Seaside has 2015 contract for Adolescent Sexuality Conference
By Katherine Lacaze
EO Media Group
What once started as an event focused on the health and welfare of adolescents has been contorted into something entirely different, says Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin.
“This conference has morphed into such a perversion from actual health and welfare that it is time to bring it to a stop and get back to some sanity,” Bergin said.
Bergin described the annual Adolescent Sexuality Conference, held at the Seaside Civic and Convention Center, as “a giant petri dish down there,” or a breeding ground for potential criminal activity.
The sheriff said he is not launching an investigation into the conference, but he has expressed concern over some of its content.
“If I am to find anything illegal, which there may or may not be, then of course we take the appropriate action,” he said.
Because of Bergin’s concern, as well as recent criticism from protesters of the conference, Seaside officials are questioning whether the city should ban the event.
“At this point, we’re leaving our options open,” said Russ Vandenberg, the convention center’s general manager.
The Seaside City Council and city staff are exploring the facts, he said, and looking to city attorney Dan Van Thiel for a recommendation on what direction to pursue.
The main question city officials are focusing on is whether there is a basis for canceling the event, even though conference organizers have already signed a contract to use the convention center next year.
According to an email from the Oregon Teen Pregnancy Task Force, the conference “promotes communitywide awareness and encourages exchange of ideas across many disciplines” by addressing a “broad range of issues that influence how adolescents deal with their sexuality.”
The task force, which is the fiscal sponsor of the conference, described its mission as facilitating communication and awareness about teen pregnancy prevention and teen parenting.
However, no one from the task force wanted to be directly quoted. The email requested that “task force” be used as the respondent.
Pornography in question
Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis said the situation does not involve his office at this time. The office would not get involved unless there was evidence of criminal activity, he said.
“There’s a huge difference between what’s inappropriate and what’s illegal,” Marquis added.
Conference protesters have claimed pornographic material is disseminated at the event.
The term “pornography” is elusive and defined differently in different social sectors and industries, Marquis said. Generally, if something has educational or cultural value, it does not fall under the definition of pornography. While pornography is not illegal, child pornography is a class A felony.
Bergin said there has been no evidence so far that sexually explicit material depicting children was distributed or promoted at the conference.
A handout on masturbation distributed at a past conference and scanned by the sheriff’s department mentioned that, to “spice things up,” a person can “try it while someone is watching.” The handout also promotes masturbation as a healthy and natural activity and an alternative to sexual intercourse that doesn’t break hearts. Protesters also expressed opposition to drawings of female genitalia.
Other materials in question
One of the conference handouts Bergin finds particularly troubling focuses on methamphetamine. It discusses how “meth is an amphetamine that increases the release of dopamine in your body” and is “widely used for a million reasons,” including the desire to have “lots of sex with lots of different partners, for long periods.” The drug is cheap and it can be a temporary remedy for loneliness and depression, the handout says.
The handout continues that “crystal usually starts out being a social experience but can quickly become an addiction. It may seem like the solution to all problems, but meth can lead to severe mental and physical exhaustion, depression, extended psychosis, neurological damage, liver and kidney damage, as well as other health-related issues.” The handout gives advice on how to reduce risks.
Methamphetamine is illegal under state and federal law.
Protesters also disapproved of a “gender gummi” handout, which explains the difference between biological sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation using a drawing of a gummy bear. It encourages readers to map out their own gender gummi and concludes that “no one’s gummi is identical. And yours can change by the day, hour or minute.”
Other items in question include topics such as sexting, cyber sex and role playing, interactive demonstrations of condom use and the idea that “abstinence is whatever you want it to be.”
The Oregon Teen Pregnancy Task Force said there is some misunderstanding regarding conference content, which is aligned with Oregon’s Comprehensive Sexuality Education requirements.
During the last conference in April, abstinence was the topic for a keynote speaker and a workshop. Other sessions addressed healthy relationship skills and youth-adult communication.
“Many of the materials available at the conference were not distributed to all conference participants, nor are those materials designed for or provided for classroom use,” the task force stated in the email, adding that some of the material is distributed by third-party vendors. “The materials were not officially endorsed by any entity other than the agency that developed them.”
The conference doesn’t avoid more sensitive topics, such as pornography, but it also “does not give directives around what youth should or should not do,” the task force stated.
“It provides information for youth to critically decide for themselves,” it continued. “We hope that youth who attend will leave understanding that they have choices they can make — and some of those choices can have negative consequences. We hope that adults who attend will leave with more information about what youth are exposed to in their lives.”
The conference’s future
The convention center has signed a legal and binding contract with conference organizers for 2015, which is something the city has to take into consideration, Vandenberg said. Canceling the event may also set an ambiguous precedent where the city decides which groups can and cannot rent the convention center.
When asked who will be involved in deciding what is and isn’t appropriate at the conference and how content deemed inappropriate is prevented from being distributed, Bergin said the sheriff’s department “doesn’t have any say.” That, he said, is the problem.
“If we cannot get this canceled, then through our legislators we will push hard to change most of the information being disseminated since the state does have quite a bit of involvement,” he said. “The truth is, we just want this shut down as ... it is no way to represent Seaside and for the damage I, along with others, believe it is doing to children.”
The conference could be a liability for the city, Bergin said. “Hopefully, the city officials will see the writing on the wall and decide this isn’t something they want to be associated with.”
About 25 percent of attendees have been minors, according to the task force. The conference requires they are accompanied by an approved adult chaperone and school policy requires parental permission. The Seaside School District has not sent any students to the conference.
Van Thiel said he doesn’t know how the city could be held liable for the potential criminal actions of a person who attended the conference, adding, “that seems like a giant leap.”
“The only liability I see is if we decide to breach the contract because of morality reasons,” he said. He said he could not further discuss the conference on record because he and the city still are deciding what to do. The City Council has scheduled a closed executive session Monday to discuss the conference.
The 2015 conference is scheduled for April 13 and 14, and the theme is “Healthy Bodies, Minds and Communities.” The 2015 sponsors include the Oregon Teen Pregnancy Task Force, the Oregon Health Authority’s Adolescent and School Health Programs and YouthToday.org. For more information, visit oregon-asc.org/2015-conference/
There’s a huge difference between what’s inappropriate and what’s illegal.
— Josh Marquis
Clatsop County district attorney