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Sugar & Spice, Virtue & Vice: How Fear-Based, Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Curricula Perpetuate Gender Stereotypes
Read a fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum and you may feel like you’ve been transported 50 years back in time to a day when it was acceptable to suggest that men were simply smarter than women and assume that a woman’s only life goal was to marry and have children. Despite the fact that these curricula have all been written in modern times, they continue to naturalize gender differences, perpetuate gender stereotypes, blame women for men’s sexual aggression, and stigmatize women who are sexually active. Men are portrayed as unable to control their own sexual urges and, as such, the burden of purity and chastity rests of the shoulders of young women. Such suggestions are presented as universal truths, and students are not encouraged to examine their own beliefs about gender or question the validity of these stereotypesPresenting such biased statements sends destructive messages of intolerance and inequity to students of all genders that are likely to have a negative impact on their future relationships.
Naturalizing Sexual Difference 
  • “New research data says that many basic male-female differences are innate, hardwired and not the result of condition.” (Worth the Wait, Section 5-11) 
  • “Let's face it, men and women are different. Not just in terms of anatomy, but even in the ways they typically think and act in various situations.” (WAIT Training, p. 183)
  • “Males… are usually better at spatial reasoning than females…Males' superior skills in this area give them an advantage in math, engineering, and architecture.” (Worth the Wait, Section 5-11)
  • “How do guys carry their books without a backpack? (Show books tucked under arm.) Now, when you went off to school, did your mother say, ‘Honey, carry your books like this so people won't think you're a weenie.’ No, it's innate behavior. Nobody had to teach you to do this. Now girls, how do you carry your books without a backpack? You nurture your books to your breast like with a baby.” (WAIT Training p. 61)
  • “While girls use words as a bridge, boys more often than girls use them as instruments of control or dominance.” (FACTS Senior High, Student Handbook, p. 11)

 Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs often assert that there are innate differences in the way that men and women think, act, and relate to other people. The implication that biology dictates behavior is the basis for many claims that perpetuate inequality and limit the options of men and women alike. The suggestion that males have superior “spatial reasoning” or that men naturally use words as instruments, for example, discourages talented and capable women from fields such as engineering and politics and stigmatizes men whose skills and interests do not align with this sexist mold. This rhetoric also reinforces the inaccurate and reactionary notion that social inequalities between genders are natural, and therefore cannot and should not be challenged.

Perpetuating Stereotypes 
  •  “Real men” are “strong, respectful, and courageous.”   “A man protects.” In contrast, a “real woman,”  “knows herself, is confident, sends a clear message, and is caring.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 52 & 55)
  • “Women need affection while men need sexual fulfillment; women need conversation while men need recreational companionship; women need honesty and openness while men need physical attractiveness; women need financial support while men need admiration, and women need family commitment while men need domestic support.” (WAIT Training, p. 199) 
  • Puberty “is when girls need to start acting as well-mannered ladies, instead of uncontrolled children, since they are physically capable of having a child and need to protect this potential gift by respecting the power to help give life to a child.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 10)  
  • “Tom walks Kristie to her classes and carries her books for her. He doesn’t want her to strain herself.” (Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 42)  
  • Lifting the veil [at a wedding ceremony] shows that “the groom [is] the only man allowed to ‘uncover the bride.” It also demonstrates “her respect for him by illustrating that she [has] not allowed any other man to lay claim to her.” (Why kNOw, 7th grade, p. 60)  
  • “I’m not asking you to not think about sex…That would be like asking some of you high school guys – don’t breathe…Girls, you want a ring on your finger.” (Keith Deltano, The New Sexual Revolution)
 The examples, descriptions, and instructions used in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs perpetuate inaccurate and outdated stereotypes about gender. These programs assert that women are weak, meek, and in need of male protection while men are strong, aggressive, and in charge.  The implication that from puberty on a woman’s behavior is inextricably linked to her capacity to bear children defines women solely based on biology and suggests that women who cannot or choose not to bear children are deviant and inferior. Further, the claim that a wedding veil illustrates that the bride “has not allowed any other man to lay claim to her” or that parents may feel uneasy when “surrendering their daughters to a date they have never met” perpetuate a conception of women as property. The language used in these programs enforces dangerous and discriminatory beliefs about how we relate to each other, who we are, and who we can be.

Abstinence as a Female's Responsibility

  •  “Because they generally become physically aroused less easily, girls are still in a good position to slow down the young man and help him learn balance in a relationship.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 12) 
  • “Girls need to be aware they may be able to tell when a kiss is leading to something else. The girl may need to put the brakes on first in order to help the boy” ( RRTW, student workbook, p. 96).
  • The curriculum asks “but aren’t there many girls who really want to have sex, and so they pressure the guys?” The answer, “yes, there are. This is happening in larger numbers now than in years past, since the pop culture has removed the stigma from non-virgins and displays many role models of provocative women.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 12) 
  • In one lesson, students are asked to list how men and women view sex differently. Proper answer include: for men, sexual arousal is easier, dependent on sight, and focused on genital and sexual activity as the goal. For women, sexual arousal is more difficult, dependent on words, and focused on sharing feelings. Men may use “love” to get sex, while women use “sex” to get “love.” (FACTS Senior High, Student Handbook, p. 12)
  • “While a man needs little or no preparation for sex, a woman often needs hours of emotional and mental preparation,” and “Harsh or abusive treatment can easily remove a woman's desire for sexual intimacy.” (WAIT Training, p. 199)  
  • “A young man’s natural desire for sex is already strong due to testosterone, the powerful male growth hormone. Females are becoming culturally conditioned to fantasize about sex as well.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 11).  

 Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs often endorse stereotypes about how men and women feel about sex. These programs suggest that men have a strong, natural, and uncontrollable desire for sexual activity, while women have difficulty becoming aroused, view sex as a way to gain love, and experience sexual arousal only as a result of unnatural “cultural conditioning.” These stereotypes stigmatize women who experience sexual arousal and suggest that men cannot experience emotional intimacy. Moreover, the warning that “harsh or abusive treatment” can remove women’s desire sends the disturbing message that women are obligated to satisfy men’s sexual needs despite abusive treatment. These messages promote a dangerous double standard in which “boys will be boys,” and women alone are obligated to remain virgins until marriage.

Blaming Women for Men's Sexual Agression
  • “Date rape is a crime that young women must be on the lookout to avoid.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 101) 
  • “The young girl learning to understand her changing body often has no idea the effect it has on surrounding males. Signals she doesn't even know she is sending can cause big problems.” (Why kNOw, 6th grade, p. 17).
  • “Males and females are aroused at different levels of intimacy. Males are more sight orientated whereas females are more touch orientated. This is why girls need to be careful with what they wear, because males are looking! The girl might be thinking fashion, while the boy is thinking sex. For this reason, girls have a responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn't invite lustful thoughts.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 46).
  • “Deep down, you know that your friend’s plunging necklines and short skits are getting the guys to talk about her. Is that what you want? To see girls who drive guys [sic] hormones when a guy is trying to see her as a friend. A guy who wants to respect girls is distracted by sexy clothes and remembers her for one thing. Is it fair that guys are turned on by their senses and women by their hearts.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 94)
  • “Drew likes her a lot, but lately keeping his hands off her has been a real job!” Stephanie has been clear with Drew that she doesn't want to have sex, “her actions, however, are not matching her words.” (Why kNOw, 7th grade, p. 76)
  • “Generally female dogs allow the male to mount them/get on top of them, do their business, and leave.  Some girls appear to act as if they want this” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 27).
Many fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs take the idea that “boys will be boys” one step farther and seem to blame women for the sexual appetites and behavior of men. The call to women to “watch what you wear” suggests, once again, that men cannot control themselves and that preventing sexual aggression is a uniquely female responsibility. In the past, such logic has been used to defend the deplorable belief that those who experience sexual abuse and assault could have or should have avoided it. This belief is further perpetuated when these programs suggest that young women should look out for date rape rather than dedicating their discussions of this important topic to telling students of both genders that “no means no” and that it is never acceptable to engage in sexual activity without consent despite what your partner may or may not have been wearing. Sending messages that stigmatize and blame survivors of any gender for sexual abuse and assault is one of the most destructive and intolerable fear tactics used by abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.   
Stigmatizing Sexually Active Women 
  • In one activity, students are given paper hearts and told to put their head down on their desks while the teacher reads a story about a relationship between characters named Kendra and Antonio. The students are instructed to tear pieces from the paper heart each time they hear a negative consequence of premarital sex in Kendra’s life. At the end of the exercise, the teacher asks students to look at their piles of torn hearts, saying, “Do you notice any differences in the piles of torn pieces on the guys’ desks and those on the girls’ desks?” The answer: “Girls usually have more torn pieces.” (Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 9)
  • “Maria, at 16, has now had sex with three different guys. She feels bad about herself and sometimes drinks or uses drugs to cover up her depression. Maria wishes she could start over again.” (Game Plan, p. 44)  
  • “If [a girl] has been involved in sexual activity…sexually, she is no longer a virgin, she is no longer pure, unspoiled, fresh” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 9).
 Fear-based abstinence-only-until-marriage programs promote disparaging views of women who engage in sexual activity. Stories such as those of Kendra, Maria, and the college student suggest that premarital sex carries a stigma, and that that stigma only applies to women. Fear-based and inaccurate claims of a causal link between premarital sex and depression or drug use compound this stereotype, suggesting that women who engage in premarital sex will be unhappy and unhealthy later in life. These messages create and maintain an environment of stigma and shame that perpetuates women’s inequality.
Curricula referenced:

Speakers Referenced:

  • Keith Deltano, “The New Sexual Revolution or Abstinence is Cool,” A Fear-Based Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Presentation for Students in Grades 6-12, 2007, For more information see SIECUS's review of Pam Stenzel at <>.
  • Pam Stenzel, Sex Still Has a Price Tag, A Fear-Based Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Presentation for High School Students, 2006. For more information see SIECUS's review of Pam Stenzel at <>.