Navigator : Finding Your Way to A Healthy and Successful Future is an abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum for high school students. This curriculum was designed as a follow-up program to A.C. Green's Game Plan, an abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum for middle school students. The curriculum includes a Guide Book for teachers and a workbook for students. There are eight sections in Navigator, designed to be taught during one class period each: “Vision,” “Clarity,” “Direction,” “Safety,” “Strength,” “Character,” “Companionship,” and “Destination.”
Navigator, written by Libby Gray and Scott Phelps who also wrote Game Plan, is produced and distributed by Project Reality, a non-profit organization that “specializes in the development, teaching and evaluation of abstinence programs.” Navigator is intended for use in public schools and is widely used in Illinois. Project Reality receives federal abstinence-only-until-marriage funding through the Community-Based Abstinence Education grant program and designs their curricula to comply with all eight components of the federal definition of abstinence education (see box below). According to the organization's website, 102,894 students in 522 schools throughout Illinois participated in its programs during the 2004-2005 academic year.
SIECUS curricula reviews are based on the Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, K-12, which were developed by a task force of professionals from the fields of education, medicine, youth services, and sexuality education. The Guidelines are a framework for comprehensive sexuality education programs and represent a consensus about the necessary components of such programs. The Guidelines include 39 topics important to sexual health; abstinence is one of these topics. The Guidelines include a number of age-appropriate messages about abstinence for students such as: “Young teenagers are not mature enough for a sexual relationship that includes intercourse”; and “Abstinence from intercourse has benefits for teenagers.”
Navigator addresses some of the important topics included in the Guidelines such as the influence of the media, sexually transmitted diseases, drugs and alcohol, and relationship skills; however, the curriculum focuses even these discussions on the “character strengths” associated with choosing to remain sexually abstinent until marriage and continually portrays sexual activity outside of marriage as destructive to future goals and dreams. Other important subjects relevant to sexuality such as sexual abuse, reproduction, contraceptive options, and sexual orientation are not sufficiently addressed.
Relying on Negative Messages
Formal sexuality education offered in schools, community centers, or churches often represents the only opportunity that young people have to learn facts about sexuality and explore values regarding sexual activity. The messages they receive in these programs contribute to their sexual health not only as adolescents, but also as adults. Rather than present a balanced, complete picture of both abstinence and sexual activity, Navigator employs negative, fear-based messages and ineffective teaching tools to discourage sexual activity.
The authors make it clear that the curriculum's definition of abstinence always refers to refraining from all sex outside of marriage: “Abstinence isn't about saving sex until you're ‘ready,' ‘mature,' ‘older,' or ‘twenty-one.' None of these options can provide protection from the consequences of sexual activity. Saving sex until marriage to an uninfected person offers protection from STDs and other consequences of sexual activity.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 29) In one activity, Navigator states that “abstinence is the safest and healthiest lifestyle,” and asks students if this is a fact or an opinion. In suggesting this is a fact, the curriculum explains “opinions aren't really important—facts matter.” (Navigator, workbook, p. 29)
While it is a fact that avoiding all sexual behavior will prevent STDs and unintended pregnancy, the idea that all sex outside of marriage is wrong is clearly opinion. Nonetheless, Navigator dedicates a great deal of its time with students to suggesting that premarital sex will inevitably ruin young people's lives.
Messages of Fear—Portraying sex as inevitably harmful
Throughout the curriculum, Navigator portrays sexual activity outside of marriage as a behavior akin to drinking alcohol, using drugs, and smoking. One activity asks students to identify from a list of activities which behaviors will have benefits and which negative consequences. Beneficial behaviors included donating blood, saving money, getting a summer job, reading a book, and playing in a band. Having sex is listed with problematic behaviors such as using foul language, copying someone else's paper, and spreading rumors. Students are asked what will happen if they make poor choices, and the suggested answer states, “sometimes I think I can make poor choices and not suffer any negative consequences, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that eventually those poor choices will probably catch up with me, and have negative effects in my life.” (Navigator, workbook, p. 13)
Navigator should be commended for helping young people explore their future and encouraging them to set goals. Unfortunately, this beneficial discussion is continually undermined by the assertion that sexual activity outside of marriage will inevitably destroy any chance a young person had for success. Using a “family, big house, and lots of money” as a desired destination, Navigator walks young people through an explanation of how sex will prevent these goals from becoming reality. In addition to listing pregnancy, STDs, HIV/AIDS, infertility, and cervical cancer as physical outcomes, the curriculum tells young people that having sex outside of marriage has emotional, mental, and social impacts as well. According to Navigator, premarital sex will lead to emptiness, depression, low self-esteem, loneliness, a broken heart, anger, bitterness, stress, worry, fear, regret, pressure, confusion, distraction, a bad reputation, loss of friends, rumors, gossip, poor grades, withdrawal, and parental conflict. (Navigator, workbook, p. 34) Students are asked to think about how each of these things might personally affect them because “it is easy for students to think of ways sexual activity could affect another person, but it tends to be more difficult for them to consider how they could be affected.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 35) The workbook suggests the following answers for how sex would impact a student mentally and emotionally: “the stress would make it hard to concentrate on my schoolwork or to have other relationships,” and “the feeling of loneliness would make me withdraw from my friends and become depressed.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 35)
In addition to explaining problems with premarital sex, Navigator also devotes a disproportionate amount of time to discussing the evils of pornography. The curriculum asserts that watching pornography will be destructive to personal goals and mental health. The workbook states, “researchers have scientifically documented that viewing pornography actually changes the neurological structure of your brain. It can affect your character, your self-image, your view of others and of the world around you.” (Navigator, workbook, p. 24) Navigator's assertion that pornography is unacceptable, abnormal, and destructive is clearly designed to scare students rather than inform them and is likely to undermine what is otherwise a good lesson on understanding the influence of the media.
Still, the curricula goes on to assert that pornography will quickly and unavoidably become an addiction, “viewing pornography can become a chemical addiction that overcomes and overwhelms its users to the point of helplessness. Although many teens start out only experimenting with a little bit of porn, its powerful effect on the structure and development of the teen brain traps them in a cycle of dependency which they find they are unable to break.” (Navigator, workbook, p. 24) To underscore this point, the curriculum tells the following story of a frog:
If you boil a pot of water and toss a frog in the pot, the frog will immediately jump out. However, if you put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly bring the pot to a boil, the frog will die. Why? What happened to the frog in the kettle? The change in water temperature happened slowly, incrementally. Because the change was gradual, the frog did not realize what was happening. (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 20)
Sexual Arousal—Describing sex as an uncontrollable force
Unfortunately, Navigator contains similar messages about sexual behavior itself. The curriculum asserts that “any type of sexual activity can spread STDs, can cause emotional bonding, and can lead to sexual intercourse.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 29) It uses several activities to emphasize this message that “the farther you go physically, the more difficult it is to stop and say no to having sex.” (Navigator, workbook, p.73) In one activity designed to demonstrate the difficulty of resisting temptation, students each receive one Hershey's kiss. They are instructed to smell the chocolate, take the tiniest bite possible, wrap it up again, and put it away. Students are encouraged to not eat the candy, and the teacher is told to give extra candy to those students who have not eaten the kiss by the end of class. The curriculum suggests that at least one student will eat the entire kiss immediately, and recommends pointing to that student as an example of the difficulty of using self-control. The curriculum offers the following analysis of the analogy between sexual activity and eating chocolate: “sex is good – every part of it. But we've been talking about the damage it can do in the wrong context. That's why choosing abstinence will be easier if you minimize physical contact. Obviously, you can smell and taste the chocolate and still manage not to eat it, but it's definitely harder that way.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 28)
The curriculum then provides a continuum of sexual behavior; printed along a shaded line that starts out as light pink and then darkens to a deep red are the following steps, “Holding hands > Hugging > Kissing > Deep Kissing > Sexual Activity > Sexual Intercourse.” (Navigator, workbook, p. 73) The curriculum has students place a line indicating where they think a friend should stop if he or she wants to remain abstinent. The Guide Book recommends that teachers “place a line between kissing and deep kissing. Next to the line, write ‘this is where most teens encourage other teens to draw the line in order to avoid arousal and be successful at abstinence.'” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 73)
A second activity further depicts the “steps to physical intimacy;” students are instructed to put the following ten cards, color-coded according to the level of caution required, in order:
In addition to depicting sexual arousal as an uncontrollable force, these discussions miss several important opportunities. First, although the authors may have intended oral sex to be included under sexual intercourse, many teens may not realize this. In fact, oral sex is a growing concern for health educators because recent research shows that teenagers are not aware of the risks of STD transmission. This activity could have provided teens with important information about oral sex. Moreover, this exercise does not provide room for students to discuss the possibility that in some relationships sexual behavior may take other forms or progress in different orders and as such misses a critical opportunity to help teens explore responsible sexual decision making.
Instead, the curriculum describes the two steps in the orange zone as “the point where the hormones start to kick in and challenge your decision to be abstinent…You can help yourself by deciding to back off a bit – talk, go for a walk, communicate your feelings – so that you don't get swept into a more intimate physical relationship.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 73) Then it goes on to say that the red cards mean “stop,” and informs students that “genital contact and sexual stimulation are intended by nature to lead the way to intercourse. Do you know how many young people have said, ‘I'm not going to go all the way' then found that once they got into the red zone it was too late to stop?” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 73)
This is perhaps the most dangerous message teens can be given about sexual activity: in suggesting that teens have no control over their actions, it actually discourages them from making wise sexual decisions and taking responsibility for their behaviors. Young people need to know that at any point in a relationship, and at any point during sexual activity, they have the right and the ability to set their own sexual boundaries and that it is their responsibility to do so.
Messages of Shame—Depicting individuals that choose abstinence as superior
The authors state in the introduction that “rather than focus solely on the negative factors involved in pre-marital sexual activity, we have again sought to accentuate the positive benefits to be gained through sexual abstinence. Students understand that the self-control that enables them to remain abstinent until marriage is the same self-control that is necessary to accomplish their academic and professional goals.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p.4) Although this may have been well intentioned, the end result is that the curriculum sets up a dichotomy between those who wait to have sex until they are married who are portrayed as virtuous and good, and those who do not who are portrayed as flawed and unhealthy.
Every time the curriculum asserts that abstinence is evidence of a good character trait it implies that sexual activity is evidence of the opposite. For example, the workbook asks students to explain how remaining abstinent until marriage demonstrates several character qualities. The Guide Book provides the following answers:
Self control: Abstinence shows the ability to manage your own impulses.
Patience: Abstinence shows you are willing and able to wait for things you want and to delay gratification.
Respect: Abstinence shows that you have regard for yourself and for the other person because you value your physical and emotional health.
Responsibility: Abstinence shows that you understand that rights and responsibilities go together and that you know you are in charge of your own decisions.
Trustworthiness: Abstinence shows that you can be depended on, even when what you want is in conflict with what is good for you and the other person. (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 62)
While in some instances abstinence may be indicative of these character traits, it is unfair to imply that anyone who becomes sexually active before marriage lacks self-control, self-respect, or patience or is irresponsible and untrustworthy. Navigator not only suggests this but also advises that students who have sex before marriage will become the object of rumors and derision. Students are asked how the decision to be sexually active will impact them emotionally and socially, suggested answers include “I wouldn't like people talking about me or expecting me to act a certain way because of a bad reputation.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 35)
It is important to remember that 47% of all high school students and 61% of high school seniors have engaged in sexual activity, and it is therefore likely that some of Navigator 's participants will be sexually active. It is unfair and inappropriate to imply that these teens lack self-respect and self-control and are incapable of maintaining a healthy, long-term relationship. And it is inexcusable for an educational program to suggest that their peers should look down upon them.
Virginity Pledges—Asking students to promise purity
Navigator, like many fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, includes a virginity pledge, in which students vow to remain abstinent until they marry. At the end of the student workbook, there is an action list that includes the following pledge: “In order to protect my future and help me accomplish my goals, I choose to be sexually abstinent from this day forward until marriage.” (Navigator, workbook, p. 83)
Recent research has found that virginity pledges can help a select group of young people delay intercourse under certain circumstances. Pledges taken by an entire class as part of a lesson or presentation, however, were not found to be effective. Moreover, even when they work, pledges only help this select group of adolescents delay the onset of intercourse for an average of 18 months—far short of marriage.
In fact, virginity pledges may be detrimental to some teens. The study also found that those young people who took the pledge were one-third less likely to use contraception when they did become sexually active than their peers who had not pledged. Further research has confirmed that although some students who take pledges delay intercourse, ultimately they are equally as likely to contract an STD as their non-pledging peers. In addition, pledgers who remained “virgins” (did not engage in vaginal intercourse) were more likely to have engaged in oral and anal sex than non-pledging “virgins.” Far from providing a solution to the complex problems of unintended pregnancy and disease transmission, these simplistic pledges are undermining the use of contraception among teens, potentially exposing them to greater harm.
In addition, these pledges are not appropriate for all students, as they show blatant disregard for gay and lesbian students who cannot legally marry in this country. Signing this pledge is tantamount to agreeing to a lifetime without sexual behavior. It is unfair and unrealistic to ask a high school student to make such an agreement.
Unlike many abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, Navigator contains very little information about topics related to sexuality such as puberty, reproduction, or contraception. The information contained in the curriculum is limited to brief discussions on STDs and condoms. Although for the most part the information is accurate and cites reliable sources, it is presented in a distorted way that is likely to mislead and confuse students.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases—Misleading students
Navigator's discussion of STDs is incomplete and once again relies on fear rather than facts. The curriculum states “any type of sexual activity can spread STDs from one person to another.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 40) In its own definition of abstinence, however, Navigator says “sexual activity refers to any type of genital contact or sexual stimulation including, but not limited to, sexual intercourse.” Given that such a broad definition could easily encompass masturbation in front of a partner, petting with clothes on, or a particularly good foot massage, telling students that all sexual activity can spread STDs is neither accurate nor informative. Students would be better served by an open and honest discussion of the means of STD transmission and the level of risks associated with a variety of sexual behaviors.
The curriculum uses several examples depicting worst-case scenarios to further emphasize the potential danger of STDs. For example, it includes a story about a young girl who contracted Human Papilloma Virus (HPV ) and developed cervical cancer. The character's mother explains, “the doctor has done the first scrape of her cervix. If this procedure does not remove all of the cancer, she will need to have a full hysterectomy in order to remove all the cancer, in which case Sherri will never be able to have children.” The mother goes on to say “nobody ever told me that HPV was the leading STD in America today, and that it could cause cervical cancer.” (Navigator, workbook, p. 48) Unfortunately, students using the Navigator curriculum may not be any better informed than Sherri's mother because the curriculum seems to suggest that HPV inevitably causes cancer. According to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the majority of HPV infections resolve themselves spontaneously and do not lead to any long term consequences. The report explains: “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.” A note in the Guide Book explains this accurately to teachers, but it is unclear if this important distinction is intended for students.
More importantly, Navigator never explains how important it would have been for Sherri to receive annual gynecological exams that include Pap smears which screen for pre-cancerous cells on the cervix. 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.
Navigator does acknowledge that many STDs have no symptoms and that most teens have never been tested for STDs. The curriculum fails, however, to take the next step and provide teens with information on how and where to obtain STD testing and treatment. Overall, Navigator's discussion on STDs is incomplete and not helpful to teens.
Condoms and Contraception—Discouraging use
Navigator provides very little information on condoms and virtually no information on other forms of contraception. When discussed, the curriculum exaggerates failure by suggesting that contraception does not adequately protect teens against pregnancy, that condoms cannot protect against STDs, and that no contraceptive method can prevent the emotional consequences that are associated with premarital sexual activity.
Navigator asserts the dangerous position that teens should not use contraceptives. The Guide Book states “ Navigator does not promote the use of contraceptives for teens. No contraceptive device is guaranteed to prevent pregnancy. Besides, students who do not exercise self-control to remain abstinent are not likely to exercise self-control in the use of a contraceptive device.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 36)
Once again the curriculum is discounting sexually active teens by suggesting that they lack self-control and will not be able to use contraception reliably. It is unconscionable for an education program to deny young people vital information about pregnancy and disease prevention simply because the authors disapprove of the decisions those students have made.
Given this attitude, it is not surprising that Navigator uses its discussion of condoms to discredit this important method of pregnancy and disease prevention. It begins this discussion by analyzing the label on a typical box of condoms which states “if used properly, latex condoms will help to reduce the risk of transmission of HIV infection (AIDS) and many other sexually transmitted diseases. Also highly effective against pregnancy.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 46) The Guide Book prompts the teacher to ask the students “what kinds of things have warnings? The answer: “Things that are dangerous.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 46)
This activity is weak and misguided. Today, all pharmaceuticals from aspirin to vitamins have warnings as do plastic shopping bags and coffee cups from fast food restaurants. Warnings are given so that individuals use a variety of products correctly and responsibly. The curriculum goes on to ask, “what then is the condom company saying about its product?” The answer: “Warning—potential danger ahead. While we do not promise to protect you from anything, you should be aware that if you have sex and use a condom you are at risk for contracting an STD.” Clearly the authors' intention was not to educate students but to breed mistrust in condoms.
The authors go on to suggest that all forms of birth control are likely to fail: “most unintended pregnancies (53%) occurred among women who were using birth control.” (Navigator, workbook, p. 36) This is a clear manipulation of facts. The statistic cited by Navigator shows that more than 3 million unintended pregnancies occur each year. And it is true that the 39 million women who are classified as method users account for 53% of these unintended pregnancies. What Navigator does not tell women is that the 3 million women who use no contraceptives account for almost as many (47%) of these unintended pregnancies. Navigator is misleading students in two important ways. First, when reading the entire statistic it becomes clear that women who do not use contraceptives are much more likely to experience an unintended pregnancy, as this small group of women account for a disproportionate percent of the unintended pregnancies each year. Second, while the women included in the 53% were considered “method users” it is not accurate to refer to them as “women using birth control.” The term “method user” is based on “average” behavior. It is important to remember these women may not have been using their birth control method or may not have been using it correctly when they became pregnant.
Rather than distort the facts, Navigator would better serve students by explaining that there are many methods of contraception that can provide protection against unintended pregnancy and that there are steps that sexually active individuals can take (such as using contraception consistently and correctly) to decrease their chances of experiencing an unintended pregnancy.
Navigator also repeatedly claims that condoms cannot be relied upon for disease prevention. The curriculum backs up this assessment by showing four graphs. The first graph depicts how condom use among two age groups (ages 15-19 and ages 20-44) increased between 1982 and 1995. The next graphs show how rates of Chlamydia and gonorrhea increased during the same time, especially among 15-19 women. The curriculum suggests: “if condoms were effective against STDs, the increase in condom usage would correlate to a decrease in STDs overall—which is not the case. Rather as condom usage has increased, so have rates of STDs.” (Navigator, workbook, p. 47)
Although on the surface this may seem logical, it overlooks many factors such as increased screening and improved testing that account for an increase in reported cases of Chlamydia and gonorrhea. As in their discussion of birth control, the authors use these graphs to imply a causal relationship where none has been proven to exist. In addition, implying that condoms do not provide protection from Chlamydia and gonorrhea is simply inaccurate. In fact, in a recent fact sheet, the CDC states that, “latex condoms when used consistently and correctly, can reduce the risk of transmission of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis.”
The curriculum goes on to provide inaccurate information about condoms and HPV. It states, “condoms are ineffective in preventing the spread of HPV because it is a highly contagious STD which can infect the entire genital region and can be passed by skin to skin contact.” (Navigator, workbook, p. 45) However, a new report by CDC explains that while condoms cannot provide complete protection from HPV because infections may occur on sites not covered by a condom, they remain an important prevention tool. The report explains that “laboratory studies have demonstrated that latex condoms provide an essentially impermeable barrier to particles the size of HPV” and that “studies of HPV infection in men demonstrate that most HPV infections are located on parts of the penis that would be covered by a condom.” In addition, the use of latex condoms has been associated with a reduction of HPV-associated diseases such as cervical cancer.
Emotional Consequences of Sexual Activity
In addition to claiming that condoms are not effective at preventing pregnancy and cannot be trusted to protect from disease, Navigator insists that condoms do not protect against the emotional consequences of premarital sexual activity. The curriculum uses one of its stories of fear, shame, and worst case scenarios to discuss condoms. Kimberly tells a story complete with sexual abuse, feelings of shame, a pregnancy scare, and an unsupportive boyfriend. When her boyfriend tries to have sex with her following the pregnancy scare, she threw him out. The follow-up discussion asks students, “would the condom have done anything to protect her from the emotional pain that she was experiencing?” (Navigator, workbook, p. 33) The Guide Book offers the following response: “She realized that the emotional pain she was experiencing was real, and that a condom wasn't going to do anything to blunt the emotional hurt she was experiencing.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 33) The curriculum adds, “there are mental, emotional, and social effects to sex, as well as the more commonly considered physical effects. It is important to understand and seriously consider the many ways that sexual activity can affect you and take you in a different direction than you are planning to go in life.” (Navigator, workbook, p. 33)
Condoms were never intended to protect teens against mental, emotional, and social effects of sexual activity. They were intended to protect against pregnancy and STDs, and years of scientific research show that when used consistently and correctly they do a very good job at that. In fact, condoms are up to 98% effective in preventing pregnancy and research has shown that using a condom for HIV prevention is 10,000 times safer than not using a condom.
Navigator 's coverage of condoms and contraception seems to be based on unsound logic suggesting that if young people believe condoms do not work they will not engage in sexual behavior. Telling students that condoms don't work will not stop them from having sexual intercourse. It may, however, stop them from using condoms when they do become sexually active, thereby putting them at increased risk for STDs and unintended pregnancy.
According to the Guidelines, one of the main goals of sexuality education is to provide an opportunity for young people to question, explore, and assess their own and their community's attitudes about sexuality. This can help young people understand their family's values, develop their own values, and improve critical-thinking skills. Rather than providing this important opportunity, however, Navigator promotes specific viewpoints about marriage, sexual orientation, and pregnancy options.
The Marriage Mandate—Promoting one lifestyle
Throughout the curriculum, Navigator discusses sexual behavior and abstinence exclusively in terms of marital status with the clear message that any sexual activity outside of marriage is morally wrong, as well as physically and emotionally dangerous. Navigator attempts to counter its message that sex is destructive by informing students that sex within the context of marriage is good. The curriculum states, “abstinence is simply about keeping sex in its proper context. It's not about never having sex – it's about saving sex for a marriage relationship which is the safest and healthiest context. People don't choose abstinence because sex is bad but because it is good. Abstinence is about saving, protecting, and preserving sexual activity for the context of marriage.” (Navigator, workbook, p. 30)
Marriage is discussed in a chapter called “Destination” and although the curriculum admits that “not everyone gets married, and that's okay,” the discussion clearly suggests marriage as the ultimate goal and the only appropriate relationship. (Navigator, workbook, p. 10) To encourage marriage, students are asked to answer such questions as “if you do get married some day, what would you want your husband or wife to be like?” and fill in the blank to sentences such as “I would like to get married around age __.” (Navigator, workbook, p. 10) Students are also asked to describe weddings that they have attended and to tell their classmates about their favorite rituals or customs.
Navigator describes marriage as “the highest level of commitment that two people can make in society” and tells students that “social science research indicates that marriage has significant physical, emotional, mental, and social benefits.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 10) The curriculum goes on to suggest that no other relationship can equal marriage. It states that those who believe a marriage certificate is an unnecessary piece of paper are just wrong and that living together before marriage is not a good idea. Although many would agree with these sentiments, clearly these are not universally held values, as 11 million Americans reported living with a partner outside of matrimony in 2001.
Although it is important to help young people explore possible future relationships, Navigator does so in a limited and directive way that presents marriage as the only appropriate way of life and suggests that individuals who choose otherwise are making the wrong decision for themselves and society. Again, it is not the place of education programs to mandate choices for students.
Gay and Lesbian Students—Ignoring young people in need
Navigator 's focus on marriage as the ultimate goal underscores the fact that this curriculum is written exclusively for heterosexual students. The authors seem to assume that that all students in the class, or all people in the world for that matter, are heterosexual. Throughout the curriculum, all “true stories” refer to male-female couples, as do all references to sexual activity. In addition, activities assume that participants are only interested in pursuing relationships with members of the opposite sex. For example, one activity, titled “Opposite Sex,” instructs the teacher to divide the students into males and females. Males are told to write down ways girls make dating difficult for guys, and the girls are told to write down ways guys make dating difficult for girls. (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 71)
Although the curriculum acknowledges that some students may not be interested in marriage, the fact that gay and lesbian students cannot legally marry in this country is never mentioned. By suggesting that the only safe sex is in marriage and that abstinence remains the healthiest choice for those individuals who do not marry (presumably into adulthood), the curriculum is essentially telling gay and lesbian young people that they can never have a safe or healthy sexual relationship.
Gay and lesbian youth, especially young men who have sex with men, are at increased risk for STDs, including HIV. Studies have also shown that this vulnerable population faces high rates of other problems such as depression or suicide. One recent survey, for example, found that 33% of gay, lesbian, and bisexual high school students reported attempting suicide in the previous school year compared to just 8% of their heterosexual peers.
It is clear that these young people need programs that can help them handle the complexities of growing up gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning their sexual orientation. Therefore, programs written exclusively for heterosexual students are not appropriate for a classroom setting. Such curricula will only further marginalize and alienate these students and may put them at increased risk.
Pregnancy Options—Mandating choices
Navigator also presents biased views on pregnancy options that describe abortion as dangerous and herald adoption. The teacher asks students, “if a girl becomes pregnant, what are her options?” The Guide Book goes on to explain, “abortion is often listed first by students, because it seems to be a quick and easy solution. If students list abortion, ask ‘if a girl chooses to have an abortion, do you think it will have long-term consequences for her? Do you think it will affect her physically, emotionally, mentally, or socially?” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 36) The curriculum provides no follow-up or room for discussion raised by this question.
The curriculum goes on to support adoption as the best option for an unintended teen pregnancy by telling the story of Pam Stenzel, a well-known abstinence-only-until marriage advocate, in the first person:
Many years ago, a fifteen year old girl in Michigan found out that she was pregnant. The situation was especially traumatic because her pregnancy was the result of rape. She had been violated in the worst possible way and now she had to face a difficult decision. Would she keep the child, have an abortion, or place the child for adoption? She knew she wasn't in a position to give her baby the best possible care, and even though in this very difficult case some might say that abortion would be justified, she decided that wasn't the solution. Instead, this woman did the most wonderful and loving thing that she could do. The woman chose to carry her baby to term and to place the baby for adoption with a loving, and caring family. I'm extremely glad she did—because that baby that she was carrying was me.
After the story students are asked what advice they would give to a friend contemplating adoption. The suggested answer reads: “I would encourage her to do what Pam's mom did. I would tell her that although it may be difficult, it has so many benefits for the child that in the future she will probably feel very good about her choice, knowing that she did what was best for her child.” (Navigator, Guide Book, p. 38)
It is important for educational programs, especially one used widely in public schools, to respect the diversity of opinions and provide unbiased information on all options that are available to a woman confronting an unintended pregnancy as a teenager or an adult. Navigator does not adhere to this standard of educational programming.
Navigator utilizes a variety of teaching methods, including brainstorming activities, conversations with parents, and interactive games. While some aspects of the curriculum make use of effective teaching tools, overall the lessons do not include an opportunity for critical thinking and development or clarification of personal values.
The curriculum does incorporate some effective and productive teaching methods, for example, a “Parent Link” appears at the end of each chapter, and includes questions for students to take home and discuss with a parent or mentor. Questions address both the experiences of the parent growing up as well as the parents' own values. SIECUS believes that parents are, and should be, the primary sexuality educators of their children and applauds Navigator for promoting parental involvement and recognizing the importance of a family's own values.
Navigator also spends time discussing the influence of the media, and addresses crucial topics such as the amount of time young people spend watching television, the true goals of advertisers and programmers, and the increased violence and sexual activity portrayed in the media today. It is important for young people to have the opportunity to discuss and deconstruct the messages inherent within all types of media. Unfortunately, Navigator undermines this discussion by focusing on the dangers of pornography and presenting biased views about media portrayals of sexuality.
Navigator should also be commended for encouraging students to set future goals and think about their aspirations related to education, careers, and family. The curriculum does an admiral job helping young people understand the importance of planning for and nurturing relationships. Once again, however, the curriculum undermines this discussion by suggesting that all young people should aspire to marriage and that premarital sex will inevitably prevent students from reaching any of their goals.
In order to convince high school students to remain abstinent until marriage, Navigator relies on messages of fear and shame, inaccurate and misleading information, and biased view of marriage, sexual orientation, and pregnancy options. In addition, Navigator fails to provide important information on sexual health, including how students can seek testing and treatment if they suspect they may have an STD. Finally, the format and underlying biases of the curriculum dictates specific values about sexual activity. By doing this, the curriculum does not acknowledge cultural, community, and individual values and discourages critical thinking. Ultimately, Navigator falls far short of helping young people develop the skills and knowledge they need to become sexually healthy adults.
This curriculum review was written by Kirsten deFur, SIECUS intern, and Martha Kempner, director of public information.
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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.
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