach that homosexuality is illegal under the latest curricula. The recently released Trojan Sexual Health Report Card, a ranking of university’s sexual health resources, shows that sex ed doesn’t seem to get more comprehensive as students get older. Mississippi State University placed #68 on the list, nowhere near the top. Medically-accurate, evidence-based sex education is a lot harder to come by than one might think.
Today’s sexual health advocates in the Magnolia state are still trying to throw off the specter of the past. A buzzed-about LA Times article published earlier this year relayed the story of a Peppermint Pattie being used during an abstinence-only lesson. According to the anecdote, students in the Oxford district were asked to pass around a piece of the chocolate and observe how undesirable it became after a few hands touched it. “They’re using the Peppermint Pattie to show that a girl is no longer clean or valuable after she’s had sex — that she’s been used,” one mother said. In abstinence-only classrooms, especially pre-2012, shaming techniques like sticking packing tape to a boys’ arm and peeling it off for inspection aren’t rare (you can watch a video of that here). They’re also wildly ineffective and cost Mississippians $554,000 in 2012.
Liberal-minded groups have found ways to skirt around the limiting HB-999 restrictions. Mississippi First’s own Deputy Director Sandford Johnson found a clever way around the “no condom demonstration” policy a few years ago, with a successful video called How to Put on a Sock. Ridiculous? Perhaps, but the sock video illustrates just how far programs are going to try to educate teens who, regardless of curriculum, will continue to have sex with each other.
By all accounts, Mississippi First is one of these fairly liberal non-profits, whose foundation rests on the belief that “broken public policy has historically impeded progress in Mississippi’s public education system.” Which is what shocked Langweiler about her sudden dismissal: “They were a progressive organization. The first sign of resistance – they folded. I got a lot of comments online of people saying, ‘They’re doing good, do you really want to call them out on it because of what they did to you, your own personal vendetta?’ But I also feel social justice organizations have a responsibility to their employees. With social justice, you’re fighting for how things should be, not just how they are.”
According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2012, 72.5 % of those who report online abuse are women. It’s when even the liberal groups in a largely religiously-affiliated state buckle under the scrutiny of online bullies that we have to brace ourselves and worry.
Langweiler’s photos might not have been a Peppermint Pattie passed around a classroom, but they were still her personal missives and memorabilia proliferated around the web, tossed back and forth between hands with the ultimate goal of shaming sex and those who dare to speak openly about it.
“The same cultural stereotypes I was trying to fight were exactly what brought me down,” Langweiler says.
I asked Langweiler if this ordeal has put a bad taste in her mouth — about Mississippi, about sex education, about her own career goals. “On Friday, I applied to two jobs in Mississippi. I still want to go down there and I still want to work there,” she tells me. “They’re not particularly sex educator jobs, but community advocacy jobs. I still want to do it. I still would love to be able to do the work I was supposed to be doing in the place I was supposed to be doing it.”