Miss America 2002, Erika Harold, announced that she won her battle with pageant officials over the right to talk about teen sexual chastity. In her capacity as a spokeswoman for Project Reality, Harold has advocated and promoted sexual abstinence for years, including during her reign as Miss Illinois. The non-profit group has pioneered abstinence-centered health education programs in Illinois' public schools since the mid-1980s. 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.
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.'"
At the National Press Club on October 8, 2002, as pageant officials tried to prevent reporters from asking questions about her abstinence message, Miss Harold said: "I will not be bullied." Also in that interview, she said while she was not going to be specific, she admitted, "there are pressures from sides not to promote [abstinence]."
Harold said that a story the next day in The Washington Times "brought the controversy to the forefront." Harold told reporters in suburban Chicago that she is now permitted to talk about sexual abstinence education as part of her youth-violence prevention platform.
Miss America Chief Executive George Bauer removed the restriction after intense discussions during a trip to Washington, she said.
"I don't think the pageant organizers really understood how much I am identified with the abstinence message," Harold told reporters. "If I don't speak about it now as Miss America, I will be disappointing the thousands of young people throughout Illinois who need assurance that waiting until marriage for sex is the right thing to do," she said.
Miss Harold says it was her Christian faith that helped her to promote teen abstinence when she was campaigning for Miss Illinois.
"I think my faith played most into it by giving me the courage to stand up for that, because I think young people are faced with so many difficult times and difficult options — and they need people who have the courage to stand up for what they believe in and say, 'This is my personal commitment. I believe you have the courage and the power to make the same one.'"