Sex Respect: The Option of True Sexual Freedom is an abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum for Middle School and High School students. This curriculum, written by Coleen Kelly Mast, is produced and distributed by Respect, Inc. and is designed to “fill a three-week unit, which meets an hour daily.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, pg. 9) Sex Respect offers staff training, an in-school program, individual study, a parent program, and community involvement. The curriculum comes complete with a Teacher Manual, Student Workbook, and Parent Guide.
Dr. Mast, who received an honorary doctorate from Quincy University, created Sex Respect in 1983 as her Masters curriculum project. At the time she was also serving as the Christian Sexual Morality Teacher at McNamara High School in Kankakee, Illinois where she formed a traveling peer sexual health group. According to Respect Incorporated’s web site, since its development Sex Respect has been used in all 50 states and 23 foreign countries. Dr. Mast also hosts a weekly radio show entitled “Catholic Answers.”
The curriculum has been revised a number of times since 1983. SIECUS reviewed the 2001 edition.
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 the 36 topics included in the Guidelines.
As is typical of abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, Sex Respect provides limited information on human sexuality, instead relying on brainstorms and stories designed to impress upon youth the importance of abstinence. It provides little information on puberty, anatomy, human reproduction, and sexual orientation and no information on gender identity. Much of the information included on anatomy and reproduction is reprinted from a book on natural family planning and shows clear biases against abortion. Sex Respect also contains some detailed information on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS, however much of this information is outdated, inaccurate, and misleading. In addition, the curriculum presents information on condoms focused on exaggerated failure rates, but contains almost no information on other forms of contraception. The Teacher Manual does include detailed information on natural family planning.
Throughout the curriculum, Sex Respect relies on negative messages, distorts information, and presents biased views on gender, marriage, family structure, sexual orientation, and pregnancy options. Although most of the overt references to specific religious beliefs found in earlier editions of Sex Respect have been removed, the curriculum continues to have religious undertones. In addition, comments made throughout the curriculum suggest underlying biases regarding race and social class. Finally, the curriculum seems out of touch with today’s young people and is structured in such a way that does not allow students to think critically or bring alternative points of view into classroom discussions.
Not Appropriate for Public School
Early versions of Sex Respect contained blatant references to specific religious beliefs and values. As the curriculum gained popularity in public schools and other secular venues, however, the author seemed to become more cautious about the treatment of religion and many overt references were removed. For example, for the 1997 version of Sex Respect the author removed the word spirituality from the curriculum. Nonetheless, the curriculum continues to have religious undertones and to promote religious involvement.
In discussions on the consequences of premarital sexual behavior, the curriculum explains to students, “some of you may have heard at home or from other important people in your life that there are spiritual reasons [that sex belongs in marriage], also.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 15) Similarly, when discussing teens who have become sexually active, the curriculum tells parents, “if you belong to a particular religious denomination, seek assistance from your religious leaders on a helpful method of forgiveness and spiritual healing that are available for your teen to restore their relationship with themselves, others and God.” (Sex Respect, Parent Guide, p.70) Students are also encouraged to join church youth groups and teachers are told to invite local ministers to Sex Respect classes or events.
Although Sex Respect clearly made an effort to remove references to specific denominations, some religious language still exists. For example, the curriculum gives the following advice to dating teenagers, “set ending time for your date before you go out. Be home on time. Don’t invite your date in. Lead yourselves not into temptation.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 102) While people rarely use the phrase “not into temptation” in daily conversation, it appears numerous times in the New Testament and is part of the Lord’s Prayer.
Specific religious content is not appropriate in a public school setting. In fact, Sex Respect was the subject of litigation in the early 1990s. The judge concluded that it violated Louisiana state law by including religious beliefs, information that was factually inaccurate, and antiabortion counseling. Although the case was appealed, much of the judge’s original decision was upheld.
Perhaps as a result of this case, Sex Respect uses a portion of the introduction to the Teacher Manual to defend the curriculum’s use in public schools. The author explains that while schools may not teach specific religious content, they already teach many values that “do not belong to any particular religion” such as not stealing or using drugs. (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual p. 15) The author goes on to say “indeed school systems are compelled to endorse those values that promote health and the common good. And while many of those values are also part of some religious beliefs, to teach such universal values is not to endorse any particular religion.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual p. 15) The curriculum concludes this argument by saying, “since no religion is against premarital virginity, teaching sexual abstinence does not impinge on students’ religious freedom.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual p. 15)
This argument is problematic for a number of reasons. First, while many religions and individuals are opposed to premarital sexual activity, it is not a universally held value in this society. Second, while teaching abstinence in-and-of-itself might not infringe on students’ religious freedoms, Sex Respect’s methods clearly do. For example, the curriculum refers students to sources of information and services that reflect one set of religious beliefs. Students are repeatedly referred to crisis pregnancy centers, organizations that pose as medical providers when working with women facing an unintended pregnancy. These organizations are most often founded on religious beliefs and have the goal of preventing all abortions.
In addition, students are told that “the new ‘courtship’ movement which is growing popular in some circles, includes many teens who see dating as getting in the way of their growth as an individual until it is time to seek a marriage partner. The book I Kissed Dating Good-bye by Joshua Harris explains this more.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 92)
In this book, Joshua Harris explains that his life improved, “when I stopped viewing girls as potential girlfriends and started treating them as sisters in Christ, I discovered the richness of true friendship. When I stopped worrying about who I was going to marry and began to trust God’s timing, I uncovered the incredible potential of serving God as a single.”
It is not appropriate for an education program in a public school to refer young people to religious organizations or promote books such as this which are religious in nature and written from a purely Christian perspective. In our pluralistic society that believes in a separation of Church and state, it is not sufficient for Sex Respect to thinly veil its religious content or merely change a few words. This curriculum remains patently religious in nature.
Relying on Negative Messages
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, 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, Sex Respect 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 sexual activity as well as unrealistic expectations of abstinence.
Messages of Fear—Trying to Scare Students
Sex Respect tells students that premarital sex involves physical, psychological, and emotional risks including: “disease,” “pregnancy,” “risks associated with contraceptives,” “guilt,” “doubt,” “ fear,” “self-hatred,” “stunted growth in personal identity and social relationships,” and “being fooled into marrying the wrong person,” among others.
In a bubble on the opening page of the chapter entitled “Sex on Credit: Play Now, Pay Later,” the curriculum declares “There’s No Way to Have Premarital Sex Without Hurting Someone.” The curriculum then explains, “everything we do, including sexual activity has consequences, not just for us but for all the people in society.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 11) Explained a different way, “premarital sex, because of its consequences, is not just a personal, private decision.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 2)
In a section designed to answer possible questions from students, the curriculum explains that these are not punishments but inevitable consequences:
These are simply natural consequences. For example, if you eat spoiled food, you will get sick. If you jump from a tall building, you will be hurt or killed. If you spend more money than you make, your enslavement to debt affects you and those whom you love. If you have sex outside of marriage, there are consequences for you, your partner and society. (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 11)
A similar section features the answer to the question, “I know some kids who do it and they don’t feel pressured. They seem pretty free. Can some people get away with it?” The author’s answer states, “not often. It may seem that sometimes the consequences or guilt feeling are temporarily hidden or covered up. You can’t always judge people by how they ‘seem’ on the outside, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll seem fine if you make the choice that they did.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 36) By using phrases like “get away with it,” the curriculum seems to be suggesting that pre-marital sexual activity is on par with crimes and other universally wrong behavior.
Sex Respect also spends a great deal of time discussing the bonding involved in sexual intercourse and uses this to explain why negative consequences are inevitable. Although the research is not cited, Sex Respect offers a scientific explanation for this, “research has shown that this hormone [oxytocin] imprints a close bond to one’s present sexual partner. The bond without the lifetime commitment usually backfires, often causing possessiveness and jealousy and making the dating relationship worse rather than better. When the person normally doesn’t marry that pre-marital sex partner, this makes a later permanent relationship less intimate.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 57). The curriculum then suggests that “perhaps, that is why men, who damage their bonding mechanism through casual sex, are less able to form lifetime commitments to their mates.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 86)
To illustrate this, Sex Respect uses the “Duct Tape Example” which “helps the students better understand the painful emotional consequences of broken sexual relationships.” Teachers are told to ask for a volunteer “preferably a boy with a hairy arm” and ask him if he is willing to stick a piece of duct tape on his arm. “Tell the class that this only weakly resembles the natural strength of the sexual bond, but it will still help them see.” The teacher then asks for permission to rip the tape off of the young man’s arm, “go ahead and rip. It will hurt. The class may laugh, and you may tell him you’re sorry, but the pain is still apparent. The same is true with sex.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 58)
The exercise continues when the tape is stuck to the arm of a second volunteer. The teacher notes that it does not stick as well and then proceeds to rip the tape off of the volunteer’s arm. “Note that it does not hurt as much. The same is true with sex. Having multiple partners diminishes the bonding and diminishes the pain because promiscuous people have had to psyche themselves out by saying sex doesn’t matter so much.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 59)
This focus on the inevitable negative consequence and pain of premarital sexual behavior is clearly designed to scare students rather than educate them. There is no evidence that premarital sex leads to everything from damaging the bonding mechanism to stunted personal growth.
Messages Of Shame—Instilling Guilt
In addition to providing endless information about the negative consequences of premarital sexual activity, Sex Respect also suggests that teens should feel guilty, embarrassed, and ashamed of sexual behavior. The curriculum blames many personal and societal problems on new social norms that have been more accepting of pre-marital sexual behavior. It explains that “only now does America have 20 years worth of crippled relationships to show for its experimentation with unleashed sexual activity.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 16 ). The curriculum goes on to suggest that, “the first step in prevention of damage to the human soul is sexual abstinence until marriage.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 87)
Sex Respect then sets up a dichotomy between abstinent teens who have self-control, dignity, and can enjoy a healthy and enriching life and their sexually active peers who are selfish, damaged, and unlikely to succeed.
Dismissing Sexually Active Students
Sex Respect starts by suggesting that abstinent students are more successful. The curriculum asks, “is self-control easier for some people than others? Honor students and athletes have usually learned how to discipline their time.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 26). Later, the curriculum supports this assertion by saying: “in fact, students who abstain do better in school. Only one in four top students is sexually active, says a 25-year survey by Who’s Who Among American High School Students.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 49).
The curriculum then tells students that, “many young teens who have been brought up with principles and values may have already decided they want to save sex for marriage.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 36) It suggests that, “saying ‘no’ to teenage sex can set you apart as a thoughtful and self-controlled individual,” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 72) and that, “there are millions of teenagers all over the world who face and resist the temptations of premarital sex.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 111)
To further emphasize the social benefits of abstinence, Sex Respect explains that “many men and women still prefer to marry virgins, so you don’t want to lose out on a future with someone special just because you didn’t say ‘no’ to premarital sex.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 73) Students are then told that, “for the small prices of keeping your clothes on and keeping your cool now, you can have a priceless treasure – years of reaping the benefits of premarital virginity in your marriage.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 74)
The obvious implication throughout these discussions is that those young people who are not abstinent were not raised with principles or values, are not thoughtful, lack self-control, and will lose out on the chance to marry someone special.
Young people are also told that one of the consequences of premarital sex is a bad reputation. The author may realize, however, that this is an outdated social norm that no longer applies in many communities. In order to make it more relevant, the curriculum suggests that “a long-term good reputation is important in an investigative world with advanced communication systems.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 89) According to the curriculum, if one remains abstinent, “you’ll never have to worry in the future about someone coming out of the past to reveal your adolescent secrets.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 72)
It is important to remember that almost half (47%) of all high school students and 62% of high school seniors report having engaged in sexual intercourse. It is inappropriate for an education program to suggest that these teens lack self-control, self-respect, or values or that they are less worthy of love, trust, and respect.
Sex Respect does acknowledge that some teens may have already engaged in sexual activity, “many of you taking this course are virgins. Some may be technically virgins, but have gone a little too far along the way and took this course just in time. A few readers may have already gone all the way, and maybe some are or have been pregnant.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 107) For these students, the curriculum suggests secondary virginity.
It explains that “secondary virginity is living out the belief that sex belongs in marriage, even if that person had not lived by that belief in the past.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 108) To convince young people that secondary virginity is possible the author makes the following analogy, “if you take money from someone else’s locker, it doesn’t mean you have to keep stealing money the rest of the school year. You can stop. “(Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 108) By likening pre-marital sexual activity to stealing, the curriculum is once again suggesting that sexually active students are immoral and untrustworthy.
The curriculum also proposes that these students are suffering. Students are told to: “review and write down some of the emotional consequence of premarital sex that may now need time to heal.” Suggested answers include: “low self-esteem; substituting pleasure for love; an association between sex, guilt, fear, and shame; and impaired sense of trust, faithfulness, and responsibility; premature or harmful bonding; and lowered expectation of love, sex, and commitment.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 110)
With comments like these, the curriculum routinely assumes that the decision to become sexually active is one born out of low self-esteem, a lack of self-control, and inherent character flaws, and that all young people who have been sexually active are damaged. While it is possible that some teens may have had negative experiences with sexual behavior, instilling guilt does nothing to help them cope with such experiences. It is also possible that sexually active teens have had consensual, safe, and protected sexual experiences for which they feel neither guilt nor shame. Suggesting that they should feel bad can only serve to produce emotional distress where there was none.
The constant comparison of sexually active students to their abstinent peers is clearly designed to instill guilt and shame. This is more likely to alienate sexually active students than motivate them to avoid sexual behaviors that put them at risk for STDs and unintended pregnancy.
Sexual Arousal and Behavior–Portraying Sex as an Uncontrollable Force
After telling young people that premarital sexual behavior is shameful and dangerous, Sex Respect goes on to provide many conflicting messages about sexual arousal. On the one hand, it regularly compares young people to animals and suggest that unlike other species, humans can control their drives. For example, a quote included in the curriculum explains, “teenage promiscuity isn’t inevitable… We’re talking about adolescent humans with dignity and self-control, not adolescent horses and dogs.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 17) The curriculum also tells young people, “although sexual desire is natural, mysterious, and pleasurable, it is also controllable.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 47)
At the same time, however, the curriculum often portrays sex as a force outside of young people’s control. Students are presented with a continuum of sexual behavior that includes the following steps: “being together > hand holding > simple good night kiss> prolonged kiss > necking > petting > heavy petting > mutual sex play > sexual intercourse.” Explanations under the continuum tell students that no genital feelings are aroused during being together, hand holding, or a simple goodnight kiss but describe prolonged kiss as the beginning of danger for some. According to the chart, male genital feelings are aroused at necking whereas female genital feelings are not aroused until petting or heavy petting. All of these activities are firmly labeled “danger.” The chart ends by labeling intercourse as the “end of relationship in its present form. Sex changes relationships." (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 13)
Sex Respect suggests that students will not be able to make a good decision once they are aroused. “Arousing a person physically turns on feelings and physical changes that can take us by surprise, increase our desire for sexual pleasure, and sometimes overwhelm our good intentions.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 39) It goes on to say, “when someone gets sexually aroused their mind seems to be clouded about what is right or wrong, true or untrue. Their drive for pleasure is turned on. This pleasure feels good, and the feelings may override the mind and the good decision to practice Sex Respect. People can lose their freedom when their drive for pleasure takes over their decision-making ability.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 40) To further illustrate this point, the curriculum tells the story of the frog:
Scientists discovered that if they put a frog in a bucket of hot water, it would jump out immediately. But if they put the frog in a bucket of cool water and heated the water slowly, they could cook the frog. The frog could never decide at what precise point the water became too hot. Like the frog, many are never able to decide at what point to get out of a hot situation. So stop at the beginning of arousal, before the desire for pleasure or lust takes over. (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 48)
The curriculum accentuates the idea that students will not be able to control their sexual desire by suggesting that they completely avoid temptation, “guys can gain self-control of both their actions and their senses when they train themselves to look away from sensual influences of the culture and try to see young women as people, not sex objects.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 12) It tells students to “keep everything zipped, buttoned, and snapped, so you don’t become frustrated and lose your freedom of self-control by allowing your drive for pleasure to take over your decision-making ability.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 102) Sex Respect also provides the following guidelines for dates, “keep all of your clothes all the way on all of the time. Don’t let any part of any one else’s body get anywhere between you and your clothes. Avoid arousal.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 40) Finally, the curriculum suggests that young people “…make some changes on what you are feeding your mind. If you spend an hour each night watching a show that makes premarital sex appear to be normal what do you expect?” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 109)
Portraying sexual arousal as a force outside of students’ control is in direct conflict with the goal of helping young people make responsible decisions, including the decision to remain abstinent. Students need to know that at any point in a relationship, regardless of whether they have begun to engage in sexual activity, they have the right and the ability to set their own sexual boundaries.
In addition, young people are bombarded by messages about sexuality everyday from music, television, movies, and advertising. Telling students to simply avoid these messages is neither realistic nor helpful. Sex Respect would better serve students by helping them develop the negotiation skills they need to make responsible sexual decision throughout their lives.
As part of its discussion on sexual arousal, Sex Respect concentrates on the act of petting which the curriculum explains by saying, “petting or ‘feeling up’ are terms used to describe the actions that prepare one’s body for sexual intercourse. Petting includes touching sensitive or private parts of the body, whether inside or outside of the clothes. This type of touching is naturally intended to ‘turn on’ a person’s desire.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 140) The curriculum suggests that petting is dangerous as it diminishes self-control and leads to negative associations later in life.
It states that “…touching the private parts of someone else’s body only increases the desire to go further. It works against our sexual self-control rather than helping us relieve the pressures.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 80). Students are told “don’t kid yourself into thinking that sexually arousing activity leading up to intercourse is a good replacement activity. This still works against your self-control and is a step backwards instead of forward in teenage sexual maturity.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 40)
The curriculum also suggests that petting behaviors cause long term damage, “the pattern of petting and stopping, petting and stopping can cause an association in the mind between petting and frustration. In marriage, when it’s okay to go all the way, the negative memories formed from past habits can still prevent us from fully enjoying the physical side of marriage.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 74)
In fact, the curriculum frequently compares petting to alcohol or drug use: “…alcohol, drugs, and petting are influences we choose; we can decide to drink or not to drink, and to allow or not to allow someone to touch us sexually.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 30) Students are then asked to brainstorm, “how do petting and drinking harm our choices?” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 40)
While alcohol abuse and drug use are behaviors that society never wants people to engage in, petting is a natural and healthy part of many sexual relationships. Although many adults would prefer that young people not engage in petting behaviors as teenagers, equating this with clearly harmful behaviors such as drug use does not reflect commonly held social values.
Recent studies suggest that young people are engaging in a wide variety of sexual behaviors. For example, one study found that 82 percent of adolescents and young adults (ages 15 to 24) who had engaged in sexual intercourse reported having also engaged in oral sex. In addition, 12 percent of adolescents and young adults who had never engaged in sexual intercourse reported having engaged in oral sex. The study also found that 18 percent of males and 33 percent of females ages 15 to 17 reported using oral sex to avoid having intercourse. Clearly young people need help dealing with the complicated issues of sexual behavior.
Unfortunately, Sex Respect does not give students the opportunity to further understand these behaviors or to differentiate between safe behaviors (such as massage) and potentially risky behaviors (such as oral sex). Instead the curriculum simply explains that “some teens who have not had intercourse may decide to participate in other forms of sex play, not realizing that disease can invade other parts of the body.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 57) Young people are told to “make no contact with anyone’s genitals until after the blood test and the wedding.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 50)
Rather than relying on fear and shame, Sex Respect would better serve students by providing an honest discussion about those sexual behaviors in which young people are engaging and helping students understand which behaviors involve risk of sexually transmitted disease.
Sexual Assault and Abuse
In addition to the discussion on sexual arousal and behavior, Sex Respect includes a brief discussion on sexual assault, focusing almost exclusively on date rape.
The curriculum advises young people to avoid parties where there might be drinking or drugs and suggests that “even if drugs or alcohol are not involved, don’t go off alone with someone and take the risk of date rape. Don’t open the door for acquaintances of the opposite sex while you are babysitting or home alone. Don’t take risks with your precious life.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 105). Although the advice on avoiding date rape is apparently being provided for both genders, the Teacher Manual suggests that the goal of this discussion is to help young people understand that “date rape is a crime that young women must be on the lookout to avoid.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 101).
Young people can certainly benefit from learning strategies to protect themselves, but it is never appropriate to put the burden of preventing a crime on potential victims. Further by focusing exclusively on the behavior of potential victims, Sex Respect misses an important opportunity to help young people understand that it is never appropriate to force another person into participating in any kind of sexual behavior and that all people (male and female) have the right to say no to sexual behavior at any point. Instead, in keeping with its messages of fear and shame, the curriculum seems to suggest that rape is just another consequence of poor decisions. A more balanced discussion of date rape might have the additional goal of helping all young people understand why date rape is wrong.
It is also important to note that many young people have been victims of sexual abuse which may or may not have taken the form of date rape. Sex Respect does not acknowledge this possibility. Instead, without considering the possibility of sexual abuse, the curriculum simply suggests secondary virginity for all students who have been sexually active. Since the curriculum includes so many negative messages about those teens who are sexually active, it becomes even more vital for Sex Respect to take into consideration the likelihood that young people in the program may have been victims of sexual abuse. Otherwise these already mistreated young people may be left with the idea that they lack self-control and face a bleak future.
Sex Respect would better serve students by including open and honest discussions about date rape and sexual abuse, and helping those students who have been the victims of such abuse seek the appropriate guidance and care.
Virginity Pledges—Asking Students to Promise Purity
Sex Respect, like many fear-based, abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, includes a virginity pledge, in which students vow to remain virgins until they marry. The “Teen Pledge for Purity,” is found in the Parent Guide and reads:
I, _____________ promise to abstain from sex until my wedding night. I want to reserve my sexual powers to give life and love for my future spouse and marriage. I will respect my gift of sexuality by keeping my mind and thoughts pure as I prepare for my true love. I commit to grow in character to learn to live love and freedom. (Sex Respect, Parent Guide, p. 13)
The Teacher Manual points to research in the American Journal of Sociology which it says found “virginity pledges are significantly effective.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 104) This analysis of the research is not completely accurate. The study did find that virginity pledges could help some young people delay intercourse under certain circumstances. Pledges taken by an entire class as part of a lesson or presentation, however, were not effective. Moreover, even when they work, pledges helped this select group of adolescents delay the onset of intercourse for an average of 18 months—far short of marriage.
What Sex Respect does not explain, however, is that 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 then their peers who had not pledged. Additional research has confirmed that those young people who take virginity pledges are equally as likely to contract an STD as their non-pledging peers.
Far from providing a solution to the complex problem of unintended pregnancy and disease transmission, these simplistic pledges are undermining the use of contraception among teens, potentially exposing them to greater risk and harm.
These pledges are also not appropriate for all students as they show blatant disregard for young people who are gay and lesbian and can not 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 junior high or high school student to make such an agreement.
* NOTE: Recent legislation and court decisions in Massachusetts, California, and Connecticut have granted same-sex couples the right to marry in those states. Some legal and legislative challenges remain though and it is therefore unclear whether this right will be permanently guaranteed in these states or other states in the country.
Sex Respect also includes a pledge that parents sign promising to keep a “chaste home.” According to the curriculum, “parents working together to create Chaste Homes can feel comfortable knowing their children are at a party or gathering in a Chaste Home or dating a teen from a Chaste Home.” (Sex Respect, Parent Guide, p. 14). The pledge has parents promise that they “will develop and communicate a clear position against teen sexual activity” and sets guidelines for dating and other social activity. Although most of the elements of the pledge apply to teens, parents also promise, “we will not allow in our home any pornographic materials, sexually suggestive videos, or any form of media that exploits or misuses the gift of human sexuality. Besides being harmful to the minds of our teens, these also lower the resistance of teens to engage in sexual activity.” (Sex Respect, Parent Guide, p. 15)
Parents are the primary sexuality educators of their children and education programs can and should help parents prepare for this role by helping them examine their personal values, the values of their family, and the values of their community. While some parents may be opposed to pornography or sexually suggestive videos, this is not a universally held value. It is not the role of an education program to tell adults what they can and cannot view in their own homes.
By endorsing these pledges, the program is putting undue pressure on both parents and students. Education programs should foster critical-thinking and decision-making skills rather than dictating the values that adults and students should hold. Educational programs cannot, however, mandate choices for students, tell adults how to behave, or instruct parents on how to raise their children.
Early editions of Sex Respect contained a great deal of inaccurate information about STDs, HIV/AIDS, and condoms. While some of these inaccuracies have been removed, the curriculum continues to rely on outdated and distorted information.
Sex Respect includes detailed discussions on STDs, which provide inadequate information on transmission, focus on worst case scenarios, present inaccurate information, and include messages of fear and shame.
Inadequate Information on Transmission
One of the most important things that young people can learn is information about how STDs are, or are not, transmitted. This information is essential for young people to be able to prevent transmission. Unfortunately, Sex Respect fails to accurately impart this information. The curriculum starts by saying, “of all these people who transmit or catch STDs probably none of them will be virgins.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 52) It goes on to include the following question and answer, “Q: Can you catch a disease if you don’t ‘go all the way? A: Since there are sometimes sores and secretions outside of the genitals, even ‘playing around’ undressed can be dangerous.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 57)
If the curriculum is suggesting that petting behaviors can transmit STDs, it is contradictory for it to also suggest that no one who “transmits or catches” an STD will be a virgin. This statement is yet another attempt to suggest that those individuals who abstain are superior to those who do not.
Moreover, such vague information is not helpful to young people who need to know that some STDs are transmitted by skin-to-skin contact while others are transmitted through blood, semen, and vaginal secretions. Given that the curriculum never defines “playing around,” it is entirely possible that this umbrella term includes potentially risky behaviors such as oral sex and behaviors that present no risk for STDs such as massage. Young people would be better served by an open and honest discussion of sexual behaviors and STD risk.
Focusing on Worst-Case Scenarios
Although Sex Respect acknowledges that some STDs can be treated and even cured, the curriculum nonetheless focuses on the worst possible outcomes. For example, students are told that “Chlamydial infection can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, which can permanently destroy fertility.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 52) The curriculum goes on to explain that, “left untreated, Chlamydia can cause a painful infection that may require hospitalization, cause permanent damage to the reproductive organs, and result in the inability to have children.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 52)
While these statements are true, students need to understand that Chlamydia is a bacterial infection that can be cured with antibiotics before it leads to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) and that PID can also be treated and cured before it leads to permanent fertility issues. Concentrating on these worst-case scenarios seems to be designed to scare students rather than inform them.
The curriculum nonetheless continues to do so. Students are told that “there is also a new strain of ‘penicillin-resistant’ gonorrhea, which is being spread rapidly. Cases of this strain have doubled in the past year.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 53) “The new super-strains, however, can’t always be cured, but can be treated. These strains can cause sterility, abnormal pregnancy, chronic pain, and infected children.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 55) This information is misleading and outdated. Although some strains have become resistant to certain antibiotics, gonorrhea is still considered by the medical community to be a curable STD. Further, the suggestion that cases of “penicillin-resistant” gonorrhea have doubled in the past year is outdated at best. The medical community stopped using penicillin to treat gonorrhea around 1987.
Similar messages of fear are apparent in the curriculum’s discussion of human papilloma virus (HPV) which is inaccurate and fails to provide important prevention messages. For example, students are told that warts are uncomfortable. In fact, genital warts are raised or flat growths that are flesh colored and usually do not cause itching or burning. While suggesting that warts are painful may scare students, it does nothing to help them identify and treat genital warts. Students are then told that “venereal Warts can come back after treatment and must be removed again, or else they will get bigger and spread over larger areas.” In fact, if left untreated, genital warts often disappear. Again, Sex Respect’s explanation is not helpful to students as it does not accurately explain what to expect and may discourage treatment by suggesting that it is futile. Students need to know that screening and treatment is important because although genital warts may disappear, HPV infection remains and warts may reappear in the future.
Sex Respect goes on to discuss the connection between HPV and cervical cancer. Students are told that “HPV very often leads to cervical cancer,” that “[HPV] is often the cause of abnormal pap smears in young women,” and that “Human Papilloma Virus is more contagious and it’s responsible for more deaths (via cervical cancer) than AIDS each year in the United States.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 57) This is once again misleading and fails to provide students with the information they need about the link between cervical cancer and HPV. First, it is important that students understand that although serious, cervical cancer is an uncommon outcome of HPV. 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 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.”
Moreover, Sex Respect does not adequately explain the role and importance of Pap smears in preventing cervical cancer. Instead it seems to suggest that an abnormal Pap smear is in-an-of-itself a consequence of HPV. A Pap smear is a routine gynecological test that looks for abnormal or precancerous cells. These cells may be signs of cervical cancer. If detected, health care providers can monitor the condition and/or provide treatment in an effort to prevent cervical cancer.
While it is true that cervical cancer is still responsible for approximately 5,000 deaths in the United States each year, public health professionals emphasize that these deaths can be prevented. The CDC’s report, for example, 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.
STD Testing and Treatment
To its credit Sex Respect does reinforce the message that it is important for sexually active young people to be tested for STDs. For example the curriculum tells young people that “if you’ve already had sexual contact, it’s advisable to go now to your hospital, clinic or doctor to be tested,” and that “early treatment now can spare some long-term damage.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 55)
Unfortunately not all of the messages Sex Respect contains about testing are accurate. For example, the curriculum suggests that “a specific blood test for Chlamydia and a physical exam can detect the presence of the disease.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 57) Chlamydia is a bacterial infection of the genitals or cervix and is diagnosed by a culture of the infected area or through a urine test. Although a blood test might be able to determine if an individual had ever had Chlamydia, it cannot diagnose an active infection.
HIV/AIDS—Presenting Outdated and Biased Information
Sex Respect devotes a chapter to a detailed discussion of HIV/AIDS. The information included in this chapter, however, is outdated, inaccurate, based on fear, and biased against homosexuality.
Outdated and Inaccurate Information
Sex Respect begins it discussion on HIV/AIDS by explaining, “today we know that AIDS is caused by a virus. Sometimes called HIV (human immuno deficiency virus) the virus will be referred to in this chapter as the AIDS virus.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 59) Although this is presented as though it is new information, scientists have known that HIV causes AIDS for over 20 years. In addition, given that all public health and medical sources refer to HIV by its name (or acronym), it is unclear why Sex Respect would make a point to call it “the AIDS virus.” It is important for students to understand proper terminology so that they can ask questions, recognize accurate information, and seek testing and treatment services throughout their lives.
Still, Sex Respect relies on outdated terminology throughout this chapter. The curriculum provides a detailed explanation of the stages of AIDS as infection, dormancy, and full-blown AIDS. Although once common, these terms are no longer used in part because the introduction of HIV treatment regimens has meant that HIV and AIDS follows a much different course today than in years past. For example, Sex Respect, describes dormancy by saying “HIV-infected individuals (also called ‘HIV-positive’) will eventually develop full-blown AIDS.” The CDC explains this quite differently by saying that “people with HIV have what is called HIV infection. Some of these people will develop AIDS as a result of their HIV infection.” Rather than talking about full-blown AIDS, the CDC explains that AIDS is a diagnosis made by a physician “using special clinical or laboratory standards.”  Again it is imperative that students learn the most up-to-date and accurate information available.
Unfortunately, some of the information the curriculum includes about HIV/AIDS is simply incorrect. The curriculum explains that HIV is a lentivirus and states, “that means the virus may be in your body a long time (from a few months to as long as 10 years or more) before it can be detected, either by a test or by physical symptoms.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 60) Lentivirus, which means a slow-moving virus, is not a term commonly used to describe HIV. More importantly, however, it is incorrect to suggest that the virus could be undetectable by a test for as long as 10 years. The CDC explains that “the tests commonly used to detect HIV infection are actually looking for antibodies produced by an individual’s immune system when they are exposed to HIV. Most people will develop detectable antibodies within two to eight weeks (the average is 25 days). Ninety seven percent will develop antibodies in the first three months following the time of their infection. In very rare cases, it can take up to six months to develop antibodies.” The CDC Hotline confirms that HIV cannot live in one’s body undetectable for 10 years or longer.
Messages of Fear and Shame
In addition to outdated and inaccurate information, the discussion of HIV/AIDS includes message of fear and shame similar to those that run throughout the curriculum.
Many of the messages of fear revolve around modes of transmission. Although Sex Respect does explain that “HIV is most often passed from one person to another during sexual contact involving the exchange of any body fluids (blood, vaginal, cervical secretions or semen),” it spends a great deal of time talking about relatively low-risk behaviors. For example, the curriculum explains, “the virus can be passed through just a single exchange of blood or sexual body fluids. It can be transferred though a cut, scratch, or tiny sore a person is not aware of….” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 62)
Sex Respect goes on to dedicate half of a page to the suggestion that French Kissing can transmit HIV. (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 63) According to the CDC “open-mouth kissing is considered a very low-risk activity for the transmission of HIV.” The CDC explains that there is only one reported case in which open-mouth kissing is thought to be the route of transmission for HIV and that case involved exposure to contaminated blood during the kiss. By focusing on these relatively insignificant risks, Sex Respect is clearly trying to scare students rather than inform them.
In addition to these messages of fear, the curriculum clearly suggests that HIV and AIDS are a source of humiliation and shame. The curriculum continually refers to individuals living with HIV as “AIDS patients” or “AIDS victims.” Students are told that “the AIDS patients who need health and supportive services will cost our country between 8 and 16 billion dollars.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 60)
Moreover the curriculum explains, “while AIDS is fatal and has no cure, the behavior that leads to AIDS can be prevented through high personal standards and strong character.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 131) The clear implication of this statement, which is repeated numerous times throughout the Student Workbook and Teacher Manual, is that people who have HIV or AIDS lack high standards and character.
Biases Against Homosexuality
Finally, the discussion on HIV/AIDS contains numerous statements that show clear bias against homosexuality. Sex Respect introduces its discussion on AIDS by saying, “finally, AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), the STD most common among homosexuals, bisexuals and IV drug users, has now made its way into heterosexual circles.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 54) The curriculum’s assertion that AIDS is the most common STD among certain groups is not supported by current data. Moreover, this statement seems to suggest that homosexuals and bisexuals are responsible for the AIDS epidemic and that HIV among heterosexuals is both new and uncommon. While AIDS was first identified among gay men, HIV among heterosexuals is by no means a recent phenomenon, nor is it rare. In fact, worldwide the majority of HIV infections result from heterosexual transmission.
Nonetheless Sex Respect goes on to suggest that “homosexual activity involves an especially high risk for HIV transmission.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p.68) This statement clearly reflects the author’s biases. The phrase “homosexuality activity” can refer to numerous sexual behaviors such as mutual masturbation or oral sex. These activities do not become more risky when engaged in by same-sex couples. In fact, women who have sex with women are at even lower risk for HIV than heterosexual men or women. The CDC explains that “female-to-female transmission of HIV appears to be a rare occurrence.”
It is likely that Sex Respect is using the term “homosexuality activity” in this context to refer to anal intercourse. The curriculum does include some discussion on this behavior which it refers to as unnatural: “There is another form of sexual activity that causes an especially high risk of HIV infection. In such activity body openings are used in ways for which they were not designed.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 63) Although, some experts believe that receptive anal intercourse poses a greater risk for HIV transmission than, for example, receptive vaginal intercourse, it is important to note that this behavior is not exclusive to homosexual couples. The discussion of anal intercourse in Sex Respect, however, seems less about informing students of risk and more about presenting biased information about homosexuality.
The biases presented in this section are even more problematic because this is the only portion of the curriculum in which homosexuality is even acknowledged. Throughout the rest of the curriculum, information about sexual behavior, relationships, dating, and marriage suggest that the author assumes that all students in the class (or all people in the world for that matter) are heterosexual. By excluding gay, lesbian, and bisexual individuals from all discussions except the one that focuses on AIDS, the author is making a powerful and disturbing statement about sexual orientation. This is likely to alienate and upset those students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning their sexual orientation as well as those students who have parents, family, and friends who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Sex Respect follows its discussion of HIV/AIDS with a detailed explanation of condoms that is clearly designed to make students question whether condoms can prevent STDs. Sex Respect tells students that “condoms may leak, slip or tear.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p.69) 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.” The curriculum then uses two common arguments to mislead students about efficacy of condoms.
First, the curriculum shows a picture of a sperm cell next to a number of dots representing various STDs including HIV and gonorrhea. The illustration is designed to suggest that condoms cannot block bacteria and viruses. The curriculum tells students, “naturally occurring defects in condoms are 5 microns in size which are 50 times larger than the HIV virus.” It goes on to say “there is still some uncertainty about how effectively even a latex condom protects against the virus.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 67)
The suggestion that condoms have large holes is a myth that continues to be used to discourage their use. The Food and Drug Administration (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. It is also inaccurate to suggest that we do not yet know how effective latex condoms are in preventing HIV. At this point, it is well known that when used consistently and correctly, latex condoms are highly effective at preventing the transmission of HIV. In fact, studies have shown that using a condom during intercourse to protect against HIV transmission is more than 10,000 times safer than not using a condom.
The curriculum then uses another common myth to suggest that condoms may not be effective in preventing STDs, “we know that the failure rate for condoms used to avoid pregnancy is around 10-20 percent over the course of a year. Now consider that a woman can become pregnant only a few days out of each month. People can get HIV any day during a month. You don’t need to be an algebra genius to know that you’re risking your life.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 67) It also does not take an algebra genius to realize that this statement is misrepresenting the laws of probability, condom failure, and scientific research.
To fully understand 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 failure is usually caused by errors in use, most often the failure of couples to use a condom during every act of sexual intercourse. It is, therefore, important to look at the data on typical use or user failure. User failure is calculated by looking at 100 couples who use condoms as their primary method of birth control over the course of a year. About 14 of these couples will experience an unintended pregnancy during the first year. It is important to remember that these couples may not have been using a condom or may have been using a condom 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.
While failure rates for condoms depend heavily on whether couples use them consistently and correctly, it is inaccurate to imply that failure rates change depending on whether couples are trying to prevent pregnancy or disease. Research shows that when used consistently and correctly latex condoms are highly effective in preventing pregnancy and reducing the risk of STDs.
Nonetheless to emphasize the idea that condoms don’t work Sex Respect once again relies on fear. Students are told that “condoms can’t protect from the psychological and emotional consequences of extra-marital sex.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p.69) Later the curriculum suggests that “having sex with condoms is like playing with fire. It doesn’t make it safe. Many people using condoms still get STD’s.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p.75) The curriculum further puts doubt about condom efficacy in students’ minds by relying on numerous open-ended and leading questions such as, “there is not a lot of proof that condoms really work. Would you trust your life to one?” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 67)
This discussion seems to be based on the illogical assumption that if young people believe that condoms do not work, they will abstain from sexual intercourse. There is no reason to think that this is true. Such inaccurate information about condoms 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.
Contraception—Withholding Information and Discouraging Use
Sex Respect contains almost no information about methods of contraception other than condoms. Nonetheless, comments made throughout the curriculum discourage the use of all contraceptive methods.
Sex Respect explains that birth control can be deceiving because “young people who use birth control can be led to think that sex does not have consequences.” It goes on to say, “birth control can cause other physical problems.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p.47) The Teacher Manual also explains that “birth control does not relieve the guilt, doubt, disappointment and fear of being used that many teens experience in sex outside of marriage.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p.14) In fact, according to the curriculum, “contraception, technology’s despairing answer to adolescent sexual activity, has intensified the loneliness, frustration, and emptiness of our young people….” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 15)
Students are told that “adults who thought they were helping found out that birth control is only an illusion of help.” The curriculum lists the following reasons for this assessment::
These suggestions are not supported by research or any further explanation. Young women may therefore be left with the inaccurate belief that all birth control causes damage to women’s bodies and fertility.
In keeping with the messages of shame delivered throughout the curriculum, Sex Respect seems to suggest that using birth control is a sign of having done something wrong. The curriculum features a hand written story entitled “Birth Control Insulted Me”:
When I was 15 I had been going out with Joe for a year and a half but we were not sexually active. We respected each other, always kept our clothes on and stayed cool. My older sister, who also dated young, was pregnant at 16 and again at 18. I guess they figured I was gonna follow in Tracy’s footsteps. Onetime without ever knowing if I was doing it or not, I was offered birth control pills. They had just assumed that Joe and I had sex because Tracy was that way. I was so insulted I just said, “Thanks but no thanks, what do you think I am?” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 40)
Although the “author” of this letter is well within her rights to refuse birth control, by including this letter and allowing its language to stand unchallenged , the curriculum seems to approve of peers looking down on those young people who choose to accept birth control.
Instead of receiving accurate and unbiased information about the available methods of contraception, students will be left with the idea that birth control is ineffective, physically harmful, and a source of shame. Sex Respect seems to justify this approach with the following analogy, “we don’t instruct in Driver’s Education on ‘how to speed without getting caught’ or ‘how to get traffic tickets fixed.’ Since sex outside of marriage is not healthy for the teens in our classes, why offer them advice on ‘how to do it?’” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 13) The curriculum goes on to explain, “further, contraceptives reinforce the idea that adolescents are no better than animals, compelled to mate whenever they feel the sexual urge….” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p.14)
Research shows that teaching young people about contraception does not increase sexual activity but does increase contraceptive use when young people become sexually active thereby helping them prevent unintended pregnancy. It is not appropriate for an education program to deny young people vital information or present misleading information in an effort to influence their behavior.
In addition to relying on fear, shame, and inaccurate information, Sex Respect is based on a number of underlying biases and assumptions about gender, marriage, family structure, sexual orientation, and pregnancy options, as well as biases based on race and social class. Presenting these biases as universal truths does little to inform students and instead fosters myths and misunderstandings.
Gender–Fostering Myths and Stereotypes
Sex Respect relies on gender-biased assumptions throughout the curricula, from discussions on sexual arousal to relationships. Statements made regarding gender differences are not based on research but rather reflect commonly held stereotypes and misconceptions. Students are not encouraged to examine their beliefs about gender or question the validity of the stereotypes presented in Sex Respect.
The curriculum begins its discussion on the differences between males and females by explaining that although it became popular in the last decades to proclaim that men and women are the same, “this notion of comparing genders on the same scale set up marriages and relationships for many surprises.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 6)
How Men and Women View Sex
The curriculum then focuses on the differences between males and females when it comes to sex and relationships. It explains that, “a man can experience sexual release with a woman even if he doesn’t particularly like her. A woman, however, often experiences more sexual fulfillment with a person she trusts and whom she believes is committed to her.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 11) To make this simpler for students to understand, it goes on to say, “some people describe the differences this way: Boys tend to use love to get sex; girls tend to use sex to get love.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 11)
Throughout discussions on gender, the curriculum seems to suggest that women do not naturally desire sex, “a young man’s natural desire for sex is already strong due to testosterone, the powerful male growth hormone. Females are becoming culturally conditioned to fantasize about sex as well.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 11) In a section dedicated to possible questions from students, the curriculum asks “but aren’t there many girls who really want to have sex, and so they pressure the guys?” The answer, “yes, there are. This is happening in larger numbers now than in years past, since the pop culture has removed the stigma from non-virgins and displays many role models of provocative women.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 12)
With statements such as these, the curriculum suggests that sexual desire in women is an unfortunate result of society’s influences rather than a natural and healthy part of life. Moreover, such statements actually put the responsibility for controlling sexual behavior on young women. In fact, Sex Respect says, “yet, because they generally become physically aroused less easily, girls are still in a good position to slow down the young man and help him learn balance in a relationship.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 12) Similar messages include, “deep down, you know that your friend’s plunging necklines and short skits are getting the guys to talk about her. Is that what you want? To see girls who drive guys hormones when a guy is trying to see her as a friend. A guy who wants to respect girls is distracted by sexy clothes and remembers her for one thing. Is it fair that guys are turned on by their senses and women by their hearts.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 94) The responsibility for setting sexual limits is clearly placed on young women who are “unfairly” attempting to turn guys on.
The curriculum also seems to suggest that sexual desire, in women in particular, is a character flaw. It argues that women who desire sex must be motivated by low self-esteem, a need for love, or other negative influences. For example, the curriculum states, “girls can sometimes even use boys to get themselves pregnant, thinking that a child will fill their need for love.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 12) By presenting these stereotypes as true and not encouraging students to question such assumptions, Sex Respect implies that young women who are interested in sexual activity or young men who are not, are not normal.
Ironically, the attempts made by the curriculum to overcome such gender stereotypes are often even more biased. In a cartoon explaining that boys may also face unwanted sexual advances, Sex Respect states, “the liberation movement has produced some aggressive girls today, and one of the tough challenges for guys who say no will be the questioning of their manliness.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 97)
Traditional Gender Roles
In addition to presenting stereotypes about sexual behavior, Sex Respect also seems to recommend traditionally prescribed gender roles. The curriculum tells young women that puberty “is when girls need to start acting as well-mannered ladies, instead of uncontrolled children, since they are physically capable of having a child and need to protect this potential gift by respecting the power to help give life to a child.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 10) It goes on to suggest different responsibilities for young people who are dating: “He: Having enough money. Dressing appropriately. Picking up his date on time and getting her home on time. Providing transportation. Driving safely.” In contrast: “She: Being ready on time. Telling date about her curfew and helping him get her home on time. Dressing appropriately.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 131)
Gender differences in relationships are also suggested when Sex Respect describes the benefits of saving sex for marriage. The curriculum claims that, “… a young man can learn that sex goes with responsibility and commitment and is not just for fun.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 73) In contrast, “a woman who waits can realize that sex is a life-time gift of love. She can learn to trust her husband with her whole self and her whole future. She then is better able to experience sexual fulfillment when she gives her whole self within a trusting, caring marriage.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 73)
The curriculum makes a number of additional references to seemingly outdated social norms. For example young people are told to ask for their parents’ opinion on the question, “should girls ask out guys?” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 91) In a section designed to predict and answer questions that students may have, the curriculum asks “are boys who abstain really considered ‘virgins’?” The answer, “although the term more commonly is used in reference to girls, it applies to boys, too.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 80) While at some point in our history it may have been true that the word virgin was mostly used to refer to women, today it is commonly accepted that the term refers to any individual who has not engaged in sexual intercourse. By suggesting otherwise, the curriculum is subtly reinforcing a model of gender inequality that requires chastity and purity in women but not men.
Sex Respect’s treatment of gender differences presents myths and stereotypes as universal truths. 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. In addition, Sex Respect 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.
The Marriage Mandate—Promoting One Lifestyle
As with most abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, Sex Respect is based on the belief that sexual behavior is only morally appropriate within the context of marriage. To convince students to follow this standard, the curriculum spends a great deal of time exploring the institution of marriage. The discussions seem to be based on the assumptions that everybody can and should marry and that married people are superior to their unmarried peers.
Students are told that, “our next task on the road to sexual maturity is to choose behavior that proves we know when and where sex belongs in our lives.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 31) It suggests that students will know if they are mature enough for sex by deciding if they are mature enough for marriage, “so, if you’re mature enough for marriage, get married, and you’re ready for its physical expression.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 15)
The curriculum goes on to explain the positive benefits of marriage. Students are told that “marriage is the foundation of our society.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 73) The curriculum suggests that, “in the shelter of a good marriage, the couple experiences companionship, helpfulness, and a sense of security and well-being.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 73) According to the curriculum, “all evidence has shown that marriage benefits everyone involved women, men, children, society and even the business economy!” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 121)
Sex Respect is clearly trying to promote marriage as the ideal lifestyle. After explaining that “a happy marriage is still the number one goal of most people,” the curriculum includes examples of wedding vows and asks students to research additional vows as a homework assignment. (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 7)
Although the curriculum acknowledges that not all students are planning to marry, it nonetheless encourages them to do so, “one caution, too, is that many of us who now think that we’ll NEVER get married may very well change our minds later on.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 80) It goes on to say that, “even if you choose to be single, the knowledge of human nature gained and the character growth you worked on while in the teen dating years will enhance your sociability in adult life.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 82)
After being told that marriage is beneficial and that all people should marry, the curriculum suggests that saving sex for marriage is the best way to ensure a happy future. For example, students are told that individuals who save sex for marriage can “have no fears of:”
To support this assertion, the curriculum suggests that “sociological studies have shown that people who have sex before marriage are 60% more likely to divorce than people who SAVE sex for marriage.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 73) The curriculum provides another explanation for why those who save sex for marriage may have superior relationships, “no fear of an unfaithful spouse: People who only have bonded with their husband or wife feel much less comfortable being immodest or unfaithful with others.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 74)
Once again the curriculum is suggesting that young people who have been sexually active, or those that will become sexually active before they marry, are less likely to achieve happiness.
Arranged Marriage and Cohabitation
The author’s views on marriage and relationships are further revealed in discussions about cohabitation and arranged marriage in which the curriculum seems to be recommending a return to a previous set of social norms.
The curriculum explains that, “when our country used this kind of mate selection [arranged marriage], a couple got married, learned to love each other and maintained a commitment to one another.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 81) It goes on to say, “while most of these relationships were strong and lasting, not all arranged marriages worked out well. As a result, the system of dating was gradually developed.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 81) According to the curriculum, however, this new method has many drawbacks, “one outcome of the change in methods is that there’s much more divorce now that we believe ‘romance’ must be part of dating and marriage.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 81) The curriculum ends this discussion by asking students “Would you like to return to the days of arranged marriages and just skip dating?” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 93)
In contrast to this positive view of arranged marriage, Sex Respect is clearly opposed to couples living together before marriage. The curriculum explains that, “many couples had thought that having a sexual relationship and living in the same place together would help them decide if the person was good marriage material. This popular social experiment has backfired! There has been a big social movement to stop scientific testing on animals, and we forgot to stop testing on humans!” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 123) Sex Respect explains that, “couples that live together without marriage need to emotionally hold back some of themselves, not be as vulnerable as they should, and they don’t grow together as deeply as they can.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 124) According to the curriculum, “living together” has proven to be ineffective as preparation for marriage and may even destroy a couple’s chances for a strong marriage.
It is unclear why the curriculum spends so much time discussing cohabitation. While the decision to become sexually active is one that many young people face, the decision to “live together” is rarely relevant to the lives of most junior high and high school students.
Although many people may agree with the curriculum’s assertion that sexual activity is only appropriate within marriage, that marriage is the ideal relationship, and that cohabitation is unadvisable, these are not universally held values. In fact, studies have shown that fewer than seven percent of men and 20 percent of women 18 to 59 were virgins when they married. It is not appropriate for an education program to mandate choices for young people.
Divorce and Family Structure—Depicting Non-Traditional Families as Troubled
Sex Respect further emphasizes the importance of marriage by suggesting that a married, two-parent family is the ideal environment for raising children. It suggests that, “the benefits can then be shared with the children, who are being prepared for life as they grow up within the shelter of their parents’ marriage.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 73)
The curriculum argues that, “having two parents was not a social invention. In the nature of conception, cells from both a man and a woman are involved. It follows that in meeting the human needs of children, it is best when a father and mother are involved, too.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 113) It goes on to say that, “sociologists even studied the myth that children would do just as well in divorced, single-parent and step families as they do in intact first marriage. That also proved false.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 121)
Although this discussion is designed to make young people think of their future relationships, it would not be surprising if many students thought instead of their parents. Sex Respect does acknowledge that some students will have divorced parents, “…many young adults are especially committed to making their marriage work because their parents could not, they want something better for themselves.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 66) The curriculum also explains that, “some of you may have never seen what a good marriage looks like, yet some of you may have seen your parents successfully work through their differences to find a deeper love than romance.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 121) It then tells students that, “…if your parents were a good example of husband and wife, rejoice that you have a head start.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 122)
Although these discussions appear as positive statements, they nonetheless suggest that those parents who worked through their differences are superior to those who ultimately got divorced. Further, they suggest that students with happily married parents have a head start while those who live with divorced parents or step-families will not do as well.
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 Sex Respect. Suggesting that these young people will face a lifetime of difficulty will undoubtedly distress and alienate many students.
Sexual Orientation—Refusing to Accept Diversity
This emphasis on heterosexual married couples and their families once again shows a clear bias against homosexuality. It is important to remember that some students in the class are likely to be gay or lesbian and that these students can not legally marry in this country. Sex Respect is essentially telling these students they can never have a sexual relationship. In fact, the curriculum explains, “there are also some people who may never marry. The AIDS guidelines applies to them, too. Remember, no one in history has ever died of sexual abstinence, and you are not likely to be the first one.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 66) Such unrealistic suggestions can only serve to further marginalize and alienate these students.
Sex Respect explains why it avoids the topic of homosexuality by telling parents that “because of the freedom of religion in our country the public school teacher will not impose his or her moral views about homosexuality in the classroom. Giving your teen guidelines on the subject of homosexual activity is a task for you, the parent, to carry out in accordance with the faith of your choice.” (Sex Respect, Parent Guide, p. 47) Nonetheless biases against sexual orientation are clear through the curriculum in discussions on HIV and AIDS, marriage, relationships, dating, and sex.
For example, discussions on dating and sexual attraction are exclusive to heterosexual relationships. Students are told that “at puberty a boy may also begin to experience strong sexual pleasure in looking at girls. Some of these desires may even be present before puberty if a boy has been exposed to pornography in movies and on TV.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 10) Later the curriculum warns against “seeing every member of the opposite sex only as a potential date and missing out on some good friendships.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 85)
Biases against homosexuality are even reiterated in simple definitions, “the word sex is frequently used to refer to the physical and personal act of male and female genital union, sexual intercourse.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 6)
Sexuality education should not reinforce biases against a particular group of people. Instead, it should teach students that sexuality is a natural and healthy part of everybody’s life regardless of their sexual orientation. 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 Sex Respect fails to provide these students with any realistic strategies for protecting themselves from such risks.
Pregnancy Options—Mandating Choices
Sex Respect acknowledges that some young people will face unintended pregnancies and may have to make difficult decisions. According to the Teacher Manual the goal of the discussion on this topic is to help students, “consider the options available to unwed teen parents and learn why adoption is a healthier alternative than abortion.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 9) To achieve this goal, Sex Respect uses biased language, suggests numerous consequences of abortion, and openly promotes adoption.
In simple definitions, charts on fetal growth, and detailed discussions on pregnancy options, Sex Respect uses language that clearly shows the author’s disapproval of abortion. The curriculum defines the ovary by saying it “…produces the egg ovum, the life creating female reproductive cell,” and an embryo by saying “…the human in the first three months of growth during pregnancy.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 138) The curriculum goes on to assert that, “abortion is a chemical or surgical intervention that stops the baby’s life by removing the baby from the mother’s womb and letting it die.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 114)
Although presented as fact, these definitions actually represent one point of view in which life begins at conception and abortion is the ending of that life. This point of view is repeated throughout the curriculum, “abortion is not the best choice … because it unfairly penalizes the baby for the bad decision the baby’s parents made.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 7) The curriculum tells students that, “pregnancy decisions involve three people, the mom, the dad and the baby.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 113) The curriculum goes on to say that pregnant young women “…may have heard about abortion and think that by eliminating the baby, their problems will go away.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 113) In telling the story of one young woman who faced such a choice, Sex Respect explains, “deep inside, she had always felt abortion wasn’t fair to the unborn baby.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 116)
Messages of Fear and Shame
In order to discourage abortion, Sex Respect once again relies on messages of fear and shame. It suggests that there are many physical and psychological consequences of abortion and that young people will undoubtedly regret such a decision.
The curriculum explains that, “while abortion has been legal in this country, there are still physical and emotional side effects for women. Some of the consequences are serious and long term, affecting their daily lives.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 114) It goes on to say, “the risks in abortion are far more serious than even the most knowledgeable scholars once believed.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 114)
The Teacher Manual explains that “abortion involves psychological risks like guilt, depression, and anxiety.” In addition, “abortion involves physical risks for the girl, like damaged reproductive organs, infection, future pregnancy and birth complication, and infertility.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 110) Under the heading “Is Abortion Safe?” the Teacher Manual seems to assert that induced abortion includes a risk of death that is higher than that for pregnancy and childbirth. (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 115)
In fact, induced abortion early in pregnancy carries very low risk of complications. Less than 1% of women experience a major complication and there is no evidence of childbearing problems among women who have had aspiration abortions (the most common procedure) within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. In addition, “the risk of death associated with childbirth is about 11 times as high as that associated with abortion.”
Sex Respect goes on to suggest that having an abortion increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer. It explains, “whether you have a surgical abortion or a chemical abortion using RU-486 you still increase your chances of breast cancer.” It cites several studies conducted between 1981 and 1994 to support this claim. (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 116) Although the link between abortion and breast cancer has been studied for many years, it has never been established. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), “several studies have provided very strong data that induced abortions have no overall effect on the risk of breast cancer.” ACS explains, “scientists invited to participate in a conference on abortion and breast cancer by the National Cancer Institute (February 2003) concluded there was no relationship.”
In contrast to the negative discussions about abortion, Sex Respect presents a purely positive view of adoption which it describes as beneficial for everyone involved. One headline reads, “adoption, everyone gets a new start.” The curriculum explains that, “some of the benefits of adoption for the birth mother are to be spared the guilt and/or physical damages from an abortion and to find health for the past by giving new life.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 114) In addition, “a benefit for the baby, first of all is life, the chance to be born, and getting two loving parents who longed and waited for him or her.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 114) Sex Respect also explains the benefits of having married adoptive parents, “their commitment to marriage can provide support and strength to handle the demanding job of parenting.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 114)
The curriculum then draws the simple conclusion that “these reasons help make adoption a practical and sensible choice.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 114)
Relying on Pro-Life Organizations
Throughout these discussions, Sex Respect relies on a number of organizations that openly acknowledge their opposition to abortion. For example, much of the information on the risk of abortion is credited to literature produced by Heritage House ’76, an organization that describes itself as the “precious feet people, saving babies and serving families.” The organization’s mission explains “due to the unstable and uncertain times our world offers we are dedicated to serve the Pro-Life movement with solid and unchanging convictions of the heart.”
Sex Respect also recommends a number of crisis pregnancy centers and suggests that teachers “have a speaker from a pro-life crisis pregnancy organization come and talk about the risks of abortion and the benefits of adoption.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 110) Students are told that these “new organizations have been started by caring women to help other women recover from the long term affect of their past abortions. They also have hotlines to help young women think through their choices before they decide.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 114)
Crisis pregnancy centers are community-based organizations set up to assist young pregnant women. Most crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) have an anti-abortion agenda, their goal is to convince young women not to have abortions. In addition, many CPCs have ties to religious organizations. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for CPCs to be less-than-honest about their stance on abortion when they talk to young women facing an unintended pregnancy.
Dismissing Pregnant or Parenting Teens
It is also important to remember that many young people enrolled in the course may already be pregnant or parenting a child. Although Sex Resepct cautions teachers to “be sensitive to the needs and feelings of the teen that already has a baby at home,” the discussion is nonethess clearly telling any young person who faced an unintended pregnancy and did not choose adoption, that she has made the wrong decision. (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 111)
It is never 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 teen 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, Sex Respect does not allow individuals to make informed, personal decisions.
Biases Based on Race and Social Class—Promoting Stereotypes
In addition to the biases that are revealed when the curriculum discusses topics such as gender, marriage, homosexuality, and pregnancy options, more subtle biases based on race and social or economic class seem to run throughout the curriculum.
For the most part, the curriculum seems to be written exclusively for white, middle class students. Stories and suggestions given by the curriculum are most relevant to middle class communities and pictures of happy Caucasian students grace most pages of the student workbook. It is worth noting, however, that the “Sex Respect Rap” is printed over pictures of African-American students.
Stereotypes based on race are also revealed in stories the curriculum tells. In one story Sex Respect tells of the relationship between LaWanda and Calvin. These names suggest the characters are African-American, especially given that most other stories in Sex Respect feature young people with names like Ron, Erica, Cindy, and Joe.
The story starts by explaining that Calvin was popular and “LaWanda knew she wasn’t especially pretty and she wasn’t used to someone having time for her, so she liked the attention.” LaWanda eventually fell deeply for Calvin, “she wouldn’t even have minded having a baby with him.” After they had sex, Calvin broke up with her. Although LaWanda was devastated, those around her were not surprised because “everyone also knew Calvin, and this was nothing new to him.” The curriculum explains that, “LaWanda was torn apart by the pain of being left alone by the men in her life, first by her father and now Calvin.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 50)
This story is replete with stereotypes about the African-American community that represent young men as players, young women as wanting to have babies, and all families as living without fathers. These stereotypes are particularly troubling in light of the curricula’s continuing attempts to pit “good” students who abstain against their troubled, sexually active peers.
In fact, the curriculum includes many comments based on stereotypes and myths about racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. For example, in explaining why it does not address birth control, the Teacher Manual says “birth control does not improve illiteracy or lack of educational motivation, two main characteristics of poor teens who have babies.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p. 13) Later, the curriculum warns teachers to, “take special care when considering the tendency of economically disadvantaged groups to be survival-oriented and not goal-oriented.” (Sex Respect, Teacher Manual, p.85)
Remarks such as these represent commonly held stereotypes that suggest unintended pregnancies only happen in underserved communities and that teens in these communities are somehow to blame. While underserved communities have historically been disproportionately affected by unintended pregnancies and STDs, it is unfair and inaccurate to insinuate that only teens in these communities are at risk or that these teens are unmotivated or lazy. Further, it is worth noting that abstinence will also not solve the underlying disparities in wealth, education, and health care that these communities must face.
In addition to stereotypes based on race and ethnicity, the curriculum seems to play up differences between social classes. At one point students are told to “put yourself on a diet of love.” To do this the curriculum suggests, for example, that students “give food to a garbage picker.”
It is never appropriate for a curriculum to perpetuate myths or stereotypes about race or social class.
Sex Respect includes 12 chapters: “SEX: What We Are and What a Difference!”; “Who’s in Charge Here? Mind Over Matter”; “Free Sex: Is It? Or Isn’t It?”; “Who’s Kidding Whom?”; “Sex on Credit: Play Now, Pay Later”; “AIDS: A Risky Business for Everyone”; “Yes to Love, No to Fear”; “Dating: Is it Working for Us?”; “Staying Cool—With Respect”; “Hey Now, Get a New Start”; “Marriage…To Love and to Cherish”; and “So Basically.” The curriculum also includes a section entitled “Do You Really Know the Facts?” and a glossary.
Sex Respect is a strict abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum that is based on religious teachings, relies on messages designed to instill fear and shame in young people, distorts information, and includes numerous biases. In addition, Sex Respect discourages critical thinking and seems unlikely to appeal to young people.
Curricula Strong Points—Involving Parents and Analyzing the Media
One strength of Sex Respect is the dedication to involving parents. The curriculum comes with a Parent’s Guide designed to lead them step by step through the program and includes many homework assignments for students to complete with their parents. SIECUS believes that parents are, and should be, the primary sexuality educators of their children and applauds Sex Respect for promoting parental involvement and recognizing the importance of a family’s personal values.
In addition, Sex Respect encourages young people to look at how the media portrays sexuality and analyze whether the messages they are getting from movies, television, and music are healthy or unhealthy. Young people are bombarded with messages about sexuality everyday and it is important that education programs help them decipher and understand these messages. SIECUS applauds Sex Respect for undertaking this necessary task.
Dictating to Students—Preventing Critical Thinking
Unfortunately exercises that encourage young people to analyze issues are rare. In fact, the author appears to believe that young people are incapable of making good decisions and the curriculum often discourages critical thinking.
Although students are asked to participate in a number of “brainstorms,” these exercises are designed to lead students toward one decision. For example, students are told, “many wise people agree that a relationship in which both partners are committed for life is the best setting for sex.” While this is true, it is not a universally held value. Instead of asking students to examine this statement and consider the values of their families and communities, Sex Respect simply asks “for what reasons is this a good idea?” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 14).
Exercises such as these suggest that Sex Respect does not trust students’ ability to analyze an issue. This belief is underscored when the author argues that teaching teens about birth control and abstinence sends a mixed message. To explain this to students, the curriculum says “what if all teens were told that the security at the shopping mall was out this weekend: no guards, no beepers, no security video cameras? Do you think shoplifting would increase or decrease?”
Young people receive mixed messages in all aspects of their life. Sex Respect would better serve students by helping them develop the critical-thinking and decision-making skills they need to decipher these messages and make responsible decisions throughout their lives.
Finally, Sex Respect tells young people that the only solution is to avoid all sexual messages and situations. “There are voices out in the world that say ‘wait until you are mature enough’ or ‘wait until you are in love’ or ‘wait until you are ready.’
In other words, they are just telling you to put off the decision. And even so, how DO you know? This brings a form of confusion that complicates every relationship you are in. Without a firm commitment to wait until marriage, you might also let your feelings decide for you at a weak moment.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 30) Later the curriculum suggests, “once you quit watching the movies and TV shows that try to get you to think premarital sex is normal, you’ll be able to have your own clear thoughts on the issue.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 111)
It is not possible for teenagers to simply avoid all sexual messages nor is it appropriate to suggest that this is the only way for young people to ensure that they will remain abstinent or free from pregnancy and disease. While Sex Respect may not trust young people, students must understand that they have the right and the ability to process information, seek knowledge, and make responsible sexual decisions throughout their lives.
An Outdated Presentation—Failing to Appeal to Young People
Although Sex Respect has been updated and reprinted a number of times since it was originally written in the early 1980s, it seems woefully out of touch with today’s teenagers.
The curriculum is printed in black and white and features numerous cartoons that seemed aimed at a younger audience. These cartoons often have related captions such as the drawing of the tennis player with the description “Your type of Love is not my racket,” or the picture of a football player that reads “Score on the field. Not on your date!” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 85) In fact, Sex Respect relies on a number of these slogans or catch phrases such as:
These slogans lack the sophistication that young people have become accustomed to from media sources such as MTV, movies, music, and television.
Sex Respect seems similarly out of touch with what young people do in their spare time and how they speak to each other. For example, in one cartoon after the characters decided not to engage in sexual behavior, one says to the other, “let’s go to the village for a pineapple float to cool off.” (Sex Respect, Student Workbook, p. 97) Sex Respect also offers young people 25 ways to say no to sex. These include:
Like many adults, Sex Respect is speaking to young people using language that the adults are comfortable with. Unfortunately, this is rarely effective. To reach young people, education programs need to understand their world and identify the most effective and appealing methods and language.
In order to convince students to remain abstinent until marriage, Sex Respect presents opinions and beliefs as universal truths; relies on messages of fear and shame; provides outdated and inaccurate medical information; and portrays a biased view of gender, marriage, family structure, pregnancy options, sexual orientation, and race and social class. The format and underlying biases of the curriculum do not allow for cultural, community, and individual values, and discourage critical thinking or discussions of alternative points of view in the classroom.
Ultimately, Sex Respect falls far short of meeting the needs of young people so that they may develop the skills and knowledge necessary to become sexually healthy adults.
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