Aspire: Live Your Life. Be Free is an abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum for high school students which is designed to adhere to the federal government’s 8-point definition of “abstinence education.” This curriculum was written by Scott Phelps who co-wrote both A.C. Green’s Game Plan and Navigator: Finding Your Way to a Healthy and Successful Future, two curricula produced and distributed by Project Reality.
Phelps founded Abstinence & Marriage Education Resources and Abstinence & Marriage Education Partnership to “ensure that every teenager in the country has the opportunity to hear a clearly reasoned, positive presentation on the benefits of abstinence until marriage and instruction on preparing for a healthy future marriage.”  Phelps is also a figure on the national abstinence-only-until-marriage speaking circuit. Similar to Aspire, Future Freedom,his one-hour presentation for students in grades 8-12, “provides students with a clear understanding of the benefits of saving sex for marriage through vivid word-pictures, real-life stories, and on-stage student involvement.”
Aspire, like many abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, is often thought of as sexuality education or as a teen pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease (STD) prevention program. This curriculum, however, would be better classified as marriage education. 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
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.”
Aspire 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 sexually transmitted disease and condoms, are glossed over in favor of discussions and exercises about “character,” self-control, and planning for the future. Aspire does include in-depth discussions of some of the important topics included in the Guidelines, such as the influence of the media, drugs and alcohol, and sexual abuse. Even these conversations, however, are geared toward emphasizing the importance of marriage.
Education Methods—Passing Opinions as Fact
In the introduction to the Teacher’s Guide, Phelps provides a brief explanation of effective teaching methods that teachers should use to carry out the program. He explains four methods of teaching: Inductive/Objective (which asks fact-based questions); Inductive/Subjective (which asks opinion- based questions); Deductive/Objective (which makes fact-based statements); and Deductive/Subjective (which makes opinion-based statements). According to Phelps, teaching abstinence using an Inductive/Subjective method would ask students opinion-based questions such as “Do you think you’re ready to have sex?” or “Can you handle the consequences of sexual activity?” A Deductive/Objective method, on the other hand, would simply make fact-based statements such as “Saving sex for marriage is the safest, healthiest lifestyle for teens.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. vi)
Phelps argues that Aspire uses the Inductive/Objective method and that the “key is to develop good questions that will lead students both to understand and accept the truth.” This method asks students to answer questions such as “Why is saving sex until marriage the safest, healthiest lifestyle for teens?” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. vi)
While on its face this method may appear to encourage critical thinking, Aspire is not designed to help young people examine their own values and the values of their parents, families, and communities or think for themselves. Instead, Aspire is firmly rooted in the opinion that sexual behavior outside of marriage is morally wrong, that everyone regardless of their age should save sex for marriage, and that the only way to have a happy marriage is to remain a virgin until your wedding day.
Aspire presents this position as if it were an undisputed fact or a universal truth but clearly it is not; 63 percent of high school seniors and 80 percent of college students 18–24 have engaged in sexual intercourse yet the median age of first marriage is 27.1 for men and 25.3 for women.
Relying On Negative Messages
Unlike many abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula which rely entirely on negative messages and fear, Aspire attempts to address abstinence from a positive perspective. A worksheet to be filled out with parents explains that “The central thesis of this workbook is to help students discover for themselves that resisting the pressure of sexual activity will help them prepare for the future and will provide a certain degree of protection for their future marriage.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 14) In doing so, however, Aspire exaggerates both the benefits of sexual abstinence and the risks of sexual activity outside of marriage. Furthermore, it creates a dichotomy between those who wait to have sex until they are married, who are portrayed as virtuous and good, and those who do not, who are portrayed as flawed and unhealthy.
Unrealistic Expectations—Crediting Abstinence with Future Happiness
The author makes it clear that the curriculum’s definition of abstinence always refers to refraining from all sex outside of marriage. Teachers are told that “Students may not know what ‘abstinence’ means, or may have a faulty understanding of what it means. Common misconceptions are that it only refers to intercourse, or that it means waiting until you’re ‘ready’ or ‘old enough’ rather than ‘until marriage.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 11)
Students are led through a number of activities designed to help them plan their future. One activity, Life Hike, portrays different periods of one’s life as more critical than others: “15-20 represents the beginning of what is perhaps the most influential time in your life. Choices and events during these years have a lot to do with whether and to what extent these life events will be accomplished the way you desire.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 9) Taking the hiking analogy further, the curriculum explains, “The valley between the first and second mountain is steep and the river running through it is difficult to cross. Some get caught in the current. Others slip on the rocks. Successfully crossing the valley of these transition years is critical in protecting your future.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 9)
The underlying point of these discussions is that choosing to be abstinent until marriage is critical for success—the people who have slipped on the rocks are those who haven’t followed this credo. This message is drawn out with questions such as “What is the relationship between choosing abstinence and protecting your future?” and statements of fact such as “Abstinence is the safest, healthiest, lifestyle and one of the best ways to prepare for a healthy future marriage.” (Aspire, Student Manual, p. 11)
The curriculum goes on to credit the decision to be abstinent with academic and financial success. Students are told that “if one of your goals in life is to earn a good amount of money, you should know that abstinence can help you to accomplish this goal.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 78)
One exercise walks young people through a flowchart that goes from abstinence, to academic achievement, to future opportunities, to future freedoms. Teachers are told: “Although this exercise may seem obvious, it is best not to assume that students have thought through the relationship between abstinence, academic achievement, and future freedom.”(Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 78) At the conclusion of the exercise students are told, “Research indicates that abstinent teens tend to do better in school and are nearly twice as likely to graduate from college.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Manual, p. 80) Students are not told that the research was conducted by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that supports an abstinence-only-until-marriage approach in order to reduce “illegitimate births.” Heritage frequently reexamines data and statistics in an effort to find support for its own opinions. Its research is not peer-reviewed or published in legitimate scientific journals.
SIECUS’ Guidelines suggest that students be told that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the most effective method of preventing pregnancy and STDs, including HIV. 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”; “Abstinence from intercourse has benefits for teenagers”; and “Teenagers in romantic relationships can express their feelings without engaging in sexual intercourse.”
Aspire should be applauded for taking a positive approach to teaching young people about abstinence. However, by suggesting that abstinence before marriage is the most important decision young people can make about their future, and by crediting abstinence with future financial success, the curriculum instills young people with unrealistic expectations.
Messages of Fear—Portraying Premarital Sex as Harmful
Despite attempting to take a primarily positive approach to teaching about abstinence, Aspire devotes a number of discussions and activities to detailing the potential consequences of sexual activity outside of marriage. In many cases, the curriculum merely flips its positive statements of the benefits of abstinence around so that, for example, students are told that if one of their goals in life is to earn a good amount of money, “sexual activity can make this goal extremely difficult to accomplish in some instances.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 78)
One activity detailing the possible negative outcomes of premarital sex begins by explaining that “Teen pregnancy is one of the most recognizable consequences of sex before marriage but it is not the only possible outcome. The consequences of sexual activity can be wide-ranging and long-lasting.”
The student workbook includes a diagram of boxes labeled “Emotional, Physical, Mental, Financial, and Social” and asks, “What are some of the undesirable side-effects of sex before marriage? List some of the unintended consequences of sex for each category in the boxes below.” The answers are:
Emotional: emptiness, loneliness, broken heart, anger, rage
An optional activity asks students to split into five groups representing these various aspects of life. Each group then creates and performs a skit illustrating how sex affects teenagers. At the end of the performances, the teacher asks students if sex before marriage affects us most “physically, mentally, financially, socially or emotionally?” There is no right answer here as the goal is to encourage “a healthy discussion of the various consequences.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, Sec 2:A)
While healthy discussion is good and appears to foster critical thinking, this exercise, like all others in the curriculum, does not give young people room to question the curriculum’s underlying supposition that sex outside of marriage is wrong. In fact, even worksheets designed for students to complete with their parents do not leave room for the possibility that not all families are opposed to all premarital sex.
Aspire is one of the only fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs to readily admit that each of the consequences of sexual activity is not inevitable. For example, in one activity designed to illustrate the risk of STDs, teachers fill one grab-bag with paper slips numbered 1–5 and a second bag with five paper slips all bearing the number 5. Numbers 1–4 correspond to various STDs. The number five, however, means no STD. Students are told the goal is to draw a five and asked to draw first from the bag with all of the numbers and then from the bag with only fives. The message is that abstinent students can be assured of drawing a five. The author points out, however, that there are “5’s” in the first bag because “it is possible to be sexually active and not get an STD. This is an important point.” This important point is one that many of the author’s colleagues refuse to acknowledge.
This honesty notwithstanding, the curriculum makes it clear that one cannot have premarital sex and come out completely unscathed. One exercise, “Got Baggage?,” suggests that young people who choose to be sexually active outside marriage will never be the same. In this exercise, teachers label five shopping bags with the categories of consequences mentioned earlier. The class is divided into five groups and each group is given a bag. Students are asked to brainstorm various consequences that fit in their category and write them on the outside of the bag. For example, on the outside of the “physical” bag they would write words such as “pregnancy, STDs, AIDS, cervical cancer, infertility.” The teacher then asks two male and two female students to come to the front of the room. The males stand up first—one represents a student who has chosen sexual activity and one represents a student who has chosen abstinence. The teacher then starts to load the bags with textbooks representing each of the consequences and hands the textbook-heavy bags to the “sexually active” student. She explains that the bags cannot be set down, they have to be carried at all times to represent “the baggage that will be carried.” The teacher then calls the female students over, announces that both couples will be going on a date and asks, “Who’s going to have more fun and why? Which couple has a better opportunity for a lasting relationship? Did the guy who was sexually active expect that the consequences would remain with him into other relationships?”
The exercise ends by acknowledging that “not all consequences will follow but that some likely will. While it is always possible to start over, some consequences will be more difficult to leave behind than others.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, Sec 2:A)
Messages of Shame—Creating a Dichotomy between “Good” and “Bad” People
The idea that young people who have chosen to be sexually active outside of marriage are forever carrying around baggage is in many ways one of the central themes of the curriculum. Though the program attempts to put a positive spin on this by emphasizing the importance of character and character traits like self-control, what it is ultimately doing is setting up a dichotomy between those young people who choose abstinence (who have self-control and face a happy future) and their sexually active peers (who lack character and will not achieve success).
Students are told that “Character comes from an ancient Greek word referring to ‘a stamping tool.’ Character is the mark or stamp that sets a person apart. Character generally refers to ‘moral or ethical strength.’” (Aspire, Student Manual, p. 46) The curriculum goes on to explain, “Growing in character is about knowing when to apply the brakes—when to use self-control. It’s about successfully transitioning out of childhood into adulthood. A person of character doesn’t make foolish choices and then hope to avoid the consequences, but rather avoids the activity that leads to those consequences by the use of self-control. Exercising self-control in the choices you face builds your character— which in turn strengthens your ability to exercise self-control.” (Aspire, Student Manual, p. 46)
The flip side of this, however, is equally clear. Young people who chose or have chosen to be sexually active are flawed, do not have self-control, and will not be successful. This dichotomy is set up early on when teachers are told that they need to choose student volunteers wisely: “Be sure to choose students with good character, so that the message is not lost because of the messenger.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. vii) The dichotomy is also underscored in numerous personal stories that portray sexually active teens as troubled compared to their abstinent peers.
Tammy embodies the curriculum’s opinion of sexually active students: she is conniving, unscrupulous, and has ulterior motives for desiring sex. In contrast, abstinent students are compared to a push-up champion who understands that “saving sex until marriage is similar in the sense that when you realize the prize is something magnificent, you are more likely to preserve through the pressure. In the meantime, you are developing your character: stamina, endurance, focus, strength, perseverance. These are important qualities to possess in order to remain abstinent and to bring to a healthy, lasting marriage.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, Sec. 5:A)
It is important to remember that almost half of all high school students (47%) and 63% of high school seniors have had sexual intercourse.  It is inappropriate to suggest that these teens lack important character traits such as endurance, focus, and strength and that they will not have successful futures.
The curriculum persists in this portrayal, however. Perhaps the best illustration of this message is the manual’s final activity which is called The Rose. The teacher is instructed to hold up three fresh roses and say, “These roses are unique. Each one is different. They are beautiful, fragrant, and valuable—they cost a lot!” The first rose represents a teen who chooses to be sexually active. The teacher pulls off the petals of the rose and drops them to the floor as she explains that this person didn’t think about marriage or abstinence and didn’t realize that instead of getting they had been “giving and giving and giving to others.” Ten years later, at 26, the person meets someone and wants to get married: “I wasn’t planning on getting married—but I didn’t know about you. You’re really hot, and we’ve got a great thing going on, I can’t imagine living my life without you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I think we should get married.” At this point the teacher holds up the now empty rose and says in the voice of this sexually active person, “I want to give you everything I am and everything I have.”
The second rose stays complete as it represents a person who has chosen abstinence. When this person meets his/her perfect mate and the class is asked “What does this person have left to give?,” the answer is clear: “Everything. Physically, Mentally, Financially, Socially, Emotionally.”
Phelps has included a version of this game in other curricula that he has written. Perhaps in response to SIECUS’ previous criticism of its intense message of shame, he seems to pull his punches in this version. For example, when the teacher holds up the empty rose, she is instructed to say, “It’s not that this person doesn’t have anything to give, but this is often how a person feels.” This caveat does nothing to mitigate the images created by the exercise. Sexually active students are undeniably told that although they were once beautiful, fragrant, and valuable, they are now permanently bruised or damaged, if not destroyed, like those roses that are missing petals.
Virginity Pledges—Asking Students to Promise Purity
Aspire, like many fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, includes a virginity pledge, in which students vow to remain abstinent until they marry. At the end of the program. students sign a pledge entitled “My commitment to Abstinence until Marriage.” The pledge reads, “Because I desire to protect my future and live in freedom, from this day forward, I choose to save all sexual activity until marriage.”
To support the inclusion of this pledge, Aspire provides a summary of virginity pledge research also done by the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation which suggests that teens who make virginity pledges have “substantially improved life outcomes.” This supposition is contradicted, however, by research out of Yale University and Columbia University.
This research has found 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, were not found to be effective. Moreover, even when they work, pledges only 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. In addition, pledgers who remained “virgins” (did not engage in vaginal intercourse) were more likely to have engaged in oral and anal sex than non-pledging “virgins.” 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.
In addition, these pledges are not appropriate for all students, as they show blatant disregard for gay and lesbian students who cannot legally marry in this country. 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.
Unlike many abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, Aspire 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
Aspire’s discussion of STDs is more balanced than those found in most fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. The curriculum, for example, admits that “STDs are not inevitable.” It also includes honest information that is often left out of many other programs in favor of fear-based messages. For example, Aspire accurately explains that HPV “may spontaneously clear from the body....” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 27)
The curriculum’s discussion of STDs, however, remains fundamentally flawed as it is dangerously incomplete and imprecise. For example, the curriculum states that “any type of sexual activity can spread STDs.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. vi) In its own definition of abstinence, however, Aspire says “sexual activity refers to any type of genital contact or sexual stimulation.” Given that such a broad definition could easily encompass masturbation in front of a partner, petting with clothes on, or a particularly good foot massage, telling students that all sexual activity can spread STDs is neither accurate nor informative. Students would be better served by an open and honest discussion of the means of STD transmission and the levels of risk associated with different sexual behaviors.
The curriculum, however, does not provide information on how most STDs are or are not transmitted. In fact, it only discusses transmission when it comes to HIV. (It should be noted that here Aspire correctly tells young people that HIV cannot be transmitted through casual contact.) This most basic information about how STDs are passed from one person to another is necessary if young people are expected to protect their sexual health throughout their lives.
Although not obviously based on fear, the curriculum’s discussion of STDs is limited primarily to suggestions of the long-term health impacts of untreated STDs. For example, it tells students Chlamydia is “a curable bacterial infection which is often asymptomatic and undiagnosed. Untreated, it can cause severe health consequences for women, including pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), ectopic pregnancy, and infertility.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 29) Similarly, it says that “While gonorrhea is curable, untreated cases can lead to serious health problems.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 29) By focusing on what happens once a curable STD goes untreated, the curriculum misses an opportunity to help students understand the early symptoms of STDs that might signify a need for testing and treatment as well as learn how they might obtain testing or treatment if they need it. Such information could help to ensure that young people receive treatment for these curable diseases early enough to prevent any of the long-term consequences the curriculum mentions. To its credit, in a worksheet designed to be completed with parents, the curriculum does say, “Talk to a parent, counselor, or trusted adult, and ask them to help you through the process of getting tested for STDs.” It is nonetheless unfortunate that the program refuses to provide such information itself.
Ultimately, Aspire’s discussions of STDs are not sufficient to help young people protect themselves now and in the future.
Condoms and Contraception—Discouraging Use
While many fear-based abstinence-only-until-marriage programs devote inordinate amounts of time to undermining young people’s faith in condoms, Aspire merely touches briefly on this method of contraception. Like its discussion of STDs, the curriculum’s information about condoms is more balanced than the information presented by many other programs. Nonetheless, it is clear that the curriculum’s main goal is to ensure that teens continue to believe that only marriage can make sex safer.
Aspire is honest about its beliefs. Teens are introduced to the concept of risk reduction versus risk elimination. “This is a very important point. Teens need to be made aware of this distinction. While condoms may reduce the risk of infection, abstinence complete removes or eliminates this risk.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 28) This honesty is refreshing, yet Aspire then questions the amount of risk reduction condoms provide by pointing briefly to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which says that more research is required to determine whether and/or how condoms prevent STDs other than HIV and gonorrhea. While it is true that more research is needed, the CDC does point out that good research already exists that suggests that condoms reduce the risk of other STDs, including Chlamydia, Herpes, and HPV.
Students are then asked, “If you had a friend who was planning to have sex with someone who you knew had an STD, what advice would you give your friend? Use a condom or don’t do it?” Teens are expected to suggest not having sex for a variety of reasons including: “condoms don’t provide complete protection,” “condoms can break,” or “other concerns to sex besides STDs.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 28) Here, the curriculum misses a good opportunity to ask a more realistic follow-up question in which students are giving advice to friends planning to have sex with someone whose STD status is unknown. Such a question might induce an honest discussion about the benefits and limitations of condoms.
Instead, Aspire asks students to return to their lists of consequences of premarital sexual activity and determine which of these things can “completely be eliminated by using condoms or other contraception.” The list includes:
Emotional: emptiness, loneliness, broken heart, anger, rage
This exercise is designed to emphasize that “Condoms or other contraception may reduce the risk of some of the physical consequences, such as pregnancy or STDs but they can not completely eliminate any of these consequences.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 19)
While there is no arguing with the truth of this statement, condoms were never intended to protect teens against such problems as emptiness, loneliness, anger, fear, regret, or low self-esteem. They were intended to protect against pregnancy and STDs, and years of scientific research show that when used consistently and correctly they do a very good job. In fact, condoms are up to 98% effective in preventing pregnancy and research has shown that using a condom for HIV prevention is 10,000 times safer than not using a condom.
Aspire’s coverage of condoms—while more honest than that found in many abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum—seems to be based on unsound logic suggesting that if young people believe condoms do not work they will not engage in sexual behavior. 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, thereby putting them at increased risk for STDs and unintended pregnancy.
Faux Science—Using Unsound Science to Support Assertions
As part of its suggestion that it is providing objective information, Aspire attempts to ground its central thesis—that sex is only appropriate within marriage and all people should get married—in scientific research.
As such, it spends a good deal of time discussing the concept of bonding and the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that is released during certain activities including sex, childbirth, and nursing. It is often associated with feelings of love and relaxation. Aspire explains it by saying, “The oxytocin creates a strong bond between a mother and her child, and between her and her husband. It helps hold these relationships together.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 70) It goes on to say that “In a marriage relationship, sex is not only safe, but can strengthen the relationship between the husband and wife as a result of oxytocin. Outside of a marriage relationship however, the oxytocin bond can increase the emotional pain when the relationship is ended.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 70)
The curriculum’s main message about oxytocin seems to be that once two people have had sex and this “bonding” hormone has been released, not only will their pain upon breaking up be more pronounced, each of them will have a harder time bonding with anyone else who might come along. A few activities use duct tape to illustrate this bonding. In one, a small person stands on a chair up against a wall. The rest of the class is then charged with making the volunteer stick to the wall using duct tape. Once they have succeeded, they pull the chair away and the volunteer is suspended against the wall. The class then has to take that person down and use the same duct tape to make another person stick to the wall. The obvious result being that the used duct tape is less sticky and the task will be harder, if not impossible, with the second volunteer. The curriculum then makes the analogy explicit: “When we have sex, we bond with someone, oxytocin is released. Once we have bonded with one person, it is more difficult to bond with the next.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, Sec 7:A) Aspire goes on to blame the strong bonding effect of oxytocin for why some people may end up staying in an abusive relationship.
These assertions do not cite any scientific research. One scientist who has done research on oxytocin has referred to other, similar attempts to prove “too much sex can cause women to lose their ability to bond” as pseudoscience. Dr. Turner, a psychologist at the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) at Alliant International University and author of a 1999 study on oxytocin that appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Psychiatry, has said “…the cautions we give to teens should be based on honest concerns about health and values, not misinformation such as the statement that they will never be able to bond with a partner or have loving attachments in later life.”
Despite attempts to prove otherwise, it remains clear that Aspire’s opinions on the dangers of premarital sex are just that—opinions. Rather than presenting distorted scientific information to young people, Aspire would better serve students with an accurate and balanced discussion of the emotions that are often involved in relationships and how sexual behavior may or may not affect those emotions.
Helping young people develop the critical thinking skills they need to make a lifetime of good decisions ought to be one of the goals of any education program. Aspire seems to want readers to believe that it is living up to this standard. At times, it tells students directly that it is not trying to make decisions for them but only guiding them to making better decisions. Unfortunately, the curriculum is predicated on the unwavering belief that all sex outside of marriage is wrong, and every discussion and activity is designed to ensure that young people reach the same conclusion. Moreover, in discussions on topics ranging from dating to using the media, the curriculum gives advice that suggests it does not trust young people to make good decisions.
The Marriage Mandate—Promoting One Lifestyle
The curriculum’s desire to make decisions for young people is perhaps most evident in its discussions on marriage, which unfailingly suggest that marriage is superior to any other relationship and that abstinence prior to marriage is necessary for a successful marital relationship and future.
The curriculum explains that “Teens are often counseled to ‘prepare for college’ and to ‘prepare for a career.’ But there doesn’t seem to be much encouragement to ‘prepare for your marriage.’” Teens are then asked which of these decisions—college, career, or marriage— will have the most impact on their lives. The answer is marriage because “College is for a few years, and you may have a number of careers. But marriage is for life.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 60)
Many people might argue with this logic. For example, while it is true that young people only remain in college for a few years, most parents and educators believe that the knowledge and skills individuals learn while there will help expand their minds and improve their decision-making skills, and that the impact of a good college education will be lifelong.
Nonetheless, Aspire portrays marriage as the ultimate goal and most important life decision. To get young people excited about the prospect, teachers ask young people if they have an idea of what they would like their family to be like and have them describe their ideal marriage partner. Students then read a set of marriage vows which they are told symbolize permanence.
The Benefits of Marriage
Aspire believes that “Abstinence isn’t about not having sex—it’s about saving sex for the context of marriage where it is safe and protected.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 20) To illustrate this point to students, the curriculum relies on countless analogies comparing sex to everything from pies and candy to houses.
In one exercise, the teacher creates two pies out of shaving cream. Both pies contain the exact same ingredients but one is inside the pie tin and the other is created on the bottom of an upside-down pie tin. “As you can see here, both pies have all the same ingredients but one will be better. The first pie will work because it has boundaries. The first pie represents sex within marriage. Sex is wonderful inside the boundaries of marriage because you have a solid commitment.”(Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, Sec 1:B)
In another exercise, “Sweet as Sugar,” the teacher is instructed to give each student a piece of chocolate that looks identical, tell them to eat it, and ask who liked it. Students may be surprised that not everyone enjoyed the chocolate until the teacher explains the twist behind the exercise. “I handed out sweetened chocolate to some and unsweetened chocolate to some. I deceived you because you all thought the chocolate would taste good because it looked the same. In the same way, our society thinks sex is good for everyone at anytime, but we are deceived. Sex is like the chocolate I handed out. The unsweetened chocolate represents sex outside of marriage. The sweetened chocolate represents sex within marriage. What chocolate would you rather have?” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, Sec8:B)
A more dramatic depiction compares marriage to a house. “Marriage serves as a protective barrier around a relationship. It’s like being at home by the fire on a cold rainy day. Inside the house you can play games, roast marshmallows in the fireplace, drink hot chocolate, and have fun. It’s possible to do these things outside of the house, but you’re exposed to the elements—you’re not protected.” The elements that marriage is protecting you from are “the consequences of sex that can change your life forever.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 20)
Although these discussions may be the author’s attempt to take a positive approach to sexuality—to ensure that young people don’t leave the program assuming that all sex is bad—they simply underscore the author’s opinion that sex outside of marriage is always wrong and perhaps even dangerous. Moreover, they set up an unrealistic expectation of marriage as a safe, protected environment in which none of the “consequences” of sexual activity—which, as described earlier in the curriculum, include such things as fear, worry, regret, and infertility—are ever a problem.
The Problems of Cohabitation
Aspire devotes much of its discussion about marriage to detailing the problems with cohabitation. “Although some people enter cohabitation as a type of pre-marriage, the reality is that after a year of pre-marriage most don’t end up getting married.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 61) While some people might see this as a positive development in which two people realize without marrying and subsequently divorcing that they are not meant to spend their lives together, Aspire sees it as proof that cohabitation is a bad idea. The curriculum provides this comparison by way of an explanation:
Marriage is giving yourself rather than guarding yourself. In marriage, a person says, I am giving you all that I have, and all that I am. Marriage is giving yourself as a present to another person. Marriage says: I am entrusting myself to you for the rest of my life. I am committed to you no matter what. I will always be here for you. I am yours, and you are mine. There is no turning back. It is qualitatively different than any other kind of relationship. (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 61)
Cohabitation is guarding yourself rather than giving yourself. In cohabitation, a person says, I will give you some of myself but not all of myself. I will hold back part of myself in case things don’t work out. I will give you what I have but not who I am. I’ll give you the package but not what’s inside. You can have everything I have except my commitment to you – everything except my heart. Cohabitation is by definition an “uncommitted” relationship. (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 61)
The curriculum never wavers in its assertion that cohabitation is wrong. Students are told, “It is often said that marriage is just a pieces of paper, that it really doesn’t mean anything.” And they are asked, “Is this your view? Why or why not?” Yet again, the goal of this question is not to get at young people’s true feelings and opinions. Instead, it is to “help students understand that marriage is an actual lifelong commitment—not just a piece of paper.” The curriculum does not even leave room for parents to question this concept. In a worksheet designed for teens to complete with their parents, the curriculum explains, “The point here is to help students understand that there is a substantial difference between being married and living together.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 64)
Although it is important to help young people explore possible future relationships, Aspire does so in a limited and directive way that presents marriage as the only appropriate way of life and suggests that individuals who choose otherwise are making the wrong decision for themselves and society. It is not the place of education programs to mandate choices for students.
The Need for Abstinence Before Marriage
Aspire explains to students, “As you enter into the ‘critical moment’ of your life, remember that the success of your potential future marriage is largely dependent upon the choices you make now.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 56) It goes on to suggest that “Unhealthy marriage and divorce are not random. By making good choices, developing my character, and learning healthy relationship skills now, I can greatly increase my chances of having a healthy, stable, lifelong marriage.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 56)
Students are asked to examine the future relationship between abstinence and marriage. The teacher’s guide explains that “This is a key point of the program, and the purpose of this question is to see how well the students understand this important connection. While abstinence is the best way to prevent pregnancy and STDs, it also helps students to develop personal qualities that will help them to prepare for a future marriage—if they choose to marry.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 56)
The lesson on marriage goes on to suggest that abstinence can help you develop the very qualities needed in a good marriage including “Self-discipline, self-control, perseverance, patience, selflessness….”(Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 56) Students are told that “By planning ahead for your future, you can actually reduce your chances of divorce. There are no guarantees, but making good decision now and in the years ahead can help prepare you for a healthy marriage.”
This portion of the discussion on marriage includes the same underlying messages of shame that are present in earlier discussions about sexual behavior. At one point, the curriculum asks students to “Imagine meeting the man or woman of your dreams. The person is funny, warm, humble, and generous—everything you’ve ever hoped for in a potential husband or wife.” But, the fantasy continues, “If the person did not find similar positive character qualities in you, how do you suppose things would turn out and why? That person will be looking for someone with strong positive character qualities as well. If you don’t have them, they may well prefer to be with someone else.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 56) The clear implication here is that teens who have been sexually active before marriage are no longer prime marriage material.
By declaring marriage to be the ultimate goal, and then suggesting that teens who have been sexually active can’t reach that goal, the curriculum once again sets up a dichotomy between good and bad people.
Discounting Lesbian and Gay Students
Aspire’s discussion of marriage is also disturbing for its failure to acknowledge that some young people in the class are not legally permitted to marry.
The curriculum attempts to acknowledge that not all people will want to marry by admitting that “Marriage isn’t for everyone.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 56) It suggests that some people may not want to marry because they have been touched by the divorce of parents or friends. But the fact that gay and lesbian students cannot legally marry in this country is never mentioned.
It goes on to argue that the “Regardless of how you feel about marriage now it’s not a bad idea to be prepared,” and that “the principles here can help you to succeed in developing healthy relationships regardless of whether or not you end up getting married in the future.” Yet, within pages of this quote, the curriculum also tells students that no other relationship ever lives up to marriage, and that cohabitation, the only option open to gay and lesbian couples in most places, is a self-centered and half-hearted commitment.
Aspire’s focus on marriage as the ultimate goal underscores the fact that this curriculum is written exclusively for heterosexual students. The author seems to assume that all students in the class, and all people in the world for that matter, are heterosexual. Throughout the curriculum, all “true stories” refer to male-female couples, as do all references to sexual activity. In addition, activities assume that participants are only interested in pursuing relationships with members of the opposite sex.
By repeatedly asserting that the only safe and morally acceptable sex is in marriage, the curriculum is essentially telling gay and lesbian young people that they can never have a safe or healthy sexual relationship. Gay and lesbian youth, especially young men who have sex with men, are at increased risk for STDs, including HIV.
It is clear that these young people need programs that can help them handle the complexities of growing up gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning their sexual orientation. Therefore, programs written exclusively for heterosexual students are not appropriate for a classroom setting. Such curricula will only further marginalize and alienate these students and may put them at increased risk.
Pregnancy Options—Mandating Choices
Aspire says almost nothing about pregnancy options. The discussion of what young people can or should do if they face an unintended pregnancy is limited to one chart in the student workbook which students are asked to fill out. The chart suggests that students fill in three options and for each option examine “her issues,” “his issues,” and “others affected.”
The answers to this exercise in the teacher’s guide contain a subtle bias toward adoption. Phelps seems to avoid discussing abortion at all by using its row in the chart to introduce the discussion points teachers should touch upon for each option such as “Help students consider that all choices have some consequences. Because each person is affected differently it is not possible to know beforehand what the effect will be.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 18)
While they are all in the form of questions, the issues brought up under parenting make it clear that the curriculum is not in favor of this option. In the “her issues” column, teachers are told to tell young people to “Consider the cost of raising the child as well as the cost of lost income and educational opportunities.” Under “others affected,” the curriculum asks, “Where will she live? Will she get married? How will her parents and family be affected? Will they help her care for the child?”
It is important for educational programs, especially one used widely in public schools, to respect the diversity of opinions and provide unbiased information on all options that are available to a woman confronting an unintended pregnancy as a teenager or an adult. Aspire does not adhere to this standard of educational programming
Specific Advice—Not Trusting Teens to Make Their Own Decisions
Despite direct suggestions to the contrary, Aspire clearly does not trust young people to make their own decisions. In discussions about topics such as sexual activity and the media’s influence, the curriculum repeatedly suggests that young people have no self-control.
Young people need to know that they are in control and have the right, the ability, and the responsibility to set and keep their own boundaries. Removing oneself from a situation in which one is alone with a potential sexual partner may be the best or the easiest thing to do, but it is not the only option.
The curriculum offers similar advice when it comes to media. Aspire’s lesson on the influence of the media starts out very strong. Students are reminded that the media deliberately targets young people because they have expendable income and a lifetime of purchasing power ahead of them. Students then examine some of the media’s messages about sexuality. Unfortunately, while this could be an exercise in critical thinking, the curriculum once again leaves no room for teens to fully think issues through. The workbook asks which is true, “the media says sexual activity is for anyone” or “the media thinks sexual activity is for married people.” The curriculum then asks which of these represent the teens’ own view of sexual activity. This exercise, however, leaves no room for a middle ground in which teens might think that sexually activity is not appropriate for young people their age but is appropriate for single adults in their twenties, for example. The curriculum wastes a good opportunity to truly help young people clarify their views and understand how the media’s images diverge from their own values and beliefs.
Moreover, Aspire’s discussion of media influences quickly digresses into a fear-based lesson on pornography. Students are told that “In the same way a person becomes addicted to drugs, sexual images trigger biochemical response that cause increased heartbeat, sweaty palms, and dilated pupils, all of which indicate the release of adrenaline in the body, causing a biological rush. This creates a powerful cycle of dependency.”(Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 40)
The curriculum then introduces “Eric” who explains he had a 28-year struggle during which “pornography took my job, career, self-respect, and almost destroyed my family. No one ever told me that pornography would lead to addiction that would steal away most of my life.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 40) Eric’s experience, according to Aspire, is becoming increasingly common. “Many teens are currently fighting this same battle. Little by little the body begins to depend upon and crave the rush. Before people even realize what is happening, the addiction takes hold. They think they can stop whenever they want but the pull is much stronger than they realize.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 40)
If Eric’s story is not enough to deter young people from viewing pornography, they can perhaps learn a lesson from Tara, who entered into a relationship with an older man she met online: “He told her he was addicted to internet pornography and that she was his fantasy. He told her he would kill her if she told anyone because he didn’t want to go to jail.” (Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 41)
Aspire suggests that “the point of this chapter isn’t that we shouldn’t have media, but rather that we need to examine our relationship to it.” (Aspire, Student Manual, p. 43) Again this appears to foster critical thinking—that is, until the curriculum provides specific advice which includes, “install an internet filter,” “take the TV out of your room,” and “have your parents cancel the cable/satellite service.”(Aspire, Teacher’s Guide, p. 42) Yet again, Aspire tells young people that they have no self-control and cannot be trusted to make their own decisions. Rather than consume media wisely, young people are told not to consume it at all.
Unfortunately, Aspire is riddled with contradictions. While the author claims that the curriculum is unbiased and helping young people make their own decisions, what it is really doing is manipulating information, and teens themselves, in order to ensure that they reach the curriculum’s own conclusion. One dramatic example is the “rose” exercise which is described above. When the teacher has finished plucking the two roses, representing sexually active people, of all or some of their petals, she holds those up next to the beautiful, intact rose which represents a person who has chosen abstinence-until-marriage and says, “The purpose of this class isn’t to tell you what to do. It’s to simply help you think through one of the most important decisions of your life. Whatever choice you make – it’s totally up to you. The only question I have for you is – which rose do you want to be?” Such blatant manipulation is inappropriate in an educational program.
The fundamental flaw in Aspire 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 the significance of planning for one’s future, the role of alcohol and drugs in sexual decision making, and the impact of the media. The curriculum also provides opportunities for students to discuss these issues with their parents.
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, promotes fear and shame, and undermines young people’s confidence in their own decision making ability.
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Eaton, et al.
P. Bearman and H. Bruckner, “After the Promise: The STD Consequences of Adolescent Virginity Pledges,” Journal of Adolescent Health 36.4 (April 2005): 271-278.
“Dr. Rebecca Turner Issues Statement Rebutting ‘Pseudoscience,’” News Release published 20 November 2006, accessed 8 December 2006, http://www.sootoday.com/content/news/full_story.asp?StoryNumber=20991.
Statistics: Cohabitation, Alternatives to Marriage Project, accessed 5 September 2007, http://www.unmarried.org/statistics.html.
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.