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Pride or Prejudice: How Fear-Based Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Curricula Present Sexual Orientation
 
By their very nature, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs—which are based on the belief that sexual behavior is only morally appropriate in the context of a traditional heterosexual marriage—are biased against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning (LGBTQ) individuals.  By promoting marriage, assuming heterosexuality, disparaging non-traditional families, and spreading fear, shame, and inaccurate information about homosexuality, these programs assert that LGBTQ individuals and relationships are unhealthy and morally inferior. These programs depend upon and enforce an intensely intolerant and destructive conception of sexual orientation. The overt biases they include, the assumptions they make, and the discussions they refuse to allow all send powerful and disturbing messages to young people of all sexual orientations. 
 
Fear-Based Approaches to Homosexuality
  • “Young persons may sense affection and even infatuation for a member of the same sex. This is not the same thing as ‘being’ homosexual.  Any same sex ‘sexual experimentation’ can be confusing to young persons and should be strongly discouraged.” (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. 72)
  • “AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), the STD most common among homosexuals, bisexuals and IV drug users, has now made its way into heterosexual circles.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 54)
  • “Homosexual activity involves an especially high risk for HIV transmission.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p.68)
  • “There are also some people who may never marry. The AIDS guidelines applies [sic] to them, too.  Remember, no one in history has ever died of sexual abstinence, and you are not likely to be the first one.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 66)
While all of the reviewed curricula contain underlying biases against LGBTQ relationships, several programs use misinformation to explicitly discourage and condemn homosexuality.
The assertions that AIDS is “the STD most common amongst homosexuals” and that “homosexual activity involves especially high risk for HIV transmission” are inaccurate and misleading. In fact, the majority of HIV infections worldwide result from heterosexual transmission, HIV infection among heterosexuals is neither recent nor rare, [1] and sexual behaviors that fall under the phrase “homosexual activity” such as mutual masturbation and oral sex are no more risky for same-sex couples than for heterosexual couples. Indeed, women who have sex with women are at even lower risk for HIV than heterosexual men or women. [2]
 
It is crucial that students understand all aspects of sexuality, including sexual orientation, so that they can ask questions, recognize accurate information, and seek testing and treatment services throughout their lives. The explicit condemnation of same-sex “experimentation” and the deliberately misleading association of “homosexual activity” with HIV transmission demonstrate that the biases the programs have against homosexuality overshadow their commitment to providing medically accurate health education. 
 
Assuming Heterosexuality
  • “The word sex is frequently used to refer to the physical and personal act of male and female genital union, sexual intercourse.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 6)
  • “The strong attraction between men and women is part of what makes marriage so wonderful.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 48)
  • “What do guys talk about in the locker room? (Girls) What do girls talk about at sleepover parties? (Guys).” (Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide, p. 47)
  • In an activity designed to show how STDs are transmitted, the teacher lines five girls ina row facing five boys, and gives each student a cup of water. The males are then told to rinse the water in their mouths, spit it back into their cup, and then pour it into the female’s cup. The females are told that the saliva-water mix represents “body fluids,” and that they now have an STD. The activity is then done with females “transmitting” STDs to males. In both versions, the ‘couples’ are heterosexual. (Choosing the Best LIFE, Leader Guide p. 36)
  • “[Sex is] a wonderful thing in the context of a committed relationship based on love and marriage… then there’s going to be little babies coming along and they’re going to be wonderful and they’re going to have a mom and they’re going to have a dad and it’s going to be a wonderful family.  And this is what it’s all about.” (Mike Long…)
Most fear-based abstinence-only-until-marriage programs never mention sexual orientation. Instead, they seem to assume that all students in the class, and even all people in the world, are heterosexual. Their definition of sex—the first and most basic component of sexuality education—explicitly excludes any sexual activity that is not heterosexual, and the language used to describe sexual arousal suggests that heterosexual attraction is innate. Classroom activities such as games and role playing scenes reinforce this bias by deliberately denying the existence of LGBTQ relationships. These tactics spread the inaccurate and stigmatizing message that all young people will and should be attracted only to people of the opposite gender, and that homosexual attraction is unnatural and deviant.
 
Marriage Mandates
  • “It’s the big day. You have trained all your life for this day—your wedding day.” (Game Plan, Coach’s Clipboard, p. 59).
  • “The only safe sex is in a marriage relationship where a man and a woman are faithful to each other for life.” (Game Plan, p. 38)
  • When couples live together outside of marriage, the relationships are ‘weaker, more violent, less [equal], and more likely to lead to divorce.’” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 26)
  • Complete the sentence: “I would like to get married around age __.” (Navigator, workbook, p. 10)
  • Married people are “twice as likely to be happy” and less likely to “attempt suicide.” (Worth the Wait, Section 8-3)
  • “Believing that true love waits, I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.” (Passion & Principles, Leader's Guide, p. 26)
Abstinence-only-until-marriage programs promote marriage as the ultimate goal.  They discuss sexual activity outside of marriage as morally wrong, as well as physically and emotionally unsafe. The suggestion that suicide and domestic violence are caused by the decision not to marry is an inaccurate, fear-based claim that sends a misleading message to students of all sexual orientations. Such a marriage mandate, perhaps best illustrated by virginity pledges that ask students to commit to abstinence outside of “a biblical marriage relationship,” not only contain religious undertones but clearly exclude gay and lesbian students who cannot legally marry. 
 
Disparaging Non-Traditional Families
  • “The traditional purposes for sex in marriage include love, bonding, and children.” (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. 10)
  • “Focus on the fact that sex is designed for BABIES and BONDING.” (Passion & Principles, Leader's Guide, p. 26)
  • Teachers are instructed to put the following statements on the board for students to read:
      • Divorce is the leading cause of childhood depression.
      • Seventy-five percent of adolescent patients of chemical abuse centers are from single-parent families.
      • Sixty-three percent of youth suicides are single-parent children.
      • Seventy percent of teenage pregnancies are single-parent children.
      • Children of divorce are 5 times as likely to be suspended from school; 3 times as likely to need psychological counseling; and they are absent from and late for school more.
      • Three out of four juveniles in youth correction facilities are from single-parent families.
                            (FACTS Senior High, Teacher’s Edition, p. 168)
  • Tell students not to be confused—a popular statement today is ‘I would like to be married or in a solid committed relationship’—marriage is a solid committed relationship, anything less is not a commitment or solid. Let’s stop the confusion!” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 58).

     

  • “Single women are trying to be both mother and father.  The absentee dad has become a norm in many communities.  It is interesting that domestic violence, child abuse and increased poverty have also increased in proportion to the decline in the sanctity of marriage.” (Why kNOw, 8th grade and high school, p. 88)
In order to promote marriage as the ultimate goal, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs often suggest that non-traditional families are socially and morally inferior to those in which married heterosexual parents live with their children.  These messages not only exclude LGBTQ and other students who may never marry* or have children, but also imply that the children of LGBTQ and divorced parents are inferior to those with married heterosexual parents. Fear-based abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula frequently mistake correlation for causation in an effort to link depression, suicide, delinquency, domestic violence, and unintended pregnancy to divorce and to present the inaccurate and stigmatizing message that the children of divorced and separated parents are socially and even pathologically disadvantaged. By idealizing one type of family and disparaging all others, these programs put the burden of divorce and separation on children and aggressively promote bias against LGBTQ students, future LGBTQ parents, and the children of LGBTQ families. 
 
 

Curricula Referenced:

Speakers Referenced:

  • Mike Long, Teenagers: Everyone’s NOT Doing it, A Fear-Based Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Curriculum for High School Students, For more information see SIECUS's review of Mike Long at <www.communityactionkit.org/index.cfm>
* NOTE: Recent court decisions in Massachusetts, California, and Connecticut have granted same-sex couples the right to marry in those states. Some legal and legislative challenges remain and it is therefore unclear whether this right will be permanently guaranteed in these states or other states in the country.
 
References
  1. “Heterosexual Transmission of HIV—29 States, 1999–2002,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 53.06 (February 20, 2004): 125-129.
  2. Are Lesbians or other women who have sex with women at risk for HIV? (Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), accessed 5 April 2004, < http://www.cdc.gov/hiv/pubs/faq/faq34.htm>.