The FACTS (Family Accountability Communicating Teen Sexuality) series includes I’m In Charge of the FACTS, for middle school students, and FACTS and Reasons, for high school students. There is also a version designed for fifth and sixth grade students, as well as a parents’ guide, How to Teach the FACTS of Life. This review is based on the Middle School and Senior High editions. Although these two versions do vary, much of the information is the same and many of the quotes included in this review appear in both curricula.
FACTS is published and distributed by Northwest Family Services, a non-profit organization that advocates for abstinence education as well as natural family planning. The FACTS curricula were first published in 1991, with funding originally provided through a grant from the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy Programs. SIECUS reviewed the 7th edition written by Rose Fuller, Janet McLaughlin, and Andrew Asato and published in 2000.
FACTS is a fear-based abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula that rely on negative messages, use distorted information, and include biases about marriage and family structure, gender, sexual orientation, and pregnancy options.
SIECUS’ reviews of curricula 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. Abstinence is one of the 36 topics included in the Guidelines.
FACTS provides more information on puberty, human sexual response, and human reproduction than most fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula. Unfortunately much of this information is presented in a limited or biased manner that seems designed to promote one point of view rather than simply inform students. The curricula present especially biased information in discussions on condoms, contraception, abortion, STDs, and HIV/AIDS. Other topics such as sexual orientation and masturbation are not discussed. The authors provide the following rationale for omitting these topics:
Some wonder why instruction in homosexuality and masturbation are not included in FACTS. First, it has been fairly well documented that providing information about reproduction and sexual behavior does not change attitudes or behavior, but does increase knowledge. Teachers and students already have a great deal of information to cover or master and it is a matter of prioritizing what is needed at a given point in time…Second, these issues are currently emotionally laden.
While the immediate goal of many sexuality education programs may be to delay the initiation of sexual intercourse (possibly until marriage) or to increase the use of pregnancy- and disease-prevention methods, programs should also have the long-term goal of promoting sexual health. Although it is true that many teachers are overwhelmed by the amount of information students need to learn about sexuality and many of these subjects are “emotionally laden,” it is not appropriate for an education program to avoid important topics simply because covering them would be difficult.
Relying on Negative Messages
It is important to remember that abstinence-only-until-marriage programs often represent the only formal setting in which young people receive information about sexuality. Therefore, the messages they receive can have a lifelong impact on how they view sexuality.
For this reason, it is vital that young people get a complete and balanced picture about relationships, sexual activity, and abstinence. In fact, abstinence is an integral part of any comprehensive sexuality education program. 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.”
Unfortunately, rather than present such a balanced picture, FACTS puts forth exaggerated messages about both the benefits of abstinence and the inevitable dangers of sexual activity. The result is that students are instilled with fear and misunderstandings about sexuality.
Messages of Fear—Trying to Scare Students
FACTS states very clearly that when it comes to premarital sex, “there are always risks associated with it, even dangerous, life-threatening risks such as HIV/AIDS. Using contraceptives does not change this for teenagers.” (FACTS Middle School, Student Handbook, p. 50). According to FACTS, the negative consequences of premarital sex include “pregnancy, financial aspect of fatherhood, abortion, HIV/AIDS, STDs, guilt, rejection, loss of reputation, inability to bond in the future, challenge to not compare future sexual partners, alienation from friends and family, poverty and the inability to complete school” (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. 110) The middle school curriculum goes on to say that both young women and young men experience:
The pain connected with giving the baby up for adoption, even when you know it is the right thing to do for both you and your child.
Becoming emotionally attached and getting hurt.
Contracting HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Changed relationships with your parents and friends.
Fear, jealousy, and worry.
Canceling future plans.
The premature responsibility of parenthood. (FACTS Middle School, Student Handbook, p. 7)
To underscore these negative consequences, FACTS relies on analogies and likens premarital sexual activity to substance abuse, fire, drunk driving, prostitution, and an ocean storm with “waves of enormous size [that] brought terror and death.” (FACTS Senior High, Student Handbook, p. 30)
In one exercise, students are asked to brainstorm about the abuses and uses of fire and sex in society. Teachers explain that fire has proper uses such as heat, cooking, warmth, and light but that it can be abused such as through arson or careless forest fires. Similarly, the curriculum suggests that there are good aspects of sex: “The traditional purposes for sex in marriage include love, bonding, and children.” Students are then asked to brainstorm about “some of the ways we have gotten away from the traditional purposes of sex.” Suggested answers include “premarital sex, pornography, prostitution, child abuse, rape, or anytime another person is being used.” (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. 10)
Given that the majority of individuals in the United States have had sex before they were married, the idea that premarital sex is equivalent to child abuse or rape is clearly not a universally held value. Nonetheless, students are not encouraged to examine these statements or explore their own values about sexual relationships.
There is no evidence to suggest that premarital sex will lead to everything from inability to bond in the future to alienation from friends and family. This focus on consequences is clearly designed to scare students rather than educate them.
Messages of Shame—Instilling Guilt
In addition to providing endless information about the negative consequences of sexual activity, FACTS also utilizes a variety of tactics to suggest that teens should feel guilty, embarrassed, and ashamed of sexual behavior. For example, the curricula list “ruining one’s future” and “ruining one’s reputation” as possible consequences of premarital sex that can be avoided by remaining abstinent. In a list of 61 scenarios depicting the “Emotional Consequences of Premarital Sex,” the authors propose the following as a possible outcome:
You know people talk about you behind your back because you’ve had sex with so many people. It so empty too (sic). Finally you get sick of it all and attempt suicide. (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, Appendix p. 98)
In contrast, students who choose abstinence have the freedom to develop “friendships, a value system, socially, emotionally, intellectually, self-control, at your own pace, and future plans” (FACTS Middle School, Student Handbook, p. 66). The implication is that sexually active students lack self-control and values and face a bleak future.
Recent studies show that 47% of all high school students report having engaged in sexual intercourse. It is therefore likely that an average group to which these curricula (especially the senior high school curriculum) will be presented will contain several sexually active teens.
FACTS does acknowledge that some students might be sexually active and suggests that “secondary virginity” is appropriate for those who wish to “recover a sense of ‘specialness of sex’” and “recapture the freedom from worrying about negative consequences.” (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. 134). Unfortunately, the discussion of secondary virginity also relies on messages of shame. For example, the curricula labels this process “recovery,” a term widely used when discussing substance abuse or alcoholism.
It is inappropriate and potentially harmful for education programs to imply that sexually active teens have a problem from which they need to recover, that they lack values, or that they are less worthy of the love, trust, and respect of their families and peers. This can only be damaging to these students and serve to alienate them from the peers and the program’s messages.
Sexual Arousal—Portraying Sex as an Uncontrollable Force
After telling students that they should not give in to pressure because premarital sexual behavior is shameful and leads to a plethora of negative consequences, FACTS suggests that sex is a power that young people cannot control. The junior high school curriculum explains, “once a certain level of intimacy is reached, it becomes the beginning point on the next date. For example, suppose that you dated someone a number of times. One evening, after three hours of being together, you finally kissed each other. On the next date, it won’t take another three hours to work up enough nerve to kiss again.” (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. 76) The curriculum goes on to illustrate this point using the story of the frog:
Someone discovered that if a frog was put in a pot of hot water, it jumped out immediately. But if put in a pot of cool water which was then slowly heated, the frog would cook. The frog was lulled into a false sense of security while slowly adjusting its body temperature. It could never decide at what point the water became too hot. (FACTS Middle School, Student Handbook, p. 30)
Informing students that sexual feelings are uncontrollable is counterproductive to teaching young people that they have the right and the ability to set sexual limits and abstain from sexual activity.
The FACTS curricula contain more information about puberty, human reproduction, and anatomy than most fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Unfortunately much of the information included is inaccurate and biased and seems designed to reinforce the negative messages found throughout the curricula rather than objectively inform students.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases—Misleading Students
STDs are covered in detail in the chapter titled “Risk Taking: Sexual Behavior.” This discussion does not adequately explain disease transmission, focuses on worst-case scenarios, underscores feelings of shame and embarrassment, and may ultimately discourage students from seeking treatment.
FACTS fails to provide adequate information on the transmission of STDs or how to prevent transmission through any method other than abstinence from “sexual contact.” In a chart on common STDs, mode of transmission is simply listed as “through sexual contact” which may mean different things to different students. In fact, STDs are transmitted in a variety of ways such as through skin-to-skin contact, vaginal secretions, and semen. This information is vital for young people who may be engaging in a wide range of sexual activity including oral, anal, or vaginal sex. By using vague descriptions, FACTS misses the opportunity to help students make informed decisions about sexual behavior and prevention strategies.
Instead, FACTS focuses discussions about STDs on worst-case scenarios. For example, when discussing gonorrhea and Chlamydia, two common bacterial STDs that are curable with antibiotics, FACTS states that “the ‘cure’ will not reverse the damage already done” (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. 107) and places heavy emphasis on the possibility of developing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and becoming infertile. Although this is possible, FACTS does not mention that with early detection and treatment, both bacterial STDs and PID can be cured before any permanent damage occurs. Furthermore, FACTS fails to provide additional information on the importance of regular screening or where young people can go if they think they might have an STD. This focus on the extreme consequences of STDs is dramatically illustrated in a story about HPV:
The unborn children of HPV-infected mothers can experience serious consequences too. An example of the impact of HPV is as follows: A cute, adopted three-year-old boy, Billy, was infected at birth with HPV from his birth mother. As a consequence, Billy suffers from warts on his vocal cords. This causes him to have a deep, raspy voice. Billy has laser treatments about once a month. Soon after the treatment, the warts grow again. As with all young children, Billy is full of energy. The trouble is that as the warts grow, and Billy runs, he literally has trouble breathing through the infected vocal cords. No one knows the long-term implications for Billy. (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. 105)
FACTS also quotes the Medical Institute for Sexual Health as saying “HPV is the greatest cancer killer” (FACTS Middle School, Student Handbook, p. 45) and that HPV “may stimulate cancer.” (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, Appendix, Activity 10-149).
By focusing on extreme cases and emphasizing the risk of cervical cancer, the authors are misleading students as to the nature of HPV. According to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the majority of HPV infections resolve themselves spontaneously and do not lead to any long-term consequences. The report explains that “while infection with high-risk types [of HPV] appears to be ‘necessary’ for the development of cervical cancer, it is not ‘sufficient’ because cancer does not develop in the vast majority of women with HPV infection.”
The report also emphasizes the importance of routine screenings for pre-cancerous cells using the Pap test. The CDC estimates that approximately half of the cases of cervical cancer that occur each year will occur in women who have never had a Pap test and an additional 10% will occur in women who were not screened in the last five years.
FACTS would better serve students by relying less on fear and exaggeration and instead providing information on how students can access reproductive healthcare throughout their lives.
Using Shame and Discouraging Treatment
In addition to detailing worst-case scenarios, FACTS perpetuates the stigma attached to STDs and suggests that people who are currently or have ever been infected should be embarrassed and ashamed. The 61 “Emotional Consequences of Premarital Sex” include numerous scenarios in which individuals are rejected by their partners or families because they have an STD. For example:
Your partner finds out that you’ve had an STD; he or she feels uncomfortable with that and breaks up with you.
Your partner accuses you of giving him or her an STD. You don’t know how; you don’t have any symptoms. (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, Appendix p. 98)
In one activity entitled “The Dice Game,” the curricula likens STDs to insects. The game attempts to translate “statistical data” about rates of unintended pregnancy and STD transmission into a more concrete view for students. Students roll a die and receive a corresponding card. On one side, the cards contain the “consequences for sexual intercourse outside of marriage while using condoms.” The other side of the card illustrates these consequences with pictures of a broken heart, a baby, or a “Sex Bug,” among other things. The “Sex Bug” cards have pictures of cockroaches, ants, millipedes, and ticks. This depiction does nothing to educate students and merely contributes to the shame and stigma often associated with STDs. (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, Appendix, p. 98)
What is most distressing, however, is that the curricula do not suggest that while these feelings may be understandable, students need to overcome such emotions in order to ensure that they receive proper treatment. FACTS does not recommend regular screening for sexually active students nor do the curricula tell students where they can go to get help. At one point, the middle school curriculum seems to suggest that medical treatment might not be worthwhile. “You’ve seen the doctor numerous times and had many prescriptions, but you can’t seem to get rid of the STD you contracted in your last relationship.” (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, Appendix, p. 98)
Information on screening and treatment is critical to ensuring the reproductive health of young people as research has shown that early screening can prevent the complications of untreated STDs that FACTS focuses on. For example, the CDC reports that screening for chlamydia can reduce the incidence of PID by as much as 60%.
The curricula’s reliance on exaggerated symptoms, messages of shame, and the suggestion that medical treatment might not work may ultimately prevent young people from seeking such medical services. Discouraging treatment is in direct conflict with the public health needs of our young people.
Condoms and Contraception—Exaggerating Failure Rates
FACTS uses a number of tactics to suggest that condoms and other contraceptive methods do not prevent pregnancy or disease. The curricula discuss contraception exclusively in terms of failure rates, present misleading statistics on condom failure, perpetuate myths about contraception, and suggest that teens are incapable of using contraception effectively.
FACTS focuses much of the discussion of contraception on the idea that condoms are not effective for unmarried people. The authors repeatedly allude to the possibility that condoms may “slip, break, or be used improperly or inconsistently, or be defective.” (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. 102) Although this is possible, according to a study in Consumer Reports, “with correct use, a condom will break as little as 2 percent of the time, authorities believe, and will slip off as little as 1 percent of the time.”
FACTS goes on to explain that condoms do not provide adequate prevention against pregnancy. FACTS states that “typical failure rates” for condoms are 14% and provides the following explanation of this statistic: “Out of 100 sexually active women, if a condom is used, 14 of the women will experience an unintended pregnancy during the course of one year.” (FACTS Middle School, Student Handbook, p. 44)
Although this statement seems to be based on accurate statistics, it may nonetheless give students the wrong impression about the effectiveness of condoms. 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 very rare and is estimated to occur in only three 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, most often 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. As FACTS states, about 14 of these couples will experience an unintended pregnancy during the first year. It is important to remember, however, 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, 26 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.
FACTS then uses inaccurate analogies to suggest that condoms are even more ineffective when it comes to preventing the transmission of HIV and other STDs.
There are many factors to consider with respect to condoms. First, look at the products themselves. After all, you’re asked by their promoters to entrust your life to them. Think on a microscopic level. Sperm cells, STD organisms, and HIV cannot be seen with the eye—you need a microscope. Any imperfections in the contraceptive not visible to the eye could allow sperm, STD or HIV to pass through the latex. Notice below the actual size difference between a human sperm cell and a variety of sexually transmitted disease organisms including Human Immunodeficiency Virus. If a sperm cell can get through, how much more can the HIV virus only 1/450th the size of a sperm! (FACTS Middle School, Student Handbook, p. 45)
This suggestion is not backed up by scientific research. In fact, it ignores years of research that shows that condoms can provide protection against the transmission of STDs. The FDA regulates the production of latex and polyurethane condoms and the standards it uses ensure that condoms are impermeable to particles smaller than the HIV virus. If any holes are found, the entire batch of condoms is discarded. In fact, studies have shown that condoms reduce the risk of many STDs and that using a condom during intercourse to protect against HIV transmission, for example, is more than 10,000 times safer than not using a condom.
Questioning Teenagers’ Ability to Use Contraception
The FACTS curricula also rely on myths to suggest that no method of contraception will be effective for teenagers. The High School curriculum asks students to brainstorm about the reasons “why teens don’t use contraceptives effectively.” (FACTS Senior High, Student Handbook, p. 35). Possible answers include:
FACTS misses an important opportunity to correct the many inaccurate and misleading statements included in this exercise. Students may be left with the belief that birth control can harm their health and that they should feel uncomfortable with their own bodies. Instead of exploring these statements, FACTS once again accuses sexually active students of having character flaws and being self-destructive and irresponsible.
The authors stress the idea that teens are “poor users of contraception” and suggest that it therefore “does not make sense to continue to ‘teach them’ that using birth control is a successful way to manage their sexual behavior.” (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. iii) To emphasize this point, the authors provide many scenarios that involve contraceptive failure in their list of the 61 “emotional consequences of premarital sex.” Examples include:
You always use contraceptives but you or your girlfriend’s period is late. Finally it starts, but you’ve been a nervous wreck for three weeks. You don’t want this person to be the parent of your child. Is it worth it?
You or your girlfriend started taking the pill so you wouldn’t have to worry about pregnancy, but you or she keep having bleeding problems. The doctor keeps changing the prescription. You wonder how well it’s working if everything is so out of whack.
Your best friend becomes a parent—yes, while using birth control.
(FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, Appendix p. 98)
Rather than telling students that they are incapable of using contraception, FACTS would better serve students by explaining that while no contraceptive method is perfect, using condoms and other contraception can help sexually active teenagers prevent STDs and unintended pregnancy. In addition, all students should know that there are steps that sexually active teenagers can take to increase the effectiveness of contraceptive methods such as using these methods consistently and correctly.
Unfortunately, the discussion of condoms and contraception included in FACTS seems to be based on the illogical assumption that if young people believe that these methods do not work, they will abstain from sexual intercourse. There is no reason to believe that this is true. Such inaccurate information about contraception may instead discourage teenagers from using condoms and contraception when they do become sexually active, thereby putting them at increased risk for unintended pregnancy and STDs, including HIV.
In addition to relying on inaccurate information, FACTS is based on a number of biases and assumptions about gender, marriage, family structure, sexual orientation, and pregnancy options. Presenting these biases as universal truths does little to inform students and instead fosters myths and misunderstandings.
Treatment of Gender—Fostering Myths and Stereotypes
FACTS relies on gender-biased assumptions throughout the curricula, from discussions of anatomy to sexual arousal. Statements made regarding gender differences are not based on research, but rather reflect commonly held stereotypes and misconceptions. For the most part, students are not encouraged to examine their beliefs about gender or question the validity of the stereotypes presented in FACTS. For example, the authors quote Dr. Aaron Beck in a discussion of gender differences in communication style.
Girls both form and end friendships through talk. Best girlfriends share secrets that bind them together. And girls are much freer than boys in discussing their feelings—love, hate, anxiety, sadness. Girls also learn to criticize and argue with other girls without being perceived as “bossy” or “mean.” Meanwhile, boys tend to play in larger, more organized groups, and may place a higher premium on status or dominance. Their conversation is filled with orders like “Get up” and “Give it to me.” Further, they tend to be much more argumentative than girls. While girls use words as a bridge, boys more often than girls use them as instruments of control or dominance. (FACTS Senior High, Student Handbook, p. 11)
These statements reflect stereotypes about gender roles that are by no means universal. FACTS once again misses the opportunity to cultivate critical thinking skills in students. Students are not challenged to question the nature, validity, or origin of these gender stereotypes, or examine how such stereotypes can affect communication within friendships or sexual relationships. While some girls and boys may embody these characteristics, many will not.
Nonetheless, the authors continue to present gender stereotypes as true when they include the following chart of the differences between men and women when it comes to sexual arousal:
(FACTS Senior High, Student Handbook, p. 12)
By presenting these stereotypes as true and not encouraging students to question such assumptions, FACTS implies that young women who are interested in sexual activity or young men who are not, are not normal. This presentation may confuse students who do not conform to these gender stereotypes, and be detrimental to all young people by limiting their options, influencing their behavior, and coloring their expectations for future relationships.
The Marriage Mandate—Promoting One Lifestyle
FACTS spends a great deal of time discussing one future relationship—marriage. Throughout the curricula, sexuality and abstinence are discussed exclusively in terms of marital status. Sexual activity is always described as premarital, extramarital, or within the context of marriage and marriage is presented as the only positive venue for sexual activity.
Since sexual feelings are strong, when a person has sexual intercourse he or she typically experiences “sexual bonding.” This means the people feel mysteriously attached—since they have “given themselves fully” to the other…Only marriage sustains this type of sexual relationship. (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. 72)
The emphasis that FACTS places on marriage as the only proper place for sexual activity is problematic for many reasons. First it ignores the possibility that some young people in the class may be lesbian or gay and therefore cannot legally marry in this country.* In addition, it seems to assumes that all students will choose to marry and that there is something wrong with those who do not. In fact, over 98 million adults in this country are classified as single because they have delayed marriage, decided to remain single, are divorced, or have entered into a gay or lesbian partnership.
* NOTE: Recent court decisions in Massachusetts have granted same-sex couples the right to marry in that state. Numerous court challenges and legislative hurdles remain and it is therefore unclear whether this right will be permanently guaranteed in that state or other states in the country. As of 2005, Massachusetts is the only state that recognizes legal marriage between individuals of the same sex.
Still, FACTS seems to present marriage as a “cure-all,” suggesting that STDs and unintended pregnancy are not an issue once wedding vows are exchanged. Ironically, this view is contradicted by some of the stories included in the curricula. For example, students are told about Barry:
Barry had a lot of sex with different people during his late teen years. But he managed to settle down. Now he is 27 years old, just starting out as a lawyer, and has been married for four years. He and his wife are expecting their first child. He hasn’t been feeling well lately. He has a physical and discovers he has HIV/AIDS. Does his wife have the HIV virus? What about their infant? What about all those people in his past? Is he obliged to try to track them down? What is his wife’s responsibility to him? At their wedding, she promised to be with him in good times and bad. Up to now they have been happy, but this is too much, she says. (FACTS Senior High, Teacher’s Edition, p. 165)
This story illustrates that marriage vows are not effective protection against STDs or unintended pregnancy. Barry’s wife could have followed all of the advice as presented by FACTS and remained abstinent until marriage, yet she suffered anyway. FACTS would better serve students by discussing the importance of STD/HIV screening and prevention methods and explaining that protection can be found in any relationship, regardless of marital status, between uninfected partners who refrain from sexual activity outside of the relationship.
Nonetheless, FACTS continues to promote marriage as the only valid relationship. To emphasize this point, the curricula suggest that cohabitation, or “trial marriage,” has a negative impact on individuals and society. The authors refer to research that found a correlation between cohabitation and higher rates of divorce. They use this correlation to erroneously conclude that cohabitation and premarital sexual activity will serve as an “impediment when discerning a future spouse” that can cause divorce. (FACTS Senior High, Teacher’s Edition, p. 169) A more accurate analysis of that research indicates that factors such as religion, race, education, and age all play substantial roles in marital success and that cohabitation is not a cause of divorce.
More importantly, however, it is unclear why this discussion is included in the curricula. While the decision to become sexually active is one often made during the teen years, the decision to cohabitate is rarely relevant to middle school or high school students.
Family Structure—Depicting Non-Traditional Families as Troubled
FACTS emphasis on marriage as the only acceptable sexual relationship extends to discussions on family structure. Although the authors recognize that many students are part of single-parent or blended families, FACTS nonetheless idealizes the traditional, two-parent, married family structure through in-depth coverage of the negative impact of divorce. In one lesson, teachers are instructed to put the following statements on the board for students to read:
The curricula explain that “The net impact of divorce on the partners affects not only them, but their children and society as a whole. There has been a tremendous overall negative effect on vast numbers of people because of divorce.”(FACTS Senior High, Teacher’s Edition, p. 163)
This discussion seems meant to impress upon students the importance of getting married and selecting a marriage partner carefully. However, many students will likely think of their own family when they read these statistics.
It is unfair to put the burden of family structure on students who, as children, have no control over their current family situation. There are may 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 FACTS. Suggesting that these young people will face a lifetime of difficulty will undoubtedly distress and alienate many students.
Sexual Orientation—Refusing to Accept Diversity
The focus on marriage suggests that the authors assume that all students in the class, as well as their families and friends, are heterosexual. This belief is reinforced by the fact that all references to sexual activity and arousal are specific to male-female couples.
FACTS briefly mentions sexual orientation and in so doing reveals numerous biases against homosexuality. The curricula define homosexuality as “a persistent and predominant attraction of a sexual-genital nature to persons of one’s own sex.” The failure to differentiate between sexual orientation and sexual behavior perpetuates the stereotype that homosexual relationships are less valuable than heterosexual relationships and cannot be meaningful or committed.
The authors go on: “Whether transmitted by genes or acquired through the environment, sexual indentity is not fully established until the late teens or early twenties…. Young persons may sense affection and even infatuation for a member of the same sex. This is not the same thing as ‘being’ homosexual. Any same sex ‘sexual experimentation’ can be confusing to young persons and should be strongly discouraged. (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. 72)
By defining homosexuality exclusively in terms of genital sex and then dismissing young people’s feelings, the curricula demean all gays and lesbians. This discussion may be very confusing for students who are questioning their own developing sexual identity as well as those growing up with gay or lesbian parents, family members, or friends. Moreover, gay and lesbian students, especially young men who have sex with men, are at increased risk for STDs, including HIV, yet by leaving them out of all discussions FACTS fails to provide these students with any realistic strategies for protecting themselves from such risks.
Pregnancy Options—Mandating Choices
The curricula cover teen pregnancy options in a limited, directive manner that focuses on the benefits of adoption and the irresponsibility of choosing to be a teenage parent. Although abortion is mentioned only briefly as a negative consequence of premarital sexual activity, the language used throughout the curricula suggests a clear anti-abortion bias.
Restrictions placed on curricula developed with Title X funds prohibit an in-depth discussion of abortion. However, the language used in FACTS demonstrates a clear anti-abortion bias. Although correct terminology for fetal development is provided and defined, the authors dismiss use of these “technical terms” in favor of “unborn child” and “tiny baby” claiming, “most people just say baby or unborn child.” (FACTS Senior High, Teacher’s Edition, p. 19)
Students are told that “conception, also known as fertilization, occurs when one sperm unites with one egg in the upper third of the fallopian tube. This is when life begins.” The curriculum goes on to say, “At conception, the baby came into being. Even though he or she was only the size and appearance of a pencil dot, the baby was a separate, genetically unique individual.” (FACTS Senior High, Student Handbook, p. 11)
Although presented as part of a detailed, scientific explanation of human reproduction, this language is neither medically nor legally accurate. Instead, it presents one set of beliefs as universal truths. Biased language against abortion is also used throughout the curricula’s discussion on adoption which is referred to as “the positive option.” Students are told to:
Consider the reality of the unborn child. Today, most young people recognize the danger associated with drinking and driving. They know that not only can you damage the vehicle, but hurt or kill the passengers and other innocent drivers, passengers or bystanders. Just as the driver has to consider how his or her action may affect others, people considering sexual activity must identify the risk involved to themselves and their partner. In addition, there is a third somebody that needs to be considered—the child that might be conceived as a result of the choice to have intercourse, whether contraceptives are used or not. We were all once unborn children…. (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. 141)
In addition, the curricula refer students faced with an unintended pregnancy to crisis pregnancy centers. These are community-based organizations set up to assist young pregnant women. Most crisis pregnancy centers have an anti-abortion agenda and many have ties to religious organizations. In addition, some crisis pregnancy centers are not honest about their stance on abortion.
Adoption & Teenage Parenting
The FACTS curricula continue to present clear biases when discussing adoption and teen parenthood. The middle school curriculum begins the discussion on “handling the unexpected” by explaining that “an out-of-wedlock pregnancy is always traumatic, but it doesn’t mean tremendous good cannot result. For example, adoption is rarely considered today. Yet, there are many people eager to adopt a child.” The curricula go on to discuss the benefits of adoption to the biological and adoptive parents, as well as the “unborn child” and support adoption as “a better all-around decision for both mother and child.” (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. 139)
In contrast, exercises focus heavily on the negative consequences of being a teenage parent. To emphasize this point, FACTS points out that teenage parents “are more likely to remain poor and uneducated, and more likely for their marriages to end in divorce.” (FACTS Middle School, Teacher’s Edition, p. 139) To further encourage adoption, FACTS dismisses a teen’s wish to keep a child as irresponsible:
Unfortunately, some young people view the pregnancy as the mistake and believe they must “pay for it” by raising a child they are ill equipped to parent. Many young women believe the “responsible” choice is to raise the child they conceived without looking at the long-term responsibilities and consequences for themselves and the children. Finally, in some groups of teens there is tremendous peer pressure to parent, rather than relinquish the child for adoption. (FACTS Middle School, Student Handbook, p. 64)
It is important to remember that many young people enrolled in the course may in fact already be pregnant or parenting a child. Telling these young people that they have made an irresponsible choice that will have a negative impact on themselves and their children can only serve to alienate these students from the program and the program’s messages. FACTS would better serve students by explaining the difficulties of teenage parenthood without wholly stigmatizing the teenage parent.
FACTS ends its discussion of pregnancy options by referring teenagers to parents, clergy, counselors, hospitals, and adoption services. The chapter summary suggests:
The ability to be a good parent has no relationship to one’s ability to give birth. Parenting takes more than good intentions, one has to take a lifelong view. Call a local adoption service and talk to someone to learn what is involved in adoption. (FACTS Senior High, Student Handbook, p. 71)
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 abortion and adoption, FACTS does not allow individuals to make informed, personal decisions.
I’m in Charge of the FACTS: Middle School Curriculum includes 14 chapters: “Maturity,” “Sex & Sexuality,” “Pressure Points,” “Self Respect,” “Knowing Your Values,” “Influence of Peers,” “Love, Infatuation, and Self-Control,” “Dating, Parties and Activities,” “Risk Taking—Sexual Behavior,” “Risk Taking—Harmful Substance Use,” “Managing Pressure,” “Handling the Unexpected,” “Sexual Decision-Making,” and “Rap Session.” The curriculum includes lesson guides that show program leaders how to divide it into a 15-day program for seventh-grade students and/or a 20-day program for eighth-grade students.
FACTS and Reasons: Senior High School Curriculum also includes 14 chapters: “Maturity,” “Sex & Sexuality,” “Pressure Points,” “Self Respect,” “Knowing Your Values,” “Present Relationships,” “Activities, Dating, and Parties,” “Risk Taking—Sexual Behavior,” “Risk Taking—Harmful Substance Use,” “Managing Pressure,” “Handling the Unexpected,” “Decision-Making,” “Marriage Preparation for Success,” and “Rap Session.” The curriculum includes lesson guides that show program leaders how to divide it into a 15-day program for ninth-grade students and/or a 20-day program for tenth-grade students.
The FACTS curricula contain more information on human sexuality than most fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage. They contain detailed explanations of puberty, reproduction, and anatomy. In addition, both curricula contain some positive messages about sexuality and affirm that sexuality is a natural and healthy part of life. They suggest, however, that sexual activity outside of marriage has inevitable negative consequences. In fact, the curricula simultaneously address substance use, advocating a “no-use” policy for both illegal substances and premarital sexual activity.
Curricula Strength—Involving Parents
The FACTS curricula offer a parent manual and promote parental involvement in the sexuality education process. Both curricula include “Parent Express” letters that are sent home before each lesson to describe the topic that will be covered and suggest points for discussion. Several homework activities also require parental participation. SIECUS believes that parents are, and should be, the primary sexuality educators of their children and applauds FACTS for promoting parental involvement and recognizing the importance of family communication about sexuality.
Experiential Exercises—Dramatizing Fear and Shame
FACTS uses a variety of teaching methods including small group discussions, brainstorming, role-playing, and quizzes. While FACTS claims to encourage critical thinking and skill development, many of its activities subvert these aims. Assumptions representing the opinions and beliefs of the authors clearly serve as the basis for many of these activities. For example students are asked to “brainstorm a list of negative consequences to premarital sexual activity.” Although the exercise appears to be asking students to think critically, it nonetheless operates on the assumption that premarital sex is inevitably harmful.
In fact, throughout the curricula students are consistently guided to conclusions provided by the authors. A closing statement from an activity in the “Knowing Your Values” section exemplifies this strategy: “When looking at sexual activity…it only makes sense that marriage is the only place for sexual activity to be enjoyed and free from negative consequences.” (FACTS, Senior High Teacher’s Edition, p. 65) These exercises fail to help students build the critical-thinking and decision-making skills they need in order to make responsible and healthy decisions about their sexuality throughout their lives.
In order to convince junior high and high school students to remain abstinent until marriage, the FACTS curricula provide incomplete and inaccurate medical information; present opinions and beliefs as universal truths; and portray a biased view of gender, marriage, family structure, sexual orientation, and pregnancy options. The format and underlying biases of the curricula do not allow for cultural, community, and individual values, and discourage critical thinking and discussion of alternative points of view in the classroom.
Ultimately, the FACTS curricula fall far short of meeting the needs of young people so that they may develop the skills and knowledge necessary to become sexually healthy adults.
“How to Respond to Criticism: THE TRUTH ABOUT FACTS,” (Portland: Northwest Family Services, 2001), accessed at http://www.nwfs.org.
Laumann, Gagnon, Michael & Michaels. The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994) p. 503.
J. Grunbaum, et. al., “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States, 2003,” Surveillance Summaries, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 53, no.SS-2, May 21, 2004, pp. 1-95, accessed at: http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dash/yrbs/.
J. L. Gerberding, Report to Congress: Prevention of Genital Human Papillomavirus Infection (Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2004), p. 6.
Ibid, pg. 17.
Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 1999. Division of STD Prevention, STD Surveillance, 1998 Department of Health and Human Services, (Atlanta: Center for Disease Control and Prevention, September 1999.)
“Condoms Get Better,” Consumer Reports, June 1999, p. 46.
Hatcher, R.A., et al. Contraceptive Technology, Seventeenth Revised Edition (New York: Irvington Publishers, Inc., 1998).
CDC Update, Questions and Answers on Condom Effectiveness (Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, January 1997).
Carey, R.F. et al., “Effectiveness of Latex Condoms as Barrier to Human-Immunodeficiency Virus-sized Particles under Conditions of Simulated Use,” Sexually Transmitted Diseases, 19, no. 4 (July/Aug. 1992), p. 230.