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SUMMARY: SIECUS REVIEW OF Choosing the Best PATH and Choosing the Best LIFE

 

Choosing the Best PATH and Choosing the Best LIFE are fear- and shame-based abstinence-only-until-marriage programs designed for upper middle school students (seventh and eighth grade, respectively) and written by Bruce Cook, the founder of Choosing the Best, Inc.

 

In the new 2006 editions of the two curricula, some of the quotes and activities that SIECUS criticized in our review of the 2001 edition of Choosing the Best PATH and the 2003 edition of Choosing the Best LIFE were removed or changed. Some of the outrageous messages of fear have been toned down and the medical inaccuracies corrected.  SIECUS applauds the author for taking these important steps.

 

Nonetheless, Choosing the Best PATH and Choosing the Best LIFE continue to rely on messages of fear and shame, misleading information, and biased views of marriage and sexual orientation. In addition, the format and underlying biases of the curriculua do not allow for cultural, community, and individual values. Instead, they discourage critical thinking and discussions of alternative points of view in the classroom.

 

Relying on Negative Messages

 

Messages of Fear—Trying to Scare Students

 

  • Choosing the Best PATH asks students “what are some of the risks of having sex?” The suggested answers include: “Teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, low self-esteem, loss of reputation, feelings of being used” (Choosing the Best PATH, Leader Guide, p. 6). 
  • Choosing the Best LIFE says: “[A sexually active teen] may turn inward, fail to develop healthy interests and relationships, fail to develop a personal, independent identity, experience feelings of betrayal that can lead to rage” (Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 8).
  • Both curricula have teachers inform their students that “one study found that sexually active teen girls were six times more likely to attempt suicide than those who were virgins” (Choosing the Best PATH, Leader Guide, p. 6; Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 9).  (While the author is suggesting that premarital sex leads to suicide, yet the causal link between teenage depression and sexual activity has not been scientifically established. Even the lead author of the aforementioned study stated that “this is really impossible to prove.”)[1]

 

There is no scientific evidence to support the assertion that premarital sexual intercourse leads to everything from ruined relationships to a failure to develop an independent identity. The author’s focus on the inevitable consequences of premarital sexual activity is clearly designed to scare students rather than to educate them. 

 

Messages of Shame—Instilling Feelings of Guilt

 

  • In an exercise entitled “A Mint for Marriage,” a peppermint patty is unwrapped and passed around the class. Once returned, the teacher asks if a student would like to eat it. The teacher is instructed to ask, “Why is this patty no longer appealing?” The answer: “No one wants food that has been passed around and neither would you want your future husband or wife to have been passed around” (Choosing the Best PATH, Leader Guide, p. 25).
  • In an exercise entitled “A Rose with No Petals,” the teacher is told to “hold up a beautiful rose.” Students are then told to pass the rose around the room with each student removing a petal.  When the rose has no more petals, the students are told that the rose has lost all of its value, just as people who engaged in casual sex would lose their sense of value and worth (Choosing the Best PATH , Leader Guide, p. 7).

 

It is important to remember that 47 percent of all high school students have had sexual intercourse.[2]  It is inappropriate and potentially harmful for an education program to imply that these teens lack value and dignity or suggest that they are less worthy of love, trust, and respect. This can only be damaging to these students and serve to alienate them from their peers and the program. 

 

Virginity Pledges—Asking Students to Publicly Promise Purity

  •  “Your choices say a lot about your character…You’ve seen the emotional impact of sex outside of marriage.  Think about how your life and future can be influenced in a positive way by waiting to have sex until marriage” (Choosing the Best PATH, Student Workbook, p. 30).  
  • “Today I commit to Abstinence as a way to make the Best preparation for my future by Choosing to wait until marriage to have sex, because I want to be free: from worry, guilt, pregnancy sexually transmitted diseases, and the feeling of being used by another; to control my life, to like myself, to work towards personal goals, to experience healthy relationships, and to enjoy being a teenager… (Choosing the Best PATH, Student Workbook, p. 30).

 

Research has found that, while under certain circumstances virginity pledges can help a select group of young people delay intercourse,  pledges only help young people delay intercourse for approximately 18 months (far short of marriage).  In fact, 88 percent of young people who take a pledge ultimately have sex before marriage. And, pledges taken by an entire class as part of a lesson were not effective.  Most importantly, however, young people who took a pledge were 1/3 less likely to use contraception when they did become sexually active than their peers who did not pledge.[3]  Far from providing a solution to the complex problems of unintended pregnancy and disease transmission, these simplistic pledges undermine the use of contraception among teens, potentially exposing them to greater harm.

 

Distorting Information

 

STDs—Misleading Students

 

  • “The first time I had sex with anybody, I got Chlamydia. So one week I was a virgin, and two weeks later, I had an STD….I became violently ill. I had a 105 fever, severe abdominal cramps, and throwing up. The conclusion was yes, that I was infertile. My tubes had been damaged beyond repair” (Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 19).
  • “Gonorrhea can be cured with antibiotics but remains a major cause of PID and subsequent infertility and tubal pregnancy (outside of the uterus) which require termination of pregnancy” (Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 19).
  • “While [Chlamydia] can be cured, the results of the infection may never heal” (Choosing the Best PATH, Leader Guide, p. 11). 
  • “[Chlamydia] damages the reproductive system, then the diaphragm above, and finally the lungs” (Choosing the Best PATH, Leader Guide, p. 11).
  • “Over 30 types of [HPV] can affect the genital area, including those that lead to cervical cancer in women.  Nearly 4,000 women die of cervical cancer each year” (Choosing the Best PATH, Leader Guide, p. 11). 

 

For this edition of the Choosing the Best PATH and Choosing the Best LIFE, the author clearly worked to improve the section on sexually transmitted diseases.  The inaccurate information that was once common has been removed, and well-researched fact sheets containing accurate statistics and descriptions of STDs have been added.  Nonetheless the curricula’s discussions of STDs remain problematic as they focus on worst case scenarios and present treatable infections such as Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and HPV as inevitably leading to serious, permanent health problems.

 

Condoms—Exaggerating Failure

 

  • “Because latex condoms are made of rubber; they can break and slip off” (Choosing the Best PATH, Leader Guide, p. 18, Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 25).
  • “Condoms are most effective against HIV, reducing the risk by 85 percent versus not using a condom at all.  However, 15 percent of the risk remains for a life-threatening disease with no cure.”  (Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 25).

 

While it is important for students to understand that condoms cannot eliminate the risk of STDs, every medical professional can agree that it is exceedingly safer to have sex with a condom than without.  When used consistently and correctly, condoms are 98 percent effective in preventing pregnancy and research has shown that using a condom for HIV prevention is 10,000 times safer than not using a condom.[4]   Furthermore, most condom failures are caused by errors in use, such as the failure of couples to use condoms during every act of sexual intercourse. This presentation about condoms, while mostly accurate, is none-the-less clearly designed to discourage use of this important protection method.

 

Promoting Biases

 

Gender—Fostering Myths and Stereotypes

 

  • “Guys say sex is more physical, that they are driven by hormones and peer pressure. Girls say sex is an emotional experience, involving strong feelings” (Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 6).
  • In one exercise, students are given paper hearts and instructed to rip off a piece whenever they hear a negative consequence of sex in a story they are told about a breakup between a teenage girl and boy.  The instructor is told that, at the end of the exercise, “girls usually have more torn pieces” (Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 9).

 

Students are never challenged to question the nature, validity, or origin of these gender stereotypes, or to explore how stereotypes affect communication within friendships or sexual relationships. Such a presentation is detrimental to all young people by limiting their options, influencing their behavior, and coloring their expectations for future relationships.

 

Pregnancy Options—Mandating Choices

 

  • Choosing the Best PATH tells young people that there are four choices if a teen gets pregnant “1. Become a single parent; 2. Get married; 3. Have an abortion; and 4. Place the baby up for adoption” but only adoption has any “positive consequences” (Choosing the Best PATH, Leader Guide, p. 17).  
  • Students are told that choosing abortion may lead to “feelings of guilt, regret, and sadness,” “medical complications from the procedure,” and problems with “future pregnancies” (Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 31).
  • “…the reason abortion is listed as a choice is because it is legal in the US” (Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 31). 

 

In previous drafts of Choosing the Best LIFE, abortion was not even listed as a choice, so its inclusion is definitely an improvement.  Nonetheless, it is never the place of education programs to mandate choices for students. Instead, students need unbiased information about the options they have should they experience an unintended pregnancy as a teen or an adult. It is then up to students to make choices consistent with their own values and the values of their families and communities. By presenting even subtly biased information about abortion and adoption, Choosing the Best does not allow individuals to make informed, personal decisions.

 



[1] Karen S. Peterson, “Study links depression, suicide rates to teen sex” USA Today, 3 June 2003, accessed 6 August 6, 2009 < www.usatoday.com/news/health/2003-06-03-teen-usat_x.htm >

[2] J. Grunbaum, et al., “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States, 2007,” Surveillance Summaries, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 57, no.SS-4, pp. 1-136., accessed, 5 June 2009, http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dash/yrbs/.

[3] P. Bearman and H. Brückner, "Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and the Transition to First Intercourse," American Journal of Sociology, vol. 106, no. 4 (2001), pp. 859-912; P. Bearman, et al., “The Relationship Between Virginity Pledges in Adolescence and STD Acquisition in Young Adulthood,” American Journal of Sociology, vol. 110, no. 1 (2004), pp. 44-92.

[4] Hatcher, et al, Contraceptive Technology; R.F. Carey, et al, “Effectiveness of Latex Condoms as Barrier to Human-Immunodeficiency Virus-sized Particles under Conditions of Simulated Use,” Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 19, no. 4 (July/Aug. 1992), p. 230