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SUMMARY: SIECUS REVIEW OF Choosing the Best JOURNEY

 

Choosing the Best JOURNEY is a fear- and shame-based abstinence-only-until-marriage program designed for ninth and tenth grade and written by Bruce Cook, the founder of Choosing the Best, Inc.  SIECUS reviewed the first edition which was published in 2006.

 

As is typical of abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, Choosing the Best JOURNEY provides limited information on human sexuality and does not cover such basic topics as puberty, sexual response, or reproduction. Other important issues such as contraception, abortion, sexual orientation, STDs, and HIV/AIDS are presented in an unbalanced manner that seems designed to promote one point of view rather than simply inform students.

 

In addition to omitting important information, this curriculum aims to push a singular agenda, what it calls the “best” choice, while convincing students that they are making their own choices. The curriculum relies on messages of fear and shame and biased views of marriage, gender, and sexual orientation.

 

Relying on Negative Messages

 

Messages of Fear—Trying To Scare Students

 

  • The curriculum tells the stories of a number of students whose dreams were shattered by pre-marital sex: Daniel had planned to go to college and “his personality, honesty, and work ethic would have been the basis for a successful career. However, Daniel found out that his ex-girlfriend was pregnant, he had to drop out of school to support his son” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Leader Guide, p. 21).
  • Students are told that “While each young person was free to make their own choices concerning sexual activity, they were not free to choose the consequences.  These negative consequences significantly altered their lives” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Leader Guide, p. 21).
  • The consequences of pre-marital sex include “guilt, disappointment, worry, depression, sadness, loneliness, and loss of self-esteem” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Leader Guide, p. 25).

 

While it is important for students to understand the difficulties that accompany teen pregnancy, it is possible to do it in a way that does not wholly stigmatize teen parents or suggest that they will never have a happy life. The author’s preferred 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

 

  • Many of the video segments show teens talking to the camera about how bad they felt about themselves after having become sexually active.  Robin says:  “After I had sex for the second time, it made me feel horrible.”  Nick claims “…I was in a real hole, a dark pit.  Sleeping around wasn’t bringing fulfillment in my life.  It left me feeling empty” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Leader Guide, p. 43).
  • In another video, a young person explains “Every time I had sex I was giving away a piece of my heart.  I was giving away something I could never get back…” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Leader Guide, p. 43).
  • Students are told that abstinence not only provides “freedom” from the “fear of pregnancy, STDS, HIV/AIDS, worry and emotional consequences,” it “establishes a focus on character and compatibility in an atmosphere of trust and respect” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Leader Guide, p. 44).

 

With ideas like these, the author sets up a dichotomy between those students who choose to be abstinent who are portrayed as being honest, responsible, and courageous, and those who become sexually active who are portrayed as lacking self-respect, worth, or personal value.  It is important to remember that 47 percent of all high school students have had sexual intercourse.[1]  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.

 

Misleading Information

 

STDs—Focusing on Worst Case Scenarios

 

  • The presentation on STDs includes a slide show of STDs in their late stages (Choosing the Best JOURNEY Leader Guide, p. 28).
  • “Chlamydia is a silent disease.  Like most STDs, it infects the woman’s cervix and moves upward if untreated.  The disease damages the reproductive system, then the diaphragm above, and finally the lungs” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Leader Guide, p. 28).
  • “Over 30 types of [HPV] can affect the genital area.  Some types cause genital warts, which can be treated and cured. Other types can cause cervical, penile, and anal cancer.  Over 90% of all cervical cancers are caused by HPV infection.  Over 10,000 women develop invasive cervical cancer each year in the U.S. and nearly 4,000 women die from the disease” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Leader Guide, p. 19).

 

Rather than focus exclusively on worst case scenarios, the curricula would better serve students by highlighting the early symptoms young people should look for and emphasizing the need for everyone who has been sexually active to get tested regularly.

 

Condoms and Contraception—Discouraging Use

 

  • “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 JOURNEY, Leader Guide, p. 31).
  • In one exercise, eight students—each representing a method of contraception—are asked to roll dies to represent the typical failure rates of their method.  If their number comes up they must sit down because they’ve experienced a pregnancy.  The lesson is designed to end with all the students representing condoms and birth control methods seated and the student representing abstinence still standing. The teacher closes by saying “What is the only 100% method to protect against HIV/STD and have a 0% failure rate in preventing pregnancy: Abstinence” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Leader Guide, p. 22).

 

Like any other method of pregnancy- or disease-prevention, abstinence can be used inconsistently or incorrectly. The curriculum could better serve students by explaining that although condoms and other contraception are not 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancy and STDs, there are steps that sexually active couples can take—like using their methods consistently and correctly every time—to improve the chances of avoiding unintended pregnancy and STDs.

 

Promoting One Point of View

 

Virginity Pledges—Asking Students to Publicly Promise Purity

 

  • “Your choices say a lot about your character. Now it’s time to choose your course of action” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Student Workbook, p. 48).
  • “Starting today, I make a commitment to myself, my family, my friends, and my future spouse to be sexually abstinent until I enter into a marriage relationship” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Student Workbook, p. 48).

 

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.[2]  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.

 

Sexual Orientation—Ignoring Gays and Lesbians

 

  • After videos featuring heterosexual couples, the lesson asks students “what qualities were these young people looking for in relationships with the opposite sex?” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Leader Guide, pp. 34-35).
  • Students are then divided into separate groups of guys and girls and the instructor is told to “Ask the guy group to write down the top five qualities they are looking for in a girl and what they thing the girls are coming up with [top five qualities they are looking for in a boy]” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Leader Guide, pp. 34-35).

 

Curricula written exclusively for heterosexual students are not appropriate for a classroom setting in which some students are likely to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning their sexual orientation. Such curricula will only further marginalize and alienate these students.

 


Guys vs. Girls—Perpetuating Gender Stereotypes

 

  • “Soon Ashley began to notice some things about Jerome she had never seen before. He continued to go to sports bars and party on the weekend with his guy friends…She suggested that they go to museums or plays, but Jerome wasn’t really into ‘cultural stuff’” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Leader Guide, p. 46). 
  • “I thought sex equaled love…so if we had sex, then we must be in love. I had the emotional tie, but he didn’t” (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Leader Guide, p. 36).
  • The curriculum warns that young men and women fall into different “relational traps.”  In the “sex trap,” which the author suggests only happens to young women, “Sexual, romantic feelings can be confused with being in love.” In the “emotional trap,” young women are said to become “possessive,” and learn that “When we try to meet personal, emotional needs through relationships with others we tend to be disappointed.” On the other hand, young men are said to experience the “infatuation trap,” which is “represented by very sudden and intense feelings” and is characterized by feelings of attraction (Choosing the Best JOURNEY, Leader Guide, p. 36).

 

The curriculum perpetuates stereotypical views including the ideas that men desire casual sexual activity from any and all women while women only agree to sexual activity to get love. Students are not 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. Instead, students need to learn that both men and women are sexual beings and are equally responsible for making decisions regarding sexual activity.

 

 



[1] 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, <www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dash/yrbs/>.

[2] 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.