The Choosing the Best series, one of the more popular abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula series in the country, includes Choosing the Best WAY, Choosing the Best PATH, Choosing the Best LIFE, Choosing the Best JOURNEY, and Choosing the Best SOUL MATE. Each is designed for a specific year(s) of middle school or high school. For each curriculum, there is a leader guide, a student workbook, and an accompanying video.
These curricula are produced and distributed by Choosing the Best, Inc., a non-profit organization founded in 1993. Choosing the Best, Inc. also offers PARENT PREP, an “education program…ideal for PTA presentations, parents’ groups and teacher in-service training” and Parents, Teens and SEX: The BIG TALK Book which “offers ten critical steps parents can take to help empower their teens to choose abstinence until marriage.” (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p. 2)
This review focuses on Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, one of the newest editions to the series which is designed for high school students in eleventh and twelfth grade. Like the other curricula in the series, it was written by Bruce Cook, the founder of Choosing the Best, Inc. SIECUS reviewed the first edition which was published in 2004.
Choosing the Best SOUL MATE is described as a “relationship and abstinence curriculum.” It includes five lessons: “Finding the Right One,” “Being the Right One,” “Developing Relational Skills,” “Dating to Discover,” and “Making Marriage Work.” The author explains that the curriculum, “provides older students with the interpersonal skills essential for relationships of all kinds and, ultimately, for a successful marriage.”
This program differs from the other curricula in the series as it pays very little attention to topics related to sexuality and focuses almost exclusively on relationships and marriage. Even those topics often given a lot of time in other abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, such as STDs and condoms, are glossed over in favor of discussions and exercises about character, self-control, cohabitation, and planning for the future.
SIECUS’ curricula reviews are based on our Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, K–12, which were developed by a task force of professionals from the fields of education, medicine, youth services, and sexuality education. The Guidelines are a framework for comprehensive sexuality education programs and represent a consensus about the necessary components of such programs. Marriage, relationships, self-esteem, and abstinence are all included in the Guidelines, and SIECUS believes that these are important topics for young people to learn.
Many of the lessons in this curriculum could be quite valuable were it not for the clear underlying biases of the author. This program is not designed to help young people explore relationship possibilities or even develop the healthiest relationships for them as adults. It is designed to promote marriage. It tells young people in no uncertain terms that marriage is not only the best relationship, but the only morally appropriate venue for adult sexual behavior.
The underlying biases of the curriculum are clear in all of its discussions: everybody should marry and in order to have a happy marriage everybody should remain abstinent until they do. All of the curriculum’s lessons and activities are designed to convince students that this is the only acceptable life view. To do so the curriculum highlights the benefits of marriage, the perils of premarital sex, and the problems of cohabitation. Other biases, most notably stereotypical views of gender, are also present throughout.
Marriage promotion is not appropriate for high school students nor is it appropriate for public schools. While the author may believe that all people should marry, this is clearly not a universal value; there are more than 98 million adults in this country who are classified as single because they have delayed marriage, decided to remain single, are divorced, or have entered into a gay or lesbian partnership.
The Marriage Mandate—Making Sure All Students Follow One Relationship Trajectory
In its very first lesson, Choosing the Best SOUL MATE explains to students that the course will “help you discover the keys to eventually finding your soul mate and enjoying a lasting marriage relationship.” It then divides the class into guys and girls and asks each group to give the top five answers to this question “Why do over 80% of teens have a goal of being happily married?” (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p. 47). The author never cites this statistic or explains how he knows that an overwhelming majority of teens share this goal.
While this is a true brainstorm activity (unlike similar exercises in other curricula in the series the leaders guide offers no answers), it is nonetheless biased. A better question might be, simply, “Do you think your peers want to be happily married someday?” Such a question could be the beginning of an honest discussion about relationships. Instead, the curriculum simply tells students that they all want to and should marry, that there is a proper order to all romantic relationships, and that both premarital sex and cohabitation outside of marriage is inappropriate and inevitably harmful.
The Benefits of Marriage
The curriculum describes marriage as the “super-glue that holds a relationship together as it matures.” It goes on to say that marriage reduces fear of abandonment issues, fosters trust, and encourages resolving conflicts and disagreements, (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p. 47). These ideas are not supported by research. While they may be true in some marriage relationships, it is certainly possible that other married couples still grapple with trust and abandonment issues for example. Moreover, given the high rate of divorce (which the curriculum readily acknowledges), it is clear that marriage in and of itself does not necessarily encourage couples to resolve conflicts or disagreements.
Regardless, operating on the assumption that marriage is the best relationship and desired by all students, the curriculum walks students through a number of exercises designed to improve their future marriage. In one, students are asked to pack their “marriage survival kit” by selecting five items from a list of 18. Possible items include “a commitment to working to maintain and improve your relationship,” “set of cookbooks,” “framed copy of marriage license and best wedding photograph,” “Book: ‘What Wives Wish Husbands Knew About Women,’” and “phone number of the nearest florist” (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p. 42). The lesson here, that communication and commitment are critical to a healthy marriage, is not a bad message for young people to learn. Still, given that these students are still a decade away from the average age of first marriage, it seems silly to focus a lesson on communication solely on marriage. These are skills that young people should learn because they can help them in future friendships and relationships regardless of whether they ever marry.
The Proper Order of Relationships
Choosing the Best SOUL MATE does more than just tell students that they must ultimately marry, it explains that there is only one normal and healthy progression within a relationship. The curriculum makes the analogy to lighting a fire using logs, kindling, paper, and matches. Students are told that it must be done in the correct order. After all, if you were to use just the match, it wouldn’t be enough to keep you warm but if you were to light the logs directly they wouldn’t catch.
This proper order emerges again in the story of Michael and Ashley two young adults who knew each other in high school and ran into each other “after taking jobs in the same city.” They had an intense relationship that included “a whirlwind of romantic weekends together” and “sexual involvement.” Within three months they were married. Soon, though, Ashley is disappointed because Michael wants to hang out at the sports bar with his male friends and she can’t bring herself to enjoy football. The story continues: “When Ashley suggested they go to the library, Michael said he was proud that he hadn’t read a book since college and didn’t want to start now” (Choosing Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p. 34).
The curriculum suggests that the problem with Ashley and Michael’s relationship is that they did it in the wrong order: attraction, hanging out, first dates, sex, get married, discover compatibility, discover character. According to the author the appropriate order would have been; attraction, hanging out, first dates, discover compatibility, discover character, get married, sex. The curriculum suggests that it was the sex that prevented Ashley from noticing their incompatibility.
Though most people would agree that three months is not enough time to know someone before marriage, in reality, there is no precise formula for a good relationship. Ask happy couples what the progression of their relationship was, and you will get as many different answers as there are couples.
The Perils of Premarital Sex
The curricula in the series that are intended for younger students spend a good deal of time discussing the perils of premarital sex. Students are told that premarital sex inevitably leads to pregnancy, STDs, and emotional problems. Choosing the Best SOUL MATE spends exactly one page on the consequences of premarital sex, yet, the same fear- and shame-based messages remain clear.
The exercise, a fill-in-the blank work sheet, is part of a lesson on the five relational traps couples fall into including “the Hollywood trap,” “the speed trap,” “the heart trap,” and the “I’ll change ‘em trap.” Trap five is “the sex trap,” which is described with the following quote “‘We’re in love and and [sic] having sex is a normal and natural way of expressing our love for one another—and there are no negative consequences’” (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p.10).
The lesson then quickly goes through the negative relationship, emotional, and physical consequences. Students are told that having sex can make it difficult to discover more important aspects of a relationship and that “relationships based on sex don’t last.” They then learn that “Sexually active girls are 3 times more likely to experience depression than virgin girls.” And, “Sexually active guys are 2 times more likely to experience depression than virgin guys” (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p.10). The explanation for this, according to the curriculum is that, “Teen sex quite often has a negative impact on self-esteem.” This data is cited to a study by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that frequently publishes analysis of data that point to problems with premarital sex and out-of-wedlock childbearing. The foundation’s research is not peer reviewed.
The negative physical consequences of teen sex listed are pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The curriculum goes on to say briefly that the three most common STDs are Chlamydia, which “if untreated can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease that can lead to infertility”; HPV “which has no cure, can cause genital warts and cervical cancer which kills over 2000 women each year”; and genital herpes. These tidbits of information are clearly designed to present worst case scenarios and scare students rather than educate them. Instructors are also told that if the students did not receive the earlier curricula in the series and thus have not seen the slides of STDs which depict diseased genitals and other infected body parts, they should consider taking a few minutes to show the slides.
The same fill-in-the-blank sheet then goes on to provide five “facts” designed to tell students that condoms are ineffective. The curriculum claims that “Condoms offer no protection against HPV (human papilloma virus)” and “There is no evidence that condoms protect against genital herpes and Chlamydia.” These statements are simply untrue. According to a CDC fact sheet “latex condoms, when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of transmission of gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and trichomoniasis.” The CDC also explains that, “several recent studies reported that, for men and women, use of male condoms can reduce the risk of genital herpes….” Moreover, the use of latex condoms has been associated with a 70 percent reduction in HPV in young women as well as a reduction of HPV-associated diseases such as cervical cancer and genital warts.
In the author’s defense, Choosing the Best SOUL MATE was published in 2004 and has yet to be updated. Other curricula in the series that have been published more recently have been corrected and no longer contain such blatant inaccuracies. We expect that subsequent editions of Choosing the Best SOUL MATE will also include such corrections. Nonetheless, it remains disturbing because this curriculum continues to be used and young people continue to be exposed to these falsehoods.
The curriculum’s brief discussion of condoms is clearly designed to discourage condom use. Telling students that condoms don’t work will not stop them from having sexual intercourse. It may, however, stop them from using condoms when they do become sexually active. The curriculum could better serve students by explaining that although condoms are not 100% effective in preventing pregnancy, there are steps that sexually active couples can take—like using condoms consistently and correctly every time—to improve the chances of avoiding unintended pregnancy and STDs.
The Arguments Against Cohabitation
The curriculum’s lesson on why it is a bad idea to live with a romantic partner outside of marriage is entitled “Cohabitating: Sex without strings, relationships without rings.” It starts with the story of Shannon and Trey who move in together six weeks after they begin dating. Shannon thought this was a temporary arrangement and that surely they would get married while Trey was content with their relationship and felt they had “plenty of time” for marriage. According to the curriculum, “Her fears were confirmed: Trey was clearly not going to consider a long-term marriage relationship. But why? Didn’t he love her?” Students are then asked to give advice to the couple (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p. 46).
Again, the curriculum has eschewed critical thinking for promoting one point of view. In this story, it is possible that Trey is telling the truth and that he may want to marry Shannon at some point in the future. But despite the fact that this is billed as a relationship curriculum, the purpose of this exercise is not really to examine their relationship (or the communication issues they are clearly having) but to tell students in no uncertain terms that cohabitation is bad.
This is underscored by the 10 true/false “facts” about living together that appear under the story. In it, the curriculum admits that “A majority of young people feel it is a good idea to live together before getting married to find out if they are really compatible and thus avoid the risk of divorce or being “trapped in an unhappy marriage” (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p. 46). This seems like a reasonable opinion. In fact, it seems like it might have helped some of the couples depicted in the curriculum, like Michael and Ashley, who seem headed for divorce. After a few months of living together Ashley might have noticed that Michael preferred football to books and decided not to marry him after all.
Still, the curriculum never asks students to discuss why the majority of their peers feel this way, instead, it suggests that cohabitation relationships never work out. Some of these facts are cited to legitimate research, such as “Married couples that cohabited first experience a 50% higher divorce rate than couples that did not live together before marriage” (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p. 46). The curriculum never invites students to question, however, why this is true. For example, is it possible that those people who do not consider living together appropriate are also more willing to stay in an unhappy marriage because of their values regarding divorce? Again, if the purpose of this relationship curriculum was truly to help young people determine the best relationship for themselves, it would help them think critically about these issues.
Instead, it just reiterates that cohabitation is wrong and even suggests that those who choose it have inherent character flaws: “Unwed couples living together may have problems making and keeping commitments.” This “fact” is not cited to any research.
It is not the place of any educational program to mandate relationship choices for students. Moreover, while these discussions are meant to shape young people’s future relationships, they may very well impact how young people see their own family. We have to remember that many students may be living with parents who are not legally married. Suggesting that these relationships are fragile and their parents lack commitment skills can only alienate these students.
The Importance of Virginity Pledges
Like many abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, Choosing the Best SOUL MATE asks young people to take a virginity pledge. The pledge reads:
Because I want to experience freedom from the risk of STDs, unplanned pregnancy, negative emotional and relational consequences
Because I want to experience freedom to pursue the greatest potential for fulfillment and happiness in a lasting marriage relationship, as well as to achieve my personal goals…
I am choosing, from this day forward, to be sexually abstinent until marriage (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p. 48).
The underlying message of this pledge is disturbing, not just because it reiterates that everybody should marry, but because it provides an unrealistic view of what abstinence until marriage can secure. Young people should not expect that the decision to remain abstinent until marriage will guarantee either a happy marriage or the realization of personal goals. It is fair to teach young people that abstinence (whether until they are older or until they are married) can prevent both STDs and teen pregnancy. It is not fair or realistic to suggest that it alone can secure a happy future.
More importantly, research shows that having young people pledge to remain abstinent is not a useful strategy. It is true that virginity pledges can help a select group of young people delay intercourse under certain circumstances. Pledges taken by an entire class as part of a lesson or presentation, however, are not effective. Moreover, even when they work, pledges help this select group of adolescents delay the onset of intercourse for an average of 18 months—far short of marriage. Ultimately 88 percent of young people who pledge become sexually active before marriage.
Virginity pledges may, in fact, be detrimental to some teens. The study also found that those young people who took the pledge were one-third less likely to use contraception when they did become sexually active than their peers who had not pledged. Further research has confirmed that although some students who take pledges delay intercourse, ultimately they are equally as likely to contract an STD as their non-pledging peers. Far from providing a solution to the complex problem of unintended pregnancy and disease transmission, these simplistic pledges are undermining the use of contraception among teens, potentially exposing them to greater harm.
Despite the fact that pledges have been proven ineffective, Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, takes the concept one step further by asking students to pledge to the curriculum’s own central tenets. Before pledging abstinence until marriage, students are asked to sign this:
Because I want to experience the best in a long-term relationship, I commit to the following six keys for a lasting successful relationship:
>Building on my strengths and “success” situations
>Developing positive character traits
>Listening to Validate
>Appreciating to encourage
Both the six keys of relationships and the ten commitments needed to ensure strong marriage relationships are constructs of the author’s creation. While there is surely a grain of truth to this formula, it is in the end one person’s opinion about how young people should live their lives and conduct themselves in relationships. It would be one thing to present such an opinion, acknowledge that it is an opinion, and allow students to critically analyze it and decide how it does or does not apply to their own lives. Choosing the Best SOUL MATE does not take this approach. It presents this opinion as fact or science and then asks students to blindly commit to it.
Again, it is not the place of any educational program to mandate choices for students. Instead, students must make their own decisions based on their personal values, the values of their families, and the values of their communities. By endorsing the pledge and suggesting that students use class time to sign it, the teacher is putting undue pressure on students. Education programs should foster critical thinking and decision-making skills rather than pressure students to make one choice.
Promoting Biases—Presenting Stereotypes as Fact
The Choosing the Best series is predicated on one world view which sees marriage as the only morally acceptable relationship, premarital sex as inevitably harmful, and abstinence as the key, not just to a successful marriage, but to a happy life. In promoting these views, the curriculum also shows a clear bias against homosexuality and perpetuates stereotypes about gender.
The Omission of Sexual Orientation
Marriage promotion programs, by their very nature, discriminate against gay and lesbian individuals who cannot legally marry in most states in this country. Choosing the Best SOUL MATE is no exception. The public signing of the virginity pledge is particularly troublesome. For a gay or lesbian student, signing this pledge is tantamount to agreeing to a lifetime without sexual behavior. It is unfair and unrealistic to ask a high school student to make such an agreement.
Nonetheless, throughout the curriculum the author simply ignores the existence of same-sex couples or gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals.
All of the curriculum’s references to sexual activity and even relationships are specific to male-female couples. A lesson on communication within relationships, for example, is titled “The Challenge of Communicating with the Opposite Sex!” (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p. 43). Exercises such as this leave no room for young people who are attracted to members of the same sex. There is no reason for such discrimination; the same advice could be geared toward communicating with anyone in a student’s life from parents to teachers to romantic partners regardless of gender. By refusing to be inclusive, the author is showing a clear bias against same-sex couples.
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. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and questioning students, especially young men who have sex with men, are at increased risk for STDs, including HIV, yet Choosing the Best SOUL MATE fails to provide these students with any realistic strategies for protecting themselves from those risks.
The Differences Between Guys and Girls
Choosing the Best SOUL MATE also perpetuates long-standing stereotypes about men and women. Much of the curriculum focuses on young people understanding their own strengths and weaknesses in order to develop self-confidence. While the goal is good, the exercises frequently rely on stereotypes about what men and women are good at. One exercise asks young people to look at pictures which depict guys in football jerseys and a girl in a cheerleading uniform attempting to convince others of a point using a chart and a megaphone. The instructor is supposed to explain: “Look at the two pictures at the top of the page—one showing a guy who is good at getting things done and a girl who excels at relationships.” It goes on to say “Our guy will do well in ‘success situations’ that give him a chance to plan and achieve his goal; while our girl will excel in situations that allow her to influence and interact with people.” The curriculum warns, however, “The guy who is great at getting things done can become so goal-oriented that he walks all over people in his drive to achieve his goal. The girl who is wonderful with people can become so people-centered that she is distracted and has a hard time focusing on her goal” (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p. 18).
Providing such stereotypical portrayals of what men and women excel at (not to mention such ridiculously stereotyped pictures) undermines the lesson’s goal of increasing self-confidence. Young people should understand that gender does not determine what they will and will not be good at in life.
The truth is that neither gender fairs particularly well in the curriculum’s description of how men and women relate to each other romantically. Men are portrayed as cads who desire casual sex with any and all women but are frequently misunderstood and the victims of nagging women. Women, on the other hand, will use sex to get love and are forced to tolerate the bad behavior of the men who use them for sex but are otherwise unhelpful.
These stereotypes are particularly apparent in the stories the curriculum tells about young couples. The author of one story explains that she is so frustrated with her husband James because “His life revolves totally around his own interest and needs. Last weekend I was very ill and needed help with our toddler. James impatiently told me he was too busy to hang around the house” (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leaders Guide, p. 39). In contrast, the husband who is frustrated with his wife complains about her shopping habits: “My wife Lateisha has always been a major shopper…When I ask about her many new outfits, she always has some story about how she was ‘given’ the clothes. Lateisha keeps bouncing checks and running up credit card debt” (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p. 39).
The most offensive gender stereotypes, however, come in the stories of the “Disappointed Princess” and the “Knight in Shining Armor.” These parables give young people clear rules on how to interact with members of the opposite sex.
Though the moral of this story makes sense, the portrayal of women as princesses who simply crave the attention of a man is disturbing. More disturbing, however, are the messages in the curriculum’s other parable.
It begins: “Deep inside every man is a knight in shining armor, ready to rescue a maiden and slay a wicked dragon. When a man feels trusted, he is free to be the strong, protecting man he longs to be.”
Unfortunately for this knight in shining armor, his princess is not one to sit back and allow herself to be rescued. Instead, she has ideas about how he might best slay the dragon. When the second dragon attacks, she suggests that instead of the sword he uses a noose. This works and “everyone is happy, except the knight who doesn’t feel like a hero this time. He would have preferred to use his sword.” The princess’s continuing suggestions (for the third dragon she recommends poison) make the knight doubt his own instincts and feel ashamed despite the fact that he continues to slay dragons.
Then one day he hears another maiden in distress. Though he initially doubts himself, at the last minute he remembers how he used to feel “before he met the princess” and uses his sword. He never does return to the princess. Instead, he lived happily ever after with the maiden, “but only after making sure she knew nothing of nooses or poison.”
The moral of this story: “Occasional suggestions and assistance may be all right, but too much of it will lessen a man’s confidence or even turn him away from his princess” (Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, Leader Guide, p. 51).
The suggestion that women should not have their own ideas, or worse, should suppress them in order to make men feel good, is remarkably offensive. Perhaps the princess knew more about dragons than the knight and understood that the second dragon had a skin too thick to be pierced by a sword or that the third should be poisoned because its neck was too strong to be quickly snapped by a noose. According to the curriculum, she should have kept this information to herself, despite the risk to the castle, all to ensure that she did not offend her man.
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. Instead, students need to learn that both men and women are sexual beings and are equally responsible for making decisions regarding sexual activity.
SIECUS believes that young people should learn about relationships and marriage. However, marriage promotion programs—those that suggest that a heterosexual marriage not just the ideal but the only appropriate adult relationship—are not appropriate for public schools.
The fundamental flaw of Choosing the Best SOUL MATE is that it is based on a set of values and opinions which it tries to pass off as universally held truths. The curriculum contains some interesting topics and important discussions including those focused on self-esteem and communication skills.
If the author were to acknowledge that his beliefs about sex and marriage—that premarital sex is always morally wrong and that abstinence before marriage is essential for happiness—are opinions and set out to convince young people that his opinion is the best, this program could be an exercise in critical thinking and values clarification.
Instead, he presents his opinions as facts and sets out to ensure that young people buy into these unfounded suppositions, leaving no room for those who might question the underlying beliefs. Along the way he provides incomplete and biased information.
 U.S. Bureau of the Census, Annual Demographic Supplement to the March 2002 Current Population Survey, Current Population Reports, Series P30-547, “Children’s Living Arrangements and Characteristics: March 2002.”
 Latex Condoms and Sexually Transmitted Disease—Prevention Messages (Atlanta, GA: National Center for HIV, STD & TB Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, undated document).
 Gerberding, “Report to Congress,” p. 13.
 Rachel L. Winer, et al., "Condom Use and the Risk of Genital Human Papillomavirus Infection in Young Women," New England Journal of Medicine, 354.25 (June 22, 2006): 2645-2654; .Latex Condoms and Sexually Transmitted Disease—Prevention Messages.
 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.
 Recent legislation and court decisions in California, Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont have granted same-sex couples the right to marry in those states. Some legal and legislative challenges remain though and it is therefore unclear whether this right will be permanently guaranteed in these states or other states in the country.