Joneen Mackenzie of Denver builds career on advocating abstinence for young people
Tina and Darin Good sponsored a “Tupperware party” — of sorts — in their Englewood home. But instead of plastic bowls and tumblers, the fare included such concepts as self-esteem and self-determination, with a dollop of sex thrown in for good measure.
And rather than suburban housewives, those who attended the day-long workshop included the Goods’ teenage daughter, Taylor, 10 of her friends and their parents.
The gathering was the brainchild of Joneen Mackenzie.
Since that day 15 years ago when one of her children came home from school with a permission slip to study the human body, Mackenzie has been consumed by one thing — teaching young people about relationships and sex.
And many others appear interested as well: What was once a curiosity begat a career, and now Mackenzie, the president and founder of the Center for Relationship Education, said she has trained more than 10,000 teachers across the country, and her abstinence-oriented sex-ed curriculum is being used in 43 states and seven countries.
The workshop at the Goods’ home was the first of its kind that took the core elements of Mackenzie’s What Am I Thinking, or WAIT, training and moved it from the classroom to a living room.
Taylor Good is a sophomore at Cherry Creek High School. And her parents, who also have a seventh-grader at Campus Middle School, jumped at the opportunity to host the gathering.
“You don’t know if parents will go, ‘Ooh, I don’t know if I want my daughter learning about this. Are they talking about sex?’ ” Tina Good said. “And there is some of that, but the most important thing to me was the relationship-building — a lot of us don’t know what healthy relationships look like.”
Mackenzie hoped that each of the teens took away the idea that they should be making informed choices about all aspects of their lives — and that when it came to sex, there wasn’t such a rush to experience it.
And Mackenzie acknowledged that she wanted to put abstinence on the table.
Her goal: that she can persuade young people to “intentionally choose to avoid these behaviors that might undermine your future, rather than, ‘Just Say No, Just Say No.’”
Mackenzie said waiting until marriage for sex is preferable, not because of any sense of chasteness but because science suggests that it’s better for society.
She cited a Brookings Institution analysis of data in November that she said suggests 7 percent of people who live above the poverty line had a baby before marriage or failed to graduate from high school. Conversely, those two characteristics are common among 77 percent of people who live in poverty.
Similarly, she pointed to the 2006 monograph “Marriage and Family Wellness: Corporate America’s Business,” which concludes divorce is costly for business, running $9,000 to $13,000 a pop in lost productivity.
But abstinence is a politically tough area to navigate.
As a result, Mackenzie said she has gotten a bad rap in some circles — characterized as an “abstinence-only” devotee ready to wrestle teenage girls into chastity belts.
Mackenzie laughed at the notion that she’s against sex, something she calls a “mind-blowing, life-affirming experience.” However, she said, it’s almost too powerful to be left to teens because their still-developing brains struggle to deal with all it involves. So, the longer they wait, the better.
Even if the delay is only a few months, that’s that much more time for them to make a better-informed decision.
“We must be clear about our intentions, what we desire, what we will accept,” Mackenzie said. “Your heart’s always going to flutter about something, whether it’s Christmas candy or a cashmere sweater or a boyfriend whispering sweet nothings in your ear.
“We’re not saying they’re going to go away; we’re saying, ‘What do you do with the temptations?’ ”
That’s why all of the Center for Relationship Education’s programs — for teens, for adults seeking to better their marriages, for couples entering divorce — have a component in which individuals are encouraged to address who they are and who they want to be.
Mackenzie is fond of saying that it should be impossible to separate sexual education from character education because “you can’t have a healthy relationship with a sucky person.”
The good life on the outside
While working as a nurse at a military hospital in Texas, Mackenzie met and married a brain surgeon. They had the good life — the big house, country-club memberships and fancy cars — but Mackenzie said she felt wretched for most of the marriage’s 22 years.
“I saw red flags when we were dating, but I ignored them,” she said. “Why? Because I didn’t know what to do with them. I had everything — but I didn’t have a relationship. We had four children. This was my life. I was committed.
“He comes home one day and says he’s leaving — I thought he was going on a trip. It broke my heart, and I almost didn’t recover.”
Just before the marriage ended, Mackenzie’s son came home with the permission slip. The curriculum, Mackenzie said, leaped from body parts to reproductive systems to condoms.
“I wondered how you could get from body parts to condoms,” she said. “Something was missing, so I asked the parents if it was OK and I had all the kids over to my house and I asked them, ‘What do you want to know about sex?’
“I could have knitted a quilt in the time it took the first kid to answer,” she said. “But when the first one did, it was like the dam had broken: ‘How come boys do this? Why do girls do that? Does anybody stay together? How far is too far? How do I know if I’m in love?’ ”
Mackenzie threw herself into research to answer those questions. Soon it became a career. The cost of doing business was coming out of her own pocket, but she didn’t care.
“It was the buzz of Evergreen — teaching people how to have the best sex, by waiting and preparing for marriage, and talking about marriage and what does marriage look like?” she said.
After a newspaper story, she says, she was soon in 40 schools.
Conflicts with other groups
In building her brand, Mackenzie, 58, admitted that she can be something of a nudge, her high energy and passions combining to create something akin to a gale-force wind. While that has been beneficial in making contacts and fighting for what she believes young people need, it has also led to skirmishes with some of the other players in the human-sexuality field.
Mackenzie said there’s a war for the hearts and minds of teens and young adults.
Federal law provides kids access to sex education.
“They should have access to everything as far as I’m concerned — they should have access to my message,” Mackenzie said.
But there’s still conflict with groups such as Planned Parenthood, she says.
“It’s really important for collaborators like schools and after-school programs to really understand the tone and specific content of the programs they’re offering and bringing in,” said Marie Logsden, vice president of education at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. “We focus on a public-health approach that focuses on young people, which results in better outcomes in delaying initiation of sexual activity and preventing STDs and pregnancy.
“And we give medically accurate information and complete information, comprehensive information on contraception when it’s age-appropriate.”
The Center for Relationship Education is funded by a pair of grants — one for $233,000 a year for three years from Title V of the Social Security Act and another for $1.6 million a year over the same period as part of the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative.
As with the message, the funding has also generated controversy. So have Mackenzie’s ties to a Ugandan pastor.
A recent e-mail sent from Planned Parenthood included a link to a story published last summer by Westword. The story detailed the process that led to the relationship center receiving its $233,000 Title V grant, part of which involved a member of the state school board ignoring the wishes of then-Gov. Bill Ritter to apply.
The story implied that Mackenzie was complicit in the political maneuvering. It also pointed out that the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States considers “abstinence-only” programs reliant on “messages of fear and shame” and that they “promote biased views of gender, marriage and pregnancy options.”
The story also questions her connection to a number of controversial individuals, including Maggie Gallagher, the chairwoman of the National Organization for Marriage, regarded by some as an anti-gay group, and Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa.
Ssempa came under fire in his country for his support of a bill that called for the death penalty in cases of “aggravated homosexuality.”
Mackenzie said she met Ssempa, who’s married to an American woman, at a number of conferences in the U.S.
Calling him a “flipping amazing” speaker, she said she felt compelled to help Ssempa by giving him money for letterhead and business cards. She also added him to the center’s website as an available guest speaker.
“Then I found out he went off the deep end regarding the legislation in Uganda,” Mackenzie said. “I had to disassociate with him.”
“Inclusive to gays and lesbians”
Mackenzie said her programs are “inclusive to gays and lesbians — it’s inclusive to all humanity.”
“When you’re talking about the heart and relationship issues, the heart is the same,” she said. “We say wait for sex, and yes, we say wait until marriage because of what the research says. And if gays can’t marry because it’s political, that’s not our deal. The gays are the ones fighting for marriage — everyone else is just living together.”
At the beginning of the current school year, Tracy Pharris, the co-chair of Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s Colorado chapter and a teacher in Jefferson County schools, attended one of the center’s training seminars for educators.
He was concerned that in the group’s literature, “a relationship is always assumed to be heterosexual” — but admitted that he was impressed with what he heard.
“Maybe they knew I was in the audience, but everything they said was inclusive of GLBT issues,” he said.
And in the end, Mackenzie said, that’s all she wants: a chance to present her programs and let the public decide their worthiness.
“We only want to enhance what’s currently in schools, not kick anything out,” she said. “So let us come in. Let Planned Parenthood come in. Let GLSEN come in. Let whomever has a program that will enhance the life of a kid come in — let them have it all.”
Other efforts aim sex ed at young people
The Center for Relationship Education isn’t the only local group trying to be heard regarding sex and decision-making.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Initiative to Reduce Unintended Pregnancy recently launched a campaign aimed at getting young people between the ages of 18 and 29 to talk about sexual health and what their expectations are regarding sexual activity.
Called “Beforeplay,” and sponsored by the Buffett Foundation, the campaign is being publicized via billboards throughout the metro area, as well as a website, www.beforeplay.org, and on social media.
“It’s all about asking questions and getting people to engage in discussions,” said Dr. Chris Urbina, the executive director and chief medical officer for the CDPHE. “We want people to have the information necessary to make choices.”
The billboards, one of which features a woman lounging on a bed with a camera underneath the caption, “He knows I can be a little naughty. I should tell him I’m not ready to be pregnant,” may be provocative to some. But Urbina says no more than the numbers that spawned the campaign. In that target 18-29-year-old group, for example, 42 percent of pregnancies are unplanned.