Miss America 2003, Erika Harold, yesterday said pageant officials have ordered her not to talk publicly about sexual abstinence, a cause she has advocated to teenage girls in Illinois.
“Quite frankly, and I’m not going to be specific, there are pressures from some sides to not promote [abstinence],” the 22-year-old woman from Urbana, Ill., told The Washington Times.
In her first visit to Washington since winning the crown Sept. 21, Miss Harold resisted efforts by Miss America officials to silence her pro-chastity opinions.
“I will not be bullied,” Miss Harold said yesterday at the National Press Club, as officials tried to prevent reporters from asking questions about her abstinence message.
Miss Harold, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois, was “furious” as she arrived for yesterday’s press conference, an acquaintance said.
George Bauer, interim chief executive officer of the Miss America organization, and other pageant officials had sternly directed her to talk only about the issue of youth-violence prevention and to say nothing about sexual abstinence, said Miss Harold’s acquaintance, who asked not to be named.
“They laid it on her coming over here” not to promote teen chastity, the acquaintance said before the press conference began. “She’s furious about it.”
Mr. Bauer did not respond to inquiries made yesterday through Miss America corporate headquarters in Atlantic City, N.J. The pageant has traditionally been skittish about sexual subjects, and at one time forbade Miss America and even contestants to be alone in a room with any man, even fathers and brothers, without a chaperone.
Miss Harold has advocated premarital chastity through the years as she traveled about Illinois on behalf of Project Reality, a Chicago-based nonprofit that has been a pioneer in the field of abstinence education. By the time she won the Miss Illinois crown in June, Miss Harold had presented that message to more than 14,000 young people.
Since 1990, Miss America and affiliated state pageants have required contestants to adopt an official “platform” issue. Miss Harold won the Miss Illinois contest with her platform of “Teenage Sexual Abstinence: Respect Yourself, Protect Yourself.” But state pageant officials instead selected “teen violence prevention” as her Miss America contest platform because they deemed it more “pertinent,” her father told an Illinois newspaper.
Yesterday, Miss Harold said, she is “still in the process of coming up with what it is that I can say,” in interweaving her pro-chastity views with her official platform.
After winning the Miss America crown, Miss Harold said a young girl from an inner-city Chicago school sent her an e-mail asking her to continue the abstinence campaign. “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.’”
Said Miss Harold: “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.”
A number of groups, including the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Anti-Defamation League and the National Center for Victims of Crime, have supported Miss Harold’s anti-violence platform.
Immediately following the Sept. 21 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, Miss Harold was escorted to New York City for meetings with leaders of social and political advocacy groups, including the Anti-Defamation League.
“I collaborate with groups to work on certain issues” such as curbing youth violence, she said, “but I rarely endorse a group because, when you [do], you are saddled with everything that they believe in, and if you don’t support aspects of what they support then that puts you in a very difficult position to have to answer for things that you don’t necessarily subscribe to.”
Miss Harold said abstinence education is an important component of youth-violence prevention because violence is directly related to sexual permissiveness and 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,” she said.
“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.”
The new Miss America had meetings yesterday with Attorney General John Ashcroft and Surgeon General Richard Carmona. Today, she meets with Education Secretary Rod Paige and Deputy Secretary William Hansen.
At the press conference, Miss Harold detailed bullying she and her family suffered because of her interracial heritage, when she was a ninth-grader eight years ago in Urbana, Ill. She is of black and American Indian ancestry.
Yesterday’s press conference was sponsored by “Fight Crime: Invest in Kids,” a Washington-based group of more than 1,500 police chiefs, sheriffs and about 200 victims of violence, which Miss Harold has joined as national spokeswoman.
She talked about the violence she and her family experienced.
In the middle of the night, she said, someone once hurled a carton of eggs through her bedroom window and smeared the window with butter and cheese. “Another time, the power in my house was short-circuited by the bullies. And so my entire family was forced to live under siege because we had no notice when these attacks were going to come.”
In her math class at school, she said a teacher watched and did nothing as a student sang “a horribly degrading song with words that I am not going to repeat today,” she said. “The students retaliated in a very frightening way” and discussed plans “to pool their lunch money together to buy a rifle to kill me. And when I went to tell the principal this, his only remark to me was, ‘If you’d only be more submissive like the other girls, this wouldn’t happen to you.’”