Heritage Keepers, Abstinence Education I is a fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum produced by Heritage Community Services, a South Carolina-based organization that created and utilizes The Heritage Method, A Systemic Approach to Changing Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Abstinence Outside of Marriage. This program identifies several reasons why teens engage in sexual activity outside of marriage, including “a general lack of community support that sends a decisive and unified message about abstinence” and “a lack of community programs that will enforce this message.” The organization states that both are necessary to combat the cultural emphasis on sex and sensuality.
Heritage Community Services produces two school-based components Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education I & II and Heritage Keepers Life Skills Education I-V. It also has several community outreach components; its “Parent Component” consists of home visits to promote character-based life skills education within families and its “Faith Component” is designed to bridge gaps in communication and knowledge with faith agencies to better equip faith leaders to address issues of abstinence. Finally, Heritage Community Service runs a media campaign, which consists of several 30-minute “infomercials” with testimonials from young people who have chosen to abstain. The slogan of the media campaign is: “If you knew better, you'd do better!”
SIECUS reviewed Heritage Keepers, Abstinence Education I, “a 450 minute curricula developed to equip and empower adolescents to abstain from sexual activity outside of marriage.” (Heritage Keepers, Teacher Manual, unnumbered page) The program includes five lessons: “Abstinence: The New Revolution,” “Family Formation,” “STD Facts,” “Perfect Boyfriend/Perfect Girlfriend vs. Perfect Husband/Perfect Wife,” and “the Safe Plan.” The curriculum utilizes materials produced by other conservative organizations, including a slide show and video produced by the Medical Institute (formerly the Medical Institute for Sexual Health), a video produced by Focus on the Family, and a video produced by the Human Development Resource Council.
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. Abstinence is one of 39 topics included in the Guidelines.
Heritage Keepers contains very little information about the majority of these topics, instead devoting most of its lessons to the economic, social, and emotional benefits of marriage and abstinence before marriage. The curriculum does include one lesson about anatomy that briefly covers a number of topics such as male and female reproductive system, menstruation, and reproduction. The curriculum contains little information or no information about other topics related to sexuality; even topics that are frequently discussed in detail in other abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, such as condoms and STDs, receive very little mention in this curriculum, although some are discussed in the supplemental materials.
The Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education Course is based on the idea that generations of immigrants have cleared the way for today's young people by building a great country full of opportunity. “Each generation accomplished something more than the generation before, they accepted the sacrifices it took to achieve greatness. They handed us a free country and gave us opportunities that were unheard of in the history of man….Considering how much we have been given, shouldn't we continue to improve our country.” Once a young person takes the Heritage Keeper course, he or she becomes known as a Heritage Keeper which is called both a privilege (“the training you will receive in the upcoming days sets you apart and you may even be looked up to as a role model”) and a responsibility. “Stand tall Heritage Keepers, because you have been given a gift—the hard work of your forefathers who made America great for us. Honor them by living up to their ideals, homes and dreams of success.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 1)
Unfortunately, instead of using this foundation to suggest that young people pursue an education, volunteer, or vote, Heritage Keepers suggests that the only way young people can succeed and be worthy of the sacrifices their ancestors made is by being abstinent until they are married. The curriculum defines abstinence as “not participating in any sexual activity outside of marriage.” Heritage Keepers should be applauded for clearly stating and frequently restating its definition of abstinence. At the same time, however, the curriculum never acknowledges that not all individuals, families, and communities agree that all sexual behavior outside of marriage is wrong.
In fact, this is far from a universal value. The vast majority of Americans begin having sexual relationships in their teens, fewer than seven percent of men and 20 percent of women ages 18–50 were virgins when they were married, and only 10 percent of adult men and 22 percent of adult women report their first sexual intercourse was with their spouse. It is likely this “standard” was never true in America; a third of all Pilgrim brides were pregnant when they were married.
The concept of chastity until marriage for all people may be unrealistic in an age when young people are reaching puberty earlier than ever before, when 63 percent of high school seniors have engaged in sexual intercourse, when 80 percent of college students ages 18–24 have engaged in sexual intercourse, and when the median age of first marriage is 27.1 for men and 25.3 for women.
Still, the curriculum insists that “Marriage is a true legal and moral commitment unlike any other.” In an exercise designed to help teens keep their commitment to abstinence outside of marriage, students examine possible arguments that people may make in favor of premarital sex. One such argument states “It is all right for people to have sex before marriage if they love each other and are really committed.” Rather than ask teens to actually explore how they feel about this statement, Heritage Keepers suggests that students reply to this argument by saying: “If we truly love one another, we will marry, and we can have sex with each other for the rests of our lives.” (Heritage Keepers, Teacher Manual, p. 55)
Throughout lessons like this which provides young people with prepared, “canned” responses, Heritage Keepers misses opportunities to encourage critical thinking and allow young people to explore their values and the values of their own families and communities. In fact, the authors tell teens that they are not capable of critical thinking or decision making. Students are told “A major part of your body is your brain, and recent research shows that your brain is not mature during the teen years--the decision-making capacity is still developing.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 36)
There is no evidence to suggest that simply telling teens not to engage in sexual intercourse before marriage will work. In addition, it is neither appropriate nor possible for sexuality education courses of teachers to make decisions for teens. Rather, sexuality education needs to equip teens with the knowledge and skills necessary for a lifetime of making healthy decisions consistent with their beliefs and the beliefs of their families and communities. And, it needs to ensure that teens understand that they are capable of and responsible for making such decisions.
Relying on Negative Messages
While the immediate goal of many sexuality education programs may be to delay students' initiation of sexual intercourse (possibly until marriage) or to increase their use of pregnancy- and disease-prevention methods, many programs also have the long-term goal of promoting sexual health. Because abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are often the only formal setting in which young people learn about sexuality, the information and messages in the curricula can have a lifelong impact on how they view sexuality.
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.”
Instead of presenting this kind of balanced, complete picture of abstinence and sexual activity, Heritage Keepers focuses on the inevitable of premarital sexual activity. The result is that students are instilled with fear and misunderstandings about sexual activity.
Messages of Fear—Trying to Scare Students
Heritage Keepers list as its academic goal “Adolescents who have participated in the 450-minute Heritage Keepers Abstinence Education course will be able to identify sexual activity outside of marriage as a risky behavior.” As part of the introduction to the course, teachers ask students “Why abstain from sexual activity until you're married?” The answer asks rhetorically, in part, “But did you know that sexual activity outside of the commitment of marriage could put YOUR FUTURE at risk?” (Heritage Keepers, Teacher Manual, unnumbered page)
In one exercise emphasizing this point, students are given the following list of consequences and asked to “circle the consequences that you DO NOT want in your life”: “Sexually Transmitted Viruses, Sexually Transmitted Bacteria, Cervical Cancer, AIDS, Legal and financial responsibility for a child until he or she is at least 18, raising a child alone, emotional hurt and regret, increased chance of abuse from a partner.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 35) Students are then asked to brainstorm additional consequences that they may want to avoid.
Heritage Keepers also emphasize the legal implications of sexual activity, “Similarly, because the consequences of sexual activity can be serious, it is illegal in most states in the United States to have sex with a minor. For example, in South Carolina, it is a felony for anyone 14 or older to perform a sexual act with anyone 15 or younger. Upon conviction, the court can fine that person or put him or her in prison for up to 15 years, even if the young person agreed to the sexual act.” (Heritage Keepers, Teacher Manual, 41)
Heritage Keepers uses a game to illustrate the likelihood of consequences if students engage in premarital sexual activity. Each student rolls a six-side die; the number that comes up corresponds to a particular consequence. Students who roll a one have contracted HIV, a two contracted Herpes, a three HPV, a four untimely pregnancy, a five infertility, and a six emotional pain. Students are then asked to examine how this game made them feel with questions like: “As the teacher calls out negative consequences, is there one you are hoping for?”; “How would it make you feel if, in the game of life, a doctor told you this consequence instead of your teacher?”; and “Consider the things you value—especially your family now. Write a few ways that the consequences mentioned could affect the people and things you value today and in the future.” After answering these questions, students are told simply that “Having sex outside of marriage is gambling with your future.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, 10). Although the teacher is told to point out that the statistical probabilities in this game are not indicative of real life, the message the game sends is clear: nobody engages in premarital sex without getting hurt.
Heritage Keepers uses an elaborate analogy of fire to underscore this point. The teacher is told to narrate a scene about fire in a fireplace as if the students are there and to use highly evocative words like “cozy,” “comfy,” “toasty,” “warm,” and “nice.” Students are asked to add to the scene describing the fire and how it makes them feel. The teacher then changes the scene to discuss the possibility of creating a fire in the middle of the living room and is told “Although building fire in a room without a fireplace is, of course, a ridiculous idea, the tone of your delivery and the details and explanations you include should treat it as reasonable. Mention sensible-sounding precautions, such as opening the windows for ventilation, building the fire in a trash can….” Despite these precautions the fire escapes from the “insufficient, provisional boundary” and the teacher is told narrate the “consequences, the burning of the room and its contents.” This time descriptions of the fire include “dangerous,” “painful,” “devastating,” and “scary.” (Heritage Keepers, Teacher Manual, p. 41)
Students are told that “Sex is like fire. Inside the appropriate boundary of marriage, sex is a great thing! Outside of marriage, sex can be dangerous!” They are then asked if they know anyone who has been hurt by fire and how that person felt or appeared. “You may have mentioned that he or she was scarred, hurt or burned. Do you know anyone who was hurt by sex? How did he or she feel?”: “Think of the reasons you gave for why fire can be negative. Could those same reasons fit with why sex can be negative?” Think about it. Sex can also make you feel in danger, scared, worried, and angry when it is outside of marriage.”(Heritage Keeper, Student Manual, p. 22)
This focus on and dramatization of the potential negative consequences of premarital sex is clearly designed to scare students rather than educate them.
Messages of Shame—Instilling Guilt
In addition to suggesting that sex outside of marriage is something to fear-- like a raging wild fire, other messages throughout the curriculum seem to suggest that it is something that young people should feel bad about. For example, students are told that the regret of having had sex outside of marriage “… sticks with them for the rest of their lives and sometimes affects their development as a person and their ability to have good relationships.” (Heritage Keeper, Student Manual, p. 60)
Students who have been sexually active are offered the option of secondary virginity: “This means you can physically, mentally and emotionally recommit to saving sex for marriage…Remember, you can never get your physical virginity back, but you can start over emotionally!” Although teachers are told to reassure students that they are not trying to make them feel bad or guilty, the curriculum nonetheless constantly sets up a dichotomy between abstinent teens and those who have been sexually active. Abstinent teens represent positive character traits such as being respectful, trustworthy, honest and faithful and have positive futures. Teens who continue to be sexually active, however, do not demonstrate these traits and will not reach their full potential.
We must remember that 47% of high school students, and 63% of high school seniors, have had sexual intercourse. It is inappropriate to suggest that these teens are less worthy of our love and respect than their abstinent peers.
Virginity Pledges—Asking Teens to Promise Chastity
Like many abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, Heritage Keepers includes a virginity pledge for its students. The last session, called “Your Commitment,” begins by telling students: “The time has come for you to decide what you are going to do about abstaining from sexual activity outside of marriage.” It goes on to say “Now is the time for you to make the commitment for the very best for yourself, to wait for the commitment of marriage to have sex…Make this commitment for yourself, for those you love and the ONE you marry.” The teacher then passes out commitment cards and asks students to sign them.
Research has found virginity pledges such as the one included in Heritage Keepers to be ineffective and potentially harmful. Recent studies have found that under certain conditions these pledges may help some adolescents delay sexual intercourse. When they work, pledges help this select group of adolescents delay the onset of sexual intercourse for an average of 18 months—far short of marriage. Researchers found that pledges only worked when taken by a small group of students. Pledges taken by a whole class were ineffective. More importantly, the studies also found that those young people who took a pledge were one-third less likely to use contraception when they did become sexually active than their peers who had not pledged. These teens are therefore more vulnerable to the risks of unprotected sexual activity such as unintended pregnancy and STDs, including HIV/AIDS. 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. The study also found that the STD rates were higher in communities where a significant proportion (over 20%) of the young people had taken virginity pledges.
Nonetheless, in an apparent attempt to convince young people to take this pledge, Heritage Keepers tells young people that “More than half of teens are committing to abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage.” (Heritage Keepers, Teacher Manual, p. 54). It is unclear where this statistic comes from as it is not cited to any research. While it is true that over half of all high school students have not engaged in sexual intercourse, this is not the same thing as having committed to sexual abstinence—either during high school or until marriage. In fact, by senior year 63% of high school students have had sexual intercourse. Some research estimates that approximately two million young people have taken such a pledge. It is worth noting that the latest research suggests that 53% of students who take a pledge deny having done so a year later most likely because they have engaged in sexual intercourse.
Withholding and Distorting Information
Heritage Keepers suggests that it can be used as a stand alone program yet it contains very little information about sexuality related topics, including those often covered in abstinence-only-until-marriage programs such as condoms and STDs.
The curriculum does spend a portion of one lesson discussing very basic concepts such as anatomy and reproduction. In what essentially is a glossary, students learn about erections, penis and testicular size, testicular lumps, circumcision, and impotence for men and PMS, dysmenorrhea, irregular periods, feminine hygiene products, toxic shock syndrome, and twins for women. Heritage Keepers should be applauded for included some positive messages in this lesson such as telling young people that nocturnal emissions are “a normal occurrence during puberty.” Students are also given pictures of the male and female reproductive organs and taught about such body parts such as the urethra, epididymis, and testes in a man and the vagina, cervix, and uterus in a woman.
While this lesson is a first step in educating young people about their bodies, it is clearly insufficient. In addition, it is worth noting that the although students are taught that women have external reproductive organs and internal reproductive organs, both of the drawings included in the section actually show the internal organs. Students learn the terms labia majora, labia minora, and clitoris but these body parts are never shown. It is unclear why the authors consider it appropriate to show drawings of external male genitalia that include a view of the penis and testes but refuse to show students what a female vulva looks like.
Condoms and Contraception—Failing to Provide Health Information to Teens
Most abstinence-only-until-marriage programs spend a great deal of time explaining to students why condoms do not work. Heritage Keepers never mentions condoms or other contraception methods. However, one of the videos used in the program, “Teens Giving Teens the Facts on Sex and STDs,” produced by the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, is described as teaching teens “the prevention limitations of condoms.” The STD slides used in the program, also produced by the Medical Institute, further stress this message.
It is clear that students are expected to learn about the failures of condoms in the Heritage Keeper program. A pre-post test questionnaire for South Carolina asks students “A condom will give 100% protection from which of the following? a. pregnancy, b. HIV, c. Herpes, d. none of the above.” While it is true that condoms cannot provide 100% protection from STDs or pregnancy, emphasizing condom failure as a way to motivate abstinence is likely to backfire. This teaching method seems to be based on the assumption that if adolescents believe that condoms and other contraceptive methods are ineffective; they will abstain from sexual activity. There is no reason to think that this is true. Such inaccurate information may instead discourage teens from using this important prevention method when they do become sexually active, thereby putting them at increased risk for unintended pregnancy and STDs, including HIV.
STDS—Providing Limited and Confusing Information
Heritage Keepers's lesson on STDs uses a selection of slides from “Sexual Health Today,” created by the Medical Institute for Sexual Health. Students are shown pictures of a pelvis scarred with PID, a damaged fallopian tube, HPV condylomas on a female and a male, Herpes lesions on a female and a male, a syphilis chancre on a man's lip, and an anal condyloma, among others.
By way of an introduction to the Medical Institute slide show the Student Manual states “George Washington was America's first president…. Fact. Both U.S., World Trade towers were hit by planes on September 11, 2001….Fact. The USA experienced a great financial depression during the 1930s…..Fact.” It then explains that “Facts are not created, invented or thought up: they are discovered. Regardless of anyone's opinions, a fact remains the same. Statistics are facts that indicate what is true about groups of people or things.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 31)
It is possible that the authors felt this introduction was necessary because many educators, including SIECUS, have criticized the Medical Institute's slide show for distorting facts. The slideshow focuses on worst case scenarios; students see pictures of STDs that have been left untreated for many years and hear descriptions of the medical procedures that have become necessary. While such information is factually accurate, it is nonetheless misleading to students. After such a presentation, students may not understand that STDs can be treated or cured before they lead to such long term health consequences and they may be less likely to seek treatment believing that treatment is both painful and futile. More importantly, however, they may not realize that they should seek treatment at the first sign of a problem—if students are left to believe that genital warts are the size cauliflower, they may not seek help if they discover a small, raised bump which is, in fact, how most cases of genital warts begin. Showing students multiple slides of severely disfigured genitalia is clearly designed to scare them not to educate them.
It is also worth noting that students do not see healthy genitalia as part of this slide show. They are shown a healthy cervix and fallopian tube in order to better understand what is wrong in the pictures of a cervix and fallopian tubes scared by STDs. Similar comparisons, however, are not used for external male or female genitalia. This may make it more difficult for young people to detect a problem and also sends a message that one's genitals, even if they are healthy, are something to be ashamed of.
A similar message of shame regarding STDs is presented in the “Pink Water Game.” The teacher prepares one clear plastic cup that is 1/3 full with ammonia. Each student is given a cup that is 1/3 full of water. Students are told to “swap fluids” with one another and the teacher by pouring their liquid into someone else's cup and swirling it around. Each student is told to swap fluids with three other people. One student, however, is taken aside by the teacher and told to abstain from the activity. After all students have swapped, the teacher is instructed to reveal that one cup was “infected” and that students “will find out who has been ‘contaminated.'” (Heritage Keeper, Teacher Manual, p. 51) This is revealed when the teacher puts a drop of the chemical phenolphthalein in each cup. Those that have some ammonia will turn pink. The teacher then discloses the name of the student who was abstinent, notes that his cup is not “contaminated,” and points out that while other students probably felt nervous about getting tested, the abstinent students had no questions about the results of his test. Once again, the curriculum is setting up a dichotomy in which students who are abstinent are good and those who have been sexually active are, in this case, contaminated.
Pregnancy—Refusing to Discuss Options
Heritage Keepers mentions pregnancy—specifically out-of-wedlock pregnancy--as a possible consequence of premarital sexual activity but never discusses the options that young people have should they face an unintended pregnancy. Students are told that “If before you took this course you had sexual intercourse and think you or your girlfriend might be pregnant, get help. A mother and developing baby need prenatal care!” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 19) While raising a child alone and being forced to pay child support are discussed as outcomes of premarital sex, neither abortion nor adoption is ever directly mentioned. The curriculum does, however, consistently use language that conveys an anti-choice message.
Heritage Keepers uses a video called “Preview of a Birth” which is produced by the Human Development Resource Council, a pro-life organization. The student manual introduces the video by saying “You are going to watch a video that explains, and actually shows you, how a new life develops after the sperm fertilized the egg.” It goes on to say “When you have sexual intercourse with someone there is a good chance that you could create an entirely new person—a living human being; a son or daughter.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 17) After viewing the video, students are asked leading questions such as “How did the Preview of a Birth video make you feel about the wonder of a new human life forming?” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 18)
Although fetal development is not discussed in detail, students are told that a baby's heart begins beating just three weeks after conception, that a baby's brain waves begin at about forty days after conception, and that every human being went through this development process before being born. (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 18)
Rather than relying on biased language and innuendo, Heritage Keepers would better serve students by providing an honest discussion of all options available to a young woman facing an unintended pregnancy.
In addition to relying on fear, shame, and inaccurate information, Heritage Keepers is based on a number of underlying biases and assumptions about marriage, family structure, gender, and sexual orientation. Presenting these biases as universal truths does little to inform students and instead fosters myths and misunderstandings.
Marriage—Mandating Future Relationships
Heritage Keepers is predicated on the belief that sexual activity is only appropriate in marriage. To convince young people to adhere to this standard, the curriculum spends a great deal of time discussing the importance of marriage. Students are told that “The marriage is union is different from all other relationships in that it involves an intellectual, emotional, social and familial union.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 28) The curriculum goes on to suggest that marriage is superior to all other relationships: “You could have a familial union with your parents, an emotional union with your best friend, a social union with a teammate, and an intellectual union with a chess partner. But in marriage you share all of these unions, and are bound to each other and the children you have together by a lifetime commitment.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 29) Contrary to the curriculum's suggestion, other relationships, such as the relationship between parents and children, can, in fact, contain all of these components and a lifetime commitment.
To convince students about the importance of marriage, Heritage Keepers frequently repeats research that suggests that married people have better sex. Students are told that “married people are significantly more likely to say their sex life makes them feel ‘satisfied,' ‘loved' ‘thrilled,' ‘wanted,' and taken care of,” and that “Those who have sex outside of marriage are more likely ‘to report sex making them feel sad, anxious or worried, scared or afraid, or guilty.'” (Heritage Keepers, Teacher Manual, p. 43) The curriculum goes on to suggest that “Of all sexually active people, married people with only one life-time partner are most likely to report they are ‘extremely' or ‘very' satisfied with the amount of physical and emotional pleasure they experience in their sex lives.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 25) Many of these statistics are attributed to Glenn T. Stanton. Stanton is the Director of Global Insight for Cultural and Family Renewal and the Senior Analyst of Marriage and Sexuality at Focus on the Family, a well-known far right organization.
Heritage Keepers spends an equal amount of time criticizing cohabitation as it does defending marriage. Students are asked “whether they think cohabitation, which may include aspects of each type of union, provides the same relationship and union as marriage.” While this may seem like an attempt to allow students to explore their own values and values of their families, there is, in fact, a “correct” answer to this question. Students are told in no uncertain terms that “Cohabitation (when two people live together before marriage) is not like marriage!” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 30) Statements used to back this up include: “When couples live together outside of marriage, the relationships are ‘weaker, more violent, less [equal], and more likely to lead to divorce” and “People who live together before marriage experience ‘significantly more difficulty in their marriage with adultery, alcohol, drugs and independence [not wanting to depend on each other for anything] than those who do not live together.'” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 26) These exact statements are repeated four pages later, indicating that they are very important.
The curriculum's focus seems misplaced as few middle school and high school students must decide whether to move in with a partner. More importantly, however, opposition to cohabitation is clearly not a universally held value as 11 million Americans reported living with a partner outside of matrimony in 2000. Once again, the curriculum is presenting one opinion as truth rather than allowing students to explore their values and the values of their parents and communities.
Throughout this discussion, Heritage Keepers seems to be blurring the line between correlation and causality. Students are told “that only 3% of people who did not engage in premarital sex were unfaithful to their spouse, but 18% of people who engaged in premarital sex ‘fairly often' with someone other than their spouse were unfaithful to their marriage partner.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 26) Similarly, students learn that “The divorce rate of women who live with their partners before marriage is eighty percent higher than the rates for women who do not.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 26) Statement such as these imply that premarital sex causes infidelity and that cohabitation causes divorce. In fact, the curriculum states “Actually, practicing sex outside of marriage increases the chance of infidelity within marriage…it establishes a pattern.” (Heritage Keepers, Teacher Manual, p. 56)
Correlation, the connection of statistics, does not imply causation; statistical trends are often affected by factors outside the consideration of the study. Suggesting that cohabitation causes divorce because that those who live together before marriage are more likely to get divorced does not take into account the fact that couples who don't believe in cohabitation before marriage are also less likely to find divorce a socially acceptable solution to an unhappy marriage.
Despite this, the curriculum insists that premarital sexual activity and cohabitation are the cause of bad marriages and societal problems, it even attempts to explain why: “One reason may be that when people bond closely through sexual activity, then break up and bond with someone else, and then someone else, it may become increasingly difficult to maintain a lasting bond.” (Heritage Keepers, Teacher Manual, p. 56)
One of the most disturbing misuses of statistics involves women who are forced to perform sexual acts. The curriculum explains “According to the data, 9% of married women are forced by their spouse to perform sexual acts, however 46% of women report that someone they were being “in love with” forced them to have sex against their will, and 22% of women report being forced to do so by someone they “knew well.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 25) The curriculum inaccurately attributes this statistics to a survey of South Carolinians by the Palmetto Family Council. While this appears on that organization's website, it is not their original research. In fact, it is a misinterpretation of statistics from Sex in America: A Definitive Survey. As stated the statistic seems to say that at least 77% of women were forced to “have sex.” The actual statistic is based on a survey of over 1,500 women which found that approximately 325 of them had ever been forced to perform a sexual act. The survey looked at 204 of these women more closely to determine the relationship between them and the individual who forced them to engage in sexual acts; it found that 4% reported it was a stranger, 9% a marriage partner, 19% an acquaintance, 22% someone they “knew well,” and 46% someone they were “in love with.” The authors of the survey use this statistic to emphasize the point that few women are forced into sexual activity by strangers.
Heritage Keepers, in contrast, interprets this to mean that “marriage is a protective factor for women.” Again, this is a misinterpretation of statistics. Furthermore, even if married women as a whole face fewer incidences of sexual assault, for women in abusive relationships, marriage provides no protection. In fact, according to the United Nations Family Planning Association, in the United States, the prevalence of coercive intercourse among battered women is at least 40 percent.
Heritage Keepers presentation on marriage is clearly biased and designed to promote one limited point of view rather than educate students and help them explore what they want for their future based on their own values.
Family Structure—Depicting Non-Traditional Families as Troubled
Heritage Keepers' emphasis on the importance of marriage easily extends to suggestions that married, two-parent families are the only acceptable family structure. Students are told that the word union means the joining of two separate things to make a whole and that specifically, the marriage union is the joining together of a man and a women. The Student Manual then asks “What whole is created in the marriage union?” “The answer: Through marriage a new family is created, making one “whole” (complete) family.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 27) Heritage Keepers underscores this point when it explains that marriage creates an intellectual, emotional, social, and familial union. The familial union is described as “involving living together as a new family unit. In a familial union, you live in one household, and typically share the same name. Children born to the two of you will be part of your new family.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 28)
While this discussion is aimed at directing the future life choices of young people, many of the students will likely see the implications towards their own family structures. There are many reasons that a student may live in a family that does not match the ideal model espoused by Heritage Keepers. It is unfair and potentially harmful to suggest to young people—who as children have no control over their current familial situation—that their families are any less valuable than others.
Gender Stereotypes—Teaching Restrictive Gender Roles
Heritage Keepers devotes one lesson to discuss what makes men men and women women. Although the lesson seems to be trying to help young people move past some generic stereotypes it ultimately reinforces them. Students are asked to list the qualities of a “real man,” some anticipated answers include men like football, men can't dress themselves, and men have muscles. The curriculum is quick to tell students that these aren't true of all men: “Could a ‘real man' dress himself? Certainly! The clothing world is full of men who are very good at dressing themselves—and others! Those who work in factories that make beautiful cloth, those who sell clothing at malls; the list is very long.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 49) Similarly, the curriculum insists that “real woman” does not have to like shopping, be emotional, or like jewelry: “Of course, there are women who are much less emotional than some men. There are women who calculate statistics, are in charge of military outfits and who counsel others all day. It is crucial tat (sic) they not give in to emotions so they can keep a clear head and make decisions.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 49)
Unfortunately, Heritage Keepers discussion on what actually makes a real man or a real woman is no less stereotypical than the original suggestions it anticipated from students. Men, it says, are strong, respectful, and courageous. And, “a man protects.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 52) In contrast, a “real woman” knows herself, is confident, sends a clear message, and is caring. (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 55)
These gender stereotypes seem to dictate how men and women think about and relate to each other. The curriculum illustrates this with a guided imagery exercise in which young people are told to imagine their wedding day. The story for guys starts: “You are standing in front of everyone looking good in your tuxedo, but wishing your collar was not so tight.” It continues: “The doors swing open and there stands your bride in her white dress, looking more gorgeous than you have ever seen her. Even though every eye in the place is on her she is looking at you. This is the woman you have waited for who has waited for you…This woman loves you and trusts you with all that she is and all that she has. You want to be strong, respectful and courageous for her. With all your heart, you want to protect her, and by waiting you have.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 59)
The story for girls goes a little differently: “Everything is just as you have seen it in a million daydreams…The flowers you spent so much time choosing fill the room like soft perfume.” It goes on until the wedding march begins and the bride takes her father's arm: “Your true love stands at the front. This is the man who you have waited for and who has waited for you…This man wants to be strong and courageous for you, to cherish and protect you. You love him. You are ready to trust him with all that you have and all that you are, because you have waited you have it all to give.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 49)
The differences in these stories highlight the ways in which the curriculum suggests that men and women do and should relate to each other. In both stories, the man is ready to protect and take care of the woman who is described as giving her trust and herself to him. He will be courageous, she will be cherished, he will protect her, she will be protected. With such messages the curriculum is perpetuating age-old gender stereotypes in which men are active providers and women are passive and need to be taken care of. This view does not accurately reflect the variety in today's relationships and as such it does not give students the opportunity to freely determine what their ideal relationship would look like.
Details in the story for girls emphasize another message; one of guilt and shame. “Finally it's your matron of honor's turn to go…it reminds you of her wedding. How strange it felt when she told you, long ago, that she was marrying your first boyfriend.” When the doors open and she sees her groom, the bride realizes that she can't even remember her ex-boyfriend's name and she is pleased because “There is no guilt in your past, nothing you did with that ex-boyfriend makes you cringe. You never let yourself forget that the promise of love cannot fill the place of a vow and a ring.” The message is clear: had this young women engaged in premarital sex she would have something to feel ashamed of, to make her cringe. It's important to note that the story for guys did not contain any similar messages of shame.
In fact, the curriculum frequently gives different messages about sex to men and women. Students are told that “Males and females are aroused at different levels of intimacy. Males are more sight orientated whereas females are more touch orientated.” The implications of this difference are explained: “This is why girls need to be careful with what they wear, because males are looking! The girl might be thinking fashion, while the boy is thinking sex. For this reason, girls have a responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn't invite lustful thoughts.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 46)
Such statements reinforce societal double standards in which young women do not desire sex and young men cannot control their sexual behavior. By reiterating these ideas, the curriculum places all of the responsibility for refusing sexual activity on the shoulders of young women. Heritage Keepers would better serve students by reminding them that both men and women are sexual beings and are equally responsible for making decisions regarding sexual activity and relationships.
Heritage Keepers presentation of gender differences is detrimental to all young people by limiting their options, influencing their behavior, and coloring their expectations for future relationships
Sexual Orientation—Refusing to Acknowledge Diversity
The emphasis Heritage Keepers places on marriage as the only appropriate venue for sexual activity shows a clear bias against homosexuality. The curriculum consistently ignores gay and lesbian individuals who cannot legally marry in this country. It operates under the assumption that all students in the class, or all people in the world for that matter, are heterosexual. All references to sexual activity, arousal, and relationships are specific to male-female couples. For example, one exercise asks male students to imagine their perfect girlfriend and wife and asks female students to imagine their perfect boyfriend and husband. “After talking about what the opposite sex thinks is important, discuss what most surprised you about what they say they want in a boyfriend or girlfriend.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 42) Students are also told that “The strong attraction between men and women is part of what makes marriage so wonderful.” (Heritage Keepers, Student Manual, p. 48)
Such exercise not only ignore but serve to further marginalize and alienate gay and lesbian students who are essentially told that they can never have a socially acceptable sexual relationship. Rather than teaching a narrow view of sexuality confined to heterosexual marriage, sexuality education should teach students that sexuality is a natural and healthy part of everybody's life regardless of their sexual orientation. 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, Heritage Keepers fails to provide these students with any realistic strategies for protecting themselves from such risks.
In order to convince adolescents to remain abstinent until marriage, Heritage Keepers relies on messages of fear and shame, inaccurate and misleading information, and biased views of marriage, family structure, gender, and sexual orientation. In addition, Heritage Keepers fails to provide important information on sexual health. Finally, the format and underlying biases of the curriculum do not allow for cultural, community, and individual values, and discourage critical thinking and discussions of alternative points of view in the classroom.
Ultimately, Heritage Keepers falls far short of helping young people develop the skills and knowledge they need to become sexually healthy adults.
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John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).
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Robert T. Michael, et. al., Sex in America: A Definitive Survey (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1994), p. 225, figure 21.
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