Healthy Image of Sex (HIS) is an abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum for high school students which, according to its authors, “focuses on defining and refining terms related to sexual abstinence for students” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, Curriculum Summary, unnumbered pages). This curriculum was written by Pamela L. Jones and Sheri Few, and is used in federally funded programs throughout the state of South Carolina.
The authors of HIS produced two versions of the curriculum. Version I is intended for an African- American audience, and the authors explain in the curriculum summary that “curriculum images and particular lessons are approached from this cultural perspective” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual Curriculum Summary, unnumbered pages). Version II is intended for an “ethnically diverse audience.” SIECUS reviewed both versions and found surprisingly few differences. Moreover, those differences that we did find were quite small. For example, a story told on page 27 of the Teacher’s Manual in Version I begins, “A wise old, Black man, if he was in this class right now, would say….” The same story is told on page 27 of Version II and starts simply, “A wise old man, if he was in this class right now, would say….” In fact, the authors did not even change the curriculum summary between versions which means that both are described within the Teacher’s Manual as being “specifically for predominantly African American audiences” and “best taught by an African American teacher.” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, Curriculum Summary, unnumbered pages).
Each version includes a Teacher’s Manual and a Student Workbook (a slim, glossy magazine that contain more pictures than text). Each version contains ten, forty-five to sixty minute sessions that cover several key themes: healthy sex/safe sex, love and marriage, chastity/abstinence, manhood and modesty, sex outside of marriage, image, boundaries and communication. HIS also includes a “Parent Component” and a commitment ceremony at the end of the course to which parents are invited.
SIECUS’ curricula reviews are based on the 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. The Guidelines include 39 topics important to sexual health; abstinence is one of these topics. The Guidelines include a number of age-appropriate messages about abstinence for students such as: “Young teenagers are not mature enough for a sexual relationship that includes intercourse” and “Abstinence from intercourse has benefits for teenagers.”
Healthy Images of Sex, like many abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, is often billed as a sexuality education program, a teen pregnancy prevention program, or a sexually transmitted disease (STD) prevention program. This curriculum, however, would be better classified as a marriage education program. It focuses on marriage to the exclusion of most other topics and presents one set of beliefs on the topic as universally accepted truths.
Narrow Scope—Focusing on Marriage
HIS is designed to prepare young people for marriage and as such covers only a few selected topics. It does not provide information on most of the topics in the Guidelines, including reproduction, puberty, contraceptive options, sexual health care, and sexual orientation. Even those topics often given a lot of time in other fear-based abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, such as STDs and condoms, are glossed over in favor of discussions and exercises about marriage, virtue, and planning for the future.
Education Methods—Passing Opinions as Fact
In the curriculum summary, the authors explain that their goal is to define and refine certain terms for their students. “Definitions” of terms such as marriage, virtue, chastity, and pregnancy are presented as fact and repeated numerous times throughout the curriculum. Unfortunately, many of these definitions merely present one opinion.
The pre- and post-test that students fill out at the beginning and end of the program is riddled with opinions presented as fact. For example, students are asked whether marriage is: a. one of the many choices for living arrangements, b. the choice of a man and a woman to commit to one another as husband and wife for life, or c. a relationship that usually does not last and can cause a lot of pain (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 4). While it is clear that the authors would like students to believe that only one of these answers is “correct,” in fact they could all be considered accurate depending on one’s world view and experiences.
In contrast, the definition of pregnancy that the authors consider “correct” is simply not legally or medically accurate. Students are asked whether pregnancy is “a. the opportunity to give life through conception, b. having a baby so that there will be someone to love you, or c. a really bad thing that can happen to you if you are a teenager” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 4). None of these answers presents even the dictionary definitions of pregnancy which are “the condition of carrying developing offspring within the body” and “the time period during which this condition exists; gestation.”
These definitions, and others like them, are not only the basis of the pre- and post-test but of numerous activities in which students fill “correct” answers into unfinished sentences in their workbooks and role-play realistic scenarios. The authors’ definitions are clearly designed to present one world view—one that believes, among other things, that any sexual activity outside of marriage is immoral and that life begins at conception—as unwavering truth. In fact, the authors put a great deal of emphasis on virtues which they define as “voluntarily obeying the truth” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 10). Again, while virtues are important, the “truth” the authors talk about is often little more than opinion.
HIS would better serve young people by acknowledging that there are differences in opinions and values regarding marriage and premarital sex and helping young people develop the critical thinking skills they need to determine their own values. Instead, students are provided with countless leading questions and “correct” answers.
Not Appropriate for Public Schools—Cloaking Religious Messages
The curriculum’s authors discuss their own religious activities in their biographies which are included in the Teacher’s Manual. Pamela L .Jones relocated to South Carolina after graduate school and “began to work in the ministry full-time.” Sheri Few includes in her bio the fact that “her work in abstinence education resulted in her being named the South Carolina Baptist Convention’s 2003 recipient of the prestigious E.A. McDowell award” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, About the Authors, unnumbered page). Despite the authors’ backgrounds, HIS is sold as a secular abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum that is eligible for federal funding and can be taught in public schools. Unfortunately, like the curriculum’s acronym itself, messages throughout the program, suggest subtle religious undertones.
For example, the definition of virtue that was discussed above more closely resembles religious ideas than those found in secular dictionaries which define the word as, “moral excellence; goodness; righteousness” or “conformity of one’s life and conduct to moral and ethical principles; uprightness; rectitude.” Moreover, in one activity students are asked to repeat the phrase “voluntarily obeying the truth” as part of a longer sentence “aloud as a group, like a chant” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 10). Similarly, in defining chastity the curriculum suggests that the concept, which is broader than abstinence, includes “sexual reverence” or the acknowledgement that “sex is sacred, special, something to be treasured and saved for husband or wife that you make a commitment to for life” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 23).
One activity asks teachers to “apologize” to students for a wide array of wrongs that adults have perpetrated that have allowed for “over 100 years of breaking down morality in this country we call ‘free’.” One of the apologies begins, “We are sorry we didn’t stick to what was right, but let money and convenience become our god…” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 15).
The most blatant religious reference is included in a visual on page 32 of the Student Workbook. The page is titled “Boundaries,” and pictured with a railroad crossing light, a speed limit sign, and a police badge are the Ten Commandments written out on what looks like an open page of a book. While everyone in this country must obey speed limits and the police, not everyone believes that “You shall have no other God but me” or that “You shall keep the seventh day holy.” Nonetheless the curriculum tells students that boundaries such as the Ten Commandments and marriage “…are established to protect us” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 57).
In addition, the curriculum includes a story from Essence magazine in the lesson on manhood. The article focuses on Derek Westbrook, a college professor who decided to save sex for marriage. In the article Westbrook explains that his belief stemmed from the “all Black and very old school” Pentecostal church he attended growing up but that it was challenged throughout his life especially in college. Ultimately, though Westbrook decided to commit to remaining abstinent and to wear a purity ring to symbolize this commitment: “When people assume I’m married, I tell them I’m not and explain that the ring also represents my relationship with the Creator” (Included as HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 31).
In our pluralistic society that believes in a separation of Church and state, a curriculum like HIS, which thinly veils its religious content but remains patently religious in nature, is not appropriate for public schools and should not be eligible for federal funding.
Relying on Negative Messages
Formal sexuality education offered in schools, community centers, or churches often represents the only opportunity that young people have to learn facts about sexuality and explore values regarding sexual activity. The messages they receive in these programs contribute to their sexual health not only as adolescents, but also as adults. Rather than present a balanced, complete picture of abstinence and sexual activity, HIS employs negative, fear-based messages, tries to instill shame and guilt, and portrays sexual behavior as an uncontrollable force.
Messages of Fear—Portraying Premarital Sex as Inevitably Harmful
Throughout the curriculum, the authors repeatedly assert that premarital sex is dangerous. At one point they compare it to walking in front of a moving truck: “It can be easy not to think about these things and just hope they don’t happen to you. But think about this, if I walk in front of a truck hoping I won’t get hit, not thinking about getting hit, can I still get hit? This is the same as sex outside of marriage…” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 40). In another exercise teachers are told to read the following sentence aloud, “If I told you to ________would you?” and fill in the blank with “eat worms, put fire in your lap, inject poison in your veins, drink something that will make you do things you don’t really want to do.” As students respond to this, teachers are told to “listen for reasons of danger or being stupid or nasty or not wanting to die” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p.50).
Earlier, the curriculum compares premarital sex to other “powerful stuff.” The Student Workbook contains graphics on page 9 that include a picture of a sports car, a syringe, a gun, fire, and an airplane nearing the twin towers in New York City. Students are referred to this page and asked to consider “what happens when these powerful things are used in healthy and unhealthy ways: Plane—consider the Twin Towers; Cars—consider when used by children under age or people on drugs; Guns—when used by people who are not trained or do not have authority, or for play by children; Fire—when played with or when not in a safe place.” This exercise concludes by saying that “Like many thing with potential great benefits, sex can be damaging as well. Marriage is the safe place, outside of marriage is dangerous” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 9). Later, the curriculum refers students back to this page in their workbook and asks them to look carefully at the picture and find one other powerful thing that can be dangerous. The answer is water which is included in the picture because Manhattan is an island. Teachers are told to “Remind students of the power of water as evidenced by Hurricane Katrina in and around New Orleans in 2005 and the tsunami in and around Indonesia and Thailand in 2004” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 23).
Comparing premarital sex to injecting oneself with poison, playing with guns, and acts of terrorism is dangerous and offensive. While these are activities we never want our young people to engage in, most adults agree that they want their teenager to grow up to have a happy and healthy sex life. And, while all moral authorities can agree that playing with a loaded weapon or killing 3,000 people by flying a plane into a building is wrong, many throughout the world think it is wholly appropriate for two adults to have consensual sex outside of marriage.
Nonetheless, the authors contend that premarital sex is inevitably harmful and that abstinence is the only way to ensure a happy future. These ideas are perhaps best illustrated by two facing pages in the Student Workbook. The left-hand page is entitled “My Sex Life as a Teen; What I Have to Look Forward To.” The list includes: “I may get involved in drugs and end up in dangerous situations”; “I may get depressed and not want to live anymore”; “If I become pregnant, my baby may come too early, he may weigh less than he should and get sick”; “Then I might not finish high school, I might end up on welfare or poor, I might not do any of the things I had hoped to do”; “My son is more likely to end up in jail and my daughter pregnant like me as a teenager, chances are they will do poorly in school and end up poor also” (HIS, Student Workbook, p. 26).
Not only is this list predicated on the idea that there is no way to have safe or protected sex outside of marriage, it seems to draw causal connections between teen sex and depression, poverty, and suicide. In fact, the Teacher’s Manual adds that sexually active girls are three times more likely to be depressed and attempt suicide than “non active girls” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 48). It does not, however, provide a citation for this information though the curriculum’s references list contains a number of citations to research by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. While it may be true that there is a correlation between sexual activity and depression, particularly in young girls, it is inaccurate to suggest that becoming sexually active will cause an otherwise healthy and happy young woman to become suicidal.
The flip side of this chart, presented on the right-hand side of the page, is labeled “What if I Wait; What I Have to Look Forward To.” This chart includes: “I can finish high school”; “I can accomplish some of my goals and dreams (college, career, own business, travel, etc.)”; “I can have someone to share my life with and raise my children with”; “I can work to support myself or start my own business”; and “I have a better chance of becoming a homeowner” (HIS, Student Workbook, p. 27). The implication seems to be that premarital abstinence will help one in achieving these positive life goals while premarital sex will hinder one from doing so. Neither is true. Saving sex for marriage is a healthy choice but it cannot ensure a future in which one achieves business success or homeownership. It is also untrue that premarital sex inevitably prevents a future in which one finishes college and travels the world. In fact, the majority of Americans do have sex before marriage and it is clear that many of them go on to have successful careers, own homes, and share their lives with someone.
HIS would better serve students by including a realistic discussion of both the benefits of abstinence and the risks of sexual activity.
Messages of Shame—Instilling Embarrassment and Guilt
Throughout the curriculum, the authors point to the decision of whether or not to engage in premarital sex as the ultimate measure of virtue. Students are told that “a virgin is a person who has not had sexual intercourse; to describe something as virgin means free from stain, pure, spotless, fresh, unspoiled, first.” It goes on to say that “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). While this is as close to a dictionary definition as the authors ever get in this curriculum, it is worth noting that dictionaries make a distinction between the definition of virgin used when describing a person “a person who has never had sexual intercourse,” and that which is used when describing inanimate objects such as snow “pure; unsullied; undefiled.” Extending this definition to people shows the authors’ obvious biases. Moreover, extending it only to young women presents a disturbing double standard.
The authors illustrate the idea that young people who have had sex are no longer valuable in a role-playing exercise. The teacher is told to call six volunteers—three boys and three girls—to the front of the room. The volunteers are then coupled and given their back stories. They are told that the members of the first team both waited until marriage to have sex; on the second team, the girl had an abortion and was warned that it could effect [sic] her chance of getting pregnant in the future; and in the last team the boy has acquired Herpes, an incurable STD, which can be passed to his spouse. The teams are then asked to role-play a discussion between the couple that focuses on “what they have to offer the future spouse.” The rest of the class is then asked to consider “Which scenario do you want to be true of you?” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 18). The messages in this exercise are clear: young people who have engaged in premarital sex are damaged goods and can no longer be considered good marriage material. It is also important to note that this exercise is predicated on inaccurate information: there is no connection between abortion and future fertility and therefore the young woman who had an abortion should never have been warned that it would affect her chance of getting pregnant in the future.
The idea that young people who have had sex are somehow lesser than their peers who have not is subtly repeated throughout the curriculum. For example, the list entitled “My Sex Life as a Teen; What I Have to Look Forward To,” that was referred to above also includes “I’ll probably feel guilty because I know I shouldn’t be doing it” and “I may feel worse about myself and wish I had waited.” In contrast the list of what young people have to look forward to if they wait includes “I will feel better about myself,” “I can have a healthier family,” and “My future husband and children will be happier” (HIS, Student Workbook, p. 27). With lists like this, the authors set up a dichotomy between those who wait until marriage to have sex (who are portrayed as virtuous, good, and facing a happy future) and those who do not wait (who are portrayed as flawed, unhealthy, and facing an unhappy future).
It is important to remember that 48 percent of all high school students and 65 percent of high school seniors have engaged in sexual activity, and it is therefore likely that some of HIS’s participants will be sexually active. It is unfair and inappropriate to imply that these teens lack self-control and are doomed to be unsuccessful.
Unfortunately, the curriculum routinely assumes that the decision to become sexually active is one born out of low self-esteem and inherent character flaws, and that all young people who have been sexually active are damaged. While it is possible that some teens may have had negative experiences with sexual behavior, instilling guilt does nothing to help them cope with such experiences. It is also possible that sexually active teens have had consensual, safe, and protected sexual experiences for which they feel neither guilt nor shame. Suggesting that they should feel bad can only serve to produce emotional distress where there was none.
Sexual Arousal—Describing Sex as an Uncontrollable Force
After telling students that sexual behaviors lead to inevitable physical, emotional, and social harms, and that sexually active young people should feel shame, HIS describes sex as a force out of young people’s control. The curriculum explains that young people may have an inaccurate assessment of what constitutes: “safe sex.” “Safe sex is not: Just kissing, hugging, and holding hands (making out). Because physical relationships are progressive. These behaviors will likely lead to sex. It’s dangerous to start. You will want more even if you think you can handle it” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 9). This idea is repeated later in the curriculum when the authors suggest that “Sex is progressive—one action leads to another; it is not natural to stop; it is not easily interrupted, interruption is frustrating” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 40).
While it may be true that stopping in the middle of sexual activity is frustrating, the implication here is that stopping sexual activity in the middle is practically impossible and therefore once a couple has begun to kiss, intercourse is inevitable. This is perhaps the most dangerous message teens can be given about sexual activity: by suggesting that teens have no control over their actions, it actually discourages them from making wise sexual decisions and taking responsibility for their actions. Young people need to know that at any point in a relationship, and at any point during sexual activity, they have the right and the ability to set their own sexual boundaries and that it is their responsibility to do so.
Instead, HIS underscores the notion of sex as an uncontrollable force by giving the following advice: “Don’t let anyone mess with you. Remember—Don’t touch; Hands off (from sexual activity definition)—you want to be healthy and safe by making the right decisions now” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 24).
Interestingly, the authors include masturbation in this advice. The definition of sexual activity that is repeated with some variation throughout the curriculum is “touching one’s self or another person in an act of apparent sexual stimulation” (HIS, Student Workbook, p. 7). The authors mention masturbation in a discussion on renewed virginity, “Self-control becomes much more of an issue when you have already been sexually active and have later chosen to become chaste….But how do you stop? The feelings that have been stirred up do not just go away. Some make suggestions to release the physical tension, like masturbation, but thoughts are still focused on pleasing self, not the person you plan to commit to later” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 56). Masturbation is also brought up in the Essence magazine article included as part of the lesson on manhood. The author notes that his commitment to abstinence includes masturbation: “I haven’t even had to masturbate in years because to me it’s like hitting a crack pipe: There’s this intense feeling of desire followed by emptiness” (Included as HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 32).
These messages that suggest that not only sexual behavior, but also sexual desire and masturbation, are dangerous and impure run counter the goals of sexuality education curricula which seek to help young people gain a healthy understanding of sexuality. Whether or not young people choose to remain abstinent until marriage, they should know that sexual desire is normal, that masturbation poses no psychological or physical danger, and that they can make decisions about behaviors they want and do not want to participate in at any moment no matter what they are currently doing or what they have done in the past.
Unlike many abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, HIS contains very little information about topics related to sexuality such as puberty, reproduction, or contraception. The information on these topics that is contained in the curriculum is limited to brief discussions of STDs and condoms. Although for the most part the information is accurate and cites reliable sources, it is presented in a distorted way that is likely to mislead and confuse students.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases—Misleading Students
The curriculum’s main message about STDs—that they are scary—is perhaps best demonstrated by illustrations. The first of the three pages of the Student Workbook that are dedicated to STDs contains an x-ray-like image of two skeletons kissing. The page starts with a definition of STDs, and includes the following two facts: “Most common STD Killer: Human Papaloma [sic] Virus” and “Most Well Known STD Killer: Human Immune Deficiency [sic] Virus or HIV/AIDS.” The page is stamped twice with the phrase “NO CURE!!!!” (HIS, Student Workbook, p. 23). Each fact included on the two pages that follow is bulleted with a skull and cross bones.
Many of the facts and figures cited on these pages are accurate, yet the authors seem deliberately to present them in such a way as to instill maximum fear in young people rather than educate them. For example, while it is true that human papillomavirus (HPV) can lead to cervical cancer and that in some years more women in the United States die of cervical cancer than of AIDS-related illness, referring to HPV as the “Most Common STD Killer” is not particularly helpful to students. Instead students should learn that most HPV infections resolve spontaneously but that certain strains can lead to cervical cancer. More importantly, they should learn that cervical cancer is preventable even in women who have these strains of HPV because regular Pap tests can detect abnormal changes to the cervix long before cancer develops.
Similarly, while it is true that Chlamydia is the most common non-viral STD in the country and that it is “a major cause of infertility in women,” young people also need to know that it is curable and that with early detection and treatment Chlamydia will not cause any permanent damage. The biggest problem with the curriculum’s discussion on STDs is that the frightening statistics it includes are inadequately explained and presented in a scattered manner. For example, young people will likely be very confused by the suggestion that Chlamydia is “the #1 cause of blindness in children” (HIS, Student Workbook, p. 24). It is true that there is an ocular strain of Chlamydia that causes a contagious eye disease. It is also true that this disease has been eliminated from Western Europe and the United States. The fact that this disease still causes blindness in children in poor, arid areas such as rural sub-Saharan Africa is interesting but not particularly relevant for an STD-prevention program in South Carolina.
In fact, the authors leave out much of the information that would be most relevant to young people such as the signs and symptoms they should look out for, methods of disease prevention other than abstinence, and the importance of early testing and treatment.
In addition, the authors’ discussion of STDs is undermined by the curriculum’s definition of sexual activity. The curriculum repeatedly explains that “sexual activity is touching one’s self or another person in an act of sexual stimulation.” The authors explain that “this is the law.” While this may be the legal definition in South Carolina—in fact, it comes from the state’s criminal code Title 16: Crimes and Offenses, Chapter 15: Offenses against Morality and Decency—it is not a particularly useful definition when it comes to educating young people about sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. A definition as broad as “touching one’s self or another person in an act of sexual stimulation” could easily include masturbation, petting with clothes on, or a particularly good foot massage—all activities that carry no risk of STD transmission or pregnancy. Students would be better served by an open and honest discussion of the level of risks associated with a variety of sexual behaviors.
Unlike many fear-based abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, HIS has very little to say about condoms and other contraception. Students are simply told that “Safe sex is not: sex with a condom—condoms and other barriers do not make sex physically safe—you can still get pregnant or get a disease. You can also get hurt emotionally because research shows that the relationship is not likely to last and the sexual partner will leave you for someone else” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 9).
Many of the statistics that the authors present to prove that condoms will not protect young people against pregnancy and disease are, like the statistics used in the STD section, accurate yet potentially misleading. For example, a box entitled the “Truth about Condoms” includes numerous “facts” such as “For all other STDs (excluding HIV and gonorrhea), studies were inadequate to reach conclusions on whether condoms are effective or not” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 46). The curriculum is referring to a 2001 report released by the National Institutes for Health. The report did indeed find that for some STDs there was not sufficient research to declare condoms effective. The authors of the report, however, make it clear that “the absences of definitive conclusions reflected inadequacies of the evidence available and should not be interpreted as proof of the adequacy or inadequacy of the condom.”
Other true statements about condoms included in the curriculum are also not adequately explained. For example, HIS states that “15% of people using condoms to prevent pregnancy get pregnant the first year of use” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 46). This is true. Still, to fully understand research on condom effectiveness, students must understand the difference between method failure and user failure. Method failure refers to failure that results from a defect in the product. Method failure of the male condom is also very rare and is estimated to occur in only two percent of couples using condoms consistently and correctly during the first year of use.
In truth, condom failures are most often caused by errors in use, such as the failure of couples to use condoms during every act of sexual intercourse. It is, therefore, important to look at the data on typical use or user failure. User failure is calculated by looking at 100 couples who use condoms as their primary method of birth control over the course of a year. About 15 of these couples will experience an unintended pregnancy during the first year of condom use. It is important to remember that these couples may not have been using condoms or may have been using condoms incorrectly during the act of intercourse that resulted in an unintended pregnancy. To further put this in perspective, it helps to look at other contraceptive methods. For example, 25 percent of women using periodic abstinence as a method of birth control will experience an unintended pregnancy within the first year as will 85 percent of those using no method.
The authors’ beliefs on teaching young people about contraception are made clear in handouts included with the curriculum which explain that “Disapproval of adolescent contraception protects teens from early sexual involvement as well as from pregnancy” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, unnumbered pages). The authors do not cite the source of this information though there may be some truth to the idea. For example, one study found an increased likelihood of sexual activity among adolescents who perceived that their mothers approved of birth control use. These adolescents were also more likely to use birth control. The leap in reasoning the authors take from this research (or whatever research they are citing), however, could be dangerous. Withholding information or worse giving young people misinformation to control their behavior is not appropriate. Moreover, there is no proof that telling students that condoms don’t work will stop them from having sexual intercourse. It may, however, stop them from using condoms when they do become sexually active, thereby putting them at increased risk for STDs and unintended pregnancy.
According to the Guidelines, one of the main goals of sexuality education is to provide an opportunity for young people to question, explore, and assess their own and their community’s attitudes about sexuality. This can help young people understand their family’s values, develop their own values, and improve critical-thinking skills. Rather than providing this important opportunity, however, HIS promotes specific viewpoints about marriage, pregnancy options, gender, and sexual orientation.
The Marriage Mandate—Promoting One Lifestyle
The authors make it very clear that one of the main purposes of the HIS curriculum is to promote marriage. The curriculum summary explains that “marriage is emphasized in every lesson and the advantages of reserving sex for marriage are reiterated” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, Curriculum Summary, unnumbered page). Students are told in no uncertain terms that marriage is the only appropriate relationship for both sexual activity and raising children. The curriculum extols the benefits of marriage, exaggerates the problems with any other type of relationship, and underscores the importance of premarital abstinence. In so doing, the curriculum not only mandates choices for all students but deliberately ignores gay and lesbian students.
The Benefits of Marriage
The authors detail four types of love as defined by the ancient Greeks: eros, storge, philia, and agape. According to the curriculum, these represent, respectively, sexual desire, affection, friendship, and unmerited love. Agape love is described as “the highest order of love; love extended to another regardless of how it will or will not benefit us.” Students are then told that “these four types of love come together only within marriage—the ultimate love match” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 20).
The curriculum goes on to describe marriage as protection. Students are told that “marriage is like a fence built to protect us physically and emotionally. Just like a security fence around a building” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 17). The curriculum also likens marriage to other boundaries meant to protect us like speed limits, police officers, and the Ten Commandments. Students are then encouraged to think about their own marriage in a homework assignment which asks them to: “Write how you would like your marriage to be. Begin to think about what you need to be doing now for this to come true. You are not too young to be considering this. Decisions you make from now on will affect how your marriage will be” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 18).
While it is important that students consider the relationships they might want to have in the future, HIS leaves no room for critical thinking when it comes to marriage. Students are not challenged to question whether they want to get married; they are simply told that they should.
In fact, students who might be considering other future relationships are shot down pretty strongly. The curriculum suggests teachers “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). The student workbook contains the following chart which is presented with no context other than the title “Which Would You Prefer?” (HIS, Student Workbook, p. 29).
Obviously, the left-hand column is the more desirable as it includes health, wealth, contentment, and happy children. In the Teacher’s Manual, this column is labeled marriage. The other two columns, labeled cohabitation and single parent, respectively, show a future devoid of money, success, and happiness.
There are over 93 million adults in the United States who are classified as single because they have never married or are separated, widowed, or divorced. It is inappropriate for an education program to suggest that these individuals are in a “broken relationship,” that they are less honorable than their married peers, and that they inevitably face a short, unhappy life characterized by abuse, loneliness, and miserable children. And, it is simply inaccurate to suggest that married couples never experience anger, poverty, depression, or misbehaving children. We live in a pluralistic society that allows people to choose their own futures and determine their own adult relationships.
Moreover, while this discussion seems meant to impress upon students the importance of getting married, many students will likely think of their own family when they read these statistics. There are many reasons—including divorce, death, desertion, cohabitation, and gay and lesbian partnerships—that students may live in a family that does not match the ideal model espoused by HIS. It is unfair to put the burden of family structure on students who, as children, have no control over their current family situation. Suggesting that these young people will face a lifetime of difficulty will undoubtedly distress and alienate many of them.
Although it is important to help young people explore possible future relationships, HIS does so in a limited and directive way that presents marriage as the only appropriate life path and suggests that individuals who choose otherwise are making the wrong decision for themselves and their children. Again, it is not the place of education programs to mandate such choices for students.
The Importance of Pre-marital Abstinence
Despite this, the curriculum repeatedly points to the importance not just of marriage but of premarital abstinence in order to have a successful marriage. HIS tells students, “To increase your opportunity to have a successful marriage and environment to raise healthy children, wait until marriage to have sex” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 58). It defines marriage not just as “the choice of a man and a woman to commit to one another as husband and wife for life” but as a man and a woman:
· Joining together
· As first-time sexual partners
· Free of sexual diseases
· Providing the best potential environment
· For producing emotionally and physically secure and healthy children (HIS, Student Workbook, p. 13).
The curriculum then goes on to elaborate on why marriages that do not fit this description are likely to be inferior by introducing the idea of “soul ties”: “A major impact on the success or failure of a marriage is who you bring into it—when sexually active before marriage, these previous partners affect what you expect of your spouse. They are often called soul ties. Your spouse ends up competing with other men or women, he or she cannot even see, because you compare them in your mind” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 58).
While some people may believe that premarital abstinence is the only morally appropriate behavior and is vital to a healthy marriage, this is clearly not a value held by all Americans. The vast majority of Americans begin having sexual relationships in their teens, fewer than seven percent of men and 20 percent of women 18 to 50 years old were virgins when they were married, and only 10 percent of adult men and 22 percent of adult women report their first sexual intercourse was with their spouse. It is likely this “standard” was never true in America; a third of all Pilgrim brides were pregnant when they were married. It is not appropriate for an educational program to suggest that this majority of the American public has misbehaved or to declare that they will inevitably have unhappy marriages.
HIS, like many fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, includes a virginity pledge, in which students vow to remain abstinent until they marry. The Student Workbook includes a list entitled, “Be Prepared; When Preparation Meets Opportunity, Positive Results are Produced.” The list suggests actions that support abstinence including: “Don’t be alone; hang out in groups”; “Hang out with young people who feel the same way as you, support one another”; and “Don’t tease, let your no be no—these days flirting can be dangerous” (HIS, Student Workbook, p. 35). After going through this list students are asked if these suggestions are realistic and if they have any others to add.
The teacher then explains to students that “research has proven that an adolescent is more likely to abstain from sex until marriage if they make a public commitment to do so.” She then passes out commitment cards and asks student to “sign and date their commitment cards (in cursive and ink).” Students are told that their cards will be laminated and given back to them during a formal commitment ceremony which will include their parents (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 63). The commitment cards read “I want to be a healthy person of virtue—free from disease and voluntarily obeying the truth. I choose to be chaste—free from sexual activity before marriage and faithful to my spouse after marriage.” The signature line is followed by: “In order for me to keep this commitment, I must always remember that: I am loved, I am valuable, I am precious.”
The authors’ explanation of research on virginity pledges, both to students and later for parents, is not quite accurate. It is true that, research has found that under certain circumstances virginity pledges can help a select group of young people delay intercourse. Pledges taken by an entire class as part of a lesson or presentation, however, were 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.
In fact, virginity pledges may 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 problems of unintended pregnancy and disease transmission, these simplistic pledges are undermining the use of contraception among teens, potentially exposing them to greater harm.
Again, it is important to note that 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 family, and the values of their community. 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 pressuring students to make one choice.
Ignoring Same-Sex Couples
The emphasis HIS places on marriage as the only appropriate venue for sexual activity shows a clear bias against same-sex couples. Students are told that marriage is “the choice of a man and a woman to commit to one another as husband and wife for life.” This relationship is then presented as the only way to achieve a healthy and happy future, the only appropriate environment to raise children, and the only relationship in which one can experience true love. According to the authors, people who think about other committed relationships are simply confused “….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). Gay and lesbian students, who cannot legally marry in most parts of this country including South Carolina, are essentially told that they can never have an appropriate relationship, they will not have a happy future, they should not raise children, and they won’t ever experience true love.
In addition, virginity pledges that ask young people to promise to follow the curriculum’s marriage guidelines show blatant disregard for gay and lesbian students as signing this pledge is tantamount to agreeing to a lifetime without sexual behavior. It is unfair and unrealistic to ask a middle or high school student to make such an agreement.
Of course, these are messages that students will read between the lines, HIS never actually acknowledges same-sex relationships. Instead, all references to sexual activity and arousal within the curriculum are specific to male-female couples. And, all stories and examples about couples use heterosexual individuals.
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, and bisexual students, especially young men who have sex with men, are at increased risk for STDs, including HIV, yet HIS fails to provide these students with any realistic strategies for protecting themselves from those risks.
Throughout the curriculum, the authors subtly reinforce a number of stereotypes based on gender. The starkest illustration of this is one lesson plan which has the teacher separate boys and girls. Boys are given a lesson on “manhood” while the girls attend a session on “modesty.”
In their lesson boys are told that the qualities of a “virtuous man,” fall into the following categories: “physically strong, protector, strength of mind, and provider.” They are warned, however, that they can use these qualities for good “like a man” or they can be “like a dog.” For example, a virtuous man uses his physical strength to be helpful while a dog uses it to be abusive. Similarly, a virtuous man is protective but a dog is possessive (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 27). The ultimate lesson of the section is a good one; young men should treat women with respect. The curriculum tells guys to “Remember, when you treat a girl bad, that is someone’s sister or future mother, or some guy is treating your sister or mother or another girl you know just as bad” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 27). It goes on to say “In order to be a real man, a man of virtue or truth, you have to be strong, believe in yourself, and respect others” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 28).
Despite these potentially positive messages, there are times when the curriculum seems to be blaming young woman, in particular their lack of modesty, for the disrespectful treatment they may receive. It tells guys: “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). Teachers are told to refer to the definition of modesty (the quality which leads people to avoid sexual displays) and to acknowledge that because of a lack of modesty it’s harder to say no. The passage goes on to suggest that girls are the greatest victims in this as they may experience “rape, date rape, molestation, stares, teasing, bad talk or gossip, considered easy/looking for sex, [or] appear older.” The idea that it is somehow the responsibility of women to dress modestly in order to avoid such negative consequences as rape and molestation is disturbing and undermines this otherwise positive lesson.
Nonetheless, while young men in the program are learning about manhood, young women are learning about the importance of modesty. Again, modesty is defined as “the quality, which leads people to avoid sexual displays” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 32). Teachers are told to explain that “the more precious something is, the more it must cover up and protect itself.” Girls are asked to consider why they dress the way they do and who they are trying to please. While the curriculum extends the discussion on wardrobe to boys who wear “pants hanging off their behinds showing their underwear” this lesson is only for girls and clearly meant to apply more strongly to young women (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 32).
Girls are told that “because we expose so much now, it’s harder for girls to be private and say no; it’s harder to speak up fearing that you will be made fun of. Modesty protects you. When you consider yourself more precious, you cover up and protect yourself” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 32). The curriculum goes on to ask “How can girls help boys become virtuous?” Girls are then told to “Consider yourself precious and expect to be treated that way.” The authors tell young women that “Research is showing that men are marrying later in life because they have their choice of women. It is no longer the standard that sex occurs after marriage; so there is no reason to marry. Woman are readily available—men do not have to wait” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 33).
This sounds suspiciously like the old saying “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free.” This ancient stereotype not only reinforces a societal double standard but it once again puts the responsibility of refusing sexual activity on women.
HIS perpetuates such long-standing gender stereotypes, without any discussion of how these stereotypes can be harmful. 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.
Pregnancy Options—Mandating Choices
The authors show their most overt biases when discussing pregnancy options. It touts adoption as the ultimate loving decision and stops just short of calling abortion murder.
Throughout the curriculum, the authors use language that shows their own inherent prejudice against abortion. The definition of pregnancy as “the opportunity to give life through conception,” is biased in and of itself and does not, as mentioned earlier, represent either the medical definition of the condition or the simple dictionary definition of the word. Another example of biased language occurs in an early exercise in which teachers “apologize” to students for a wide array of wrongs that adults have perpetrated which have allowed for “over 100 years of breaking down morality in this country we call ‘free’.” One of the apologies reads: “We are sorry we left you with all this “freedom” and the “right to choose”, having to make decisions by yourself in the most difficult situations” (HIS, Teacher’s Manual, p. 15). While this does not expressly reference abortion the authors’ not-so-subtle use of the phrase “right to choose” is telling. And, the implication of this statement is that women would somehow be better off if this reproductive right, and the difficult decisions that follow, were taken out of their hands.
Students are later asked to look at the choices young women have when facing a pregnancy. A chart lists them as “keep the child,” “adoption—allowing the child to be raised by a loving family,” and “abortion—not allowing child to live.” The chart enumerates on each of these decisions. It acknowledges that if a young woman keeps her child she must reconsider her plans regarding herself and her future but suggests that “This is not the end of your life, but the beginning of another life” and assures young women that “with much help and sacrifice, child can be raised successfully.” Similarly, the curriculum acknowledges that adoption comes with “feelings of loss” but suggests that a young woman who makes this decision will feel “confident that you’ve done the best thing for you and the baby… It is one of the greatest acts of love that someone can show to another” (HIS Teacher’s Manual, p. 42).
Abortion, however, is not given such even-handed treatment. The chart refers to abortion as “death of baby” and warns young women that there is an increased risk of breast cancer and infertility, and that they may face “emotional distress” including “guilt over the decision to take the life of another human being, anxiety, coldness, depression, flash backs, eating disorders, drug abuses, and concerns over being able to have another child when ready.”
Abortion is a safe and legal option that all women facing an unintended pregnancy are entitled to consider. It is unconscionable that an educational program for use in public schools would suggest that terminating a pregnancy is tantamount to taking the life of another human being. Moreover, the curriculum’s other suggestions including the risk of breast cancer, infertility, and post abortion stress are claims frequently made by anti-choice activists but have all been proven false. Medically sound research has shown that abortion is a generally safe procedure, and that first trimester abortions cause almost no long-term fertility problems. Similarly, in February 2003, the National Cancer Institute convened a group of 100 experts on pregnancy and breast cancer risk who reviewed “existing population-based, clinical, and animal studies on the relationship between pregnancy and breast cancer risk, including studies of induced and spontaneous abortion” and concluded that induced abortion is not linked to an increase in the risk of breast cancer. Finally, there is no sound scientific evidence linking abortion to subsequent mental health problems, termed “post-abortion stress syndrome” by anti-abortion groups. Neither the American Psychological Association nor the American Psychiatric Association recognize “post-abortion stress syndrome” as a legitimate medical condition.
Given the authors’ own backgrounds, this bias against abortion is not surprising. Pamela L. Jones explains that she volunteers with a local crisis pregnancy care center and that she has attended Care Net’s conference for three consecutive years. Pregnancy care centers like those included in Care Net’s network are often referred to as crisis pregnancy centers. These centers typically advertise as providing medical services and then use anti-abortion propaganda, misinformation, and fear and shame tactics to dissuade women facing unintended pregnancy from exercising their right to choose.
It is not 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 teenager 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 clearly biased and inaccurate information about pregnancy options, HIS does not allow individuals to make informed, personal decisions.
In order to convince adolescents to remain abstinent until marriage, HIS relies on messages of fear and shame, religious ideals, inaccurate and misleading information, and biased views of marriage, gender, sexual orientation, and abortion. In addition, HIS fails to provide important information on sexual health. Finally, the format and underlying biases of the curriculum do not allow for cultural, community, and individual values, and discourage critical thinking and discussions of alternative points of view in the classroom.
Ultimately, HIS falls far short of helping young people develop the skills and knowledge they need to become sexually healthy adults.
 Unless otherwise cited, SIECUS is referring to Version I.
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S.C. Code Ann. § 16-15-375 (1976).
 National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Workshop Summary: Scientific Evidence on Condom Effectiveness for Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) Prevention, July 12-13, 2000, Hyatt Dulles Airport, Herndon, VA. (Released 20 July 2001), p. ii.
 R. A. Hatcher, et al., Contraceptive Technology, (New York: Ardent Media, Inc., 2007), p. 24.
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 Recent legislation and 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 though and it is therefore unclear whether this right will be permanently guaranteed in these states or other states in the country.
 Susan Cohen, “Abortion and Mental Health: Myths and Realities,” Guttmacher Policy Review 9.3 (Summer 2006), accessed 30 January 2007, <http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/gpr/09/3/gpr090308.html>.
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