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Why kNOw?, a curriculum for Middle School and High School students, is produced and distributed by Why kNOw Abstinence Education Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The organization was formerly a division of AAA Women's Services, Inc., a crisis pregnancy center. Crisis pregnancy centers are community-based organizations set up to assist young pregnant women. They typically advertise as providing medical services and then use anti-abortion propaganda, misinformation, and fear and shame tactics to dissuade women facing unintended pregnancies from exercising their right to choose. Many crisis pregnancy centers have ties to religious organizations.

The Why kNOw? curriculum is divided into 19 lessons for grades 6–12. The five lesson plans for sixth grade are: “Importance of Family,” “Puberty,” “Pressures/ Boundaries,” “Sexually Transmitted Diseases,” and “Jeopardy Game.” The five lessons for seventh grade are: “Guard Your Heart,” “Let's Go Fishing,” “Sexually Transmitted Diseases,” “Wedding Customs,” and “Media Pressures.” The nine lessons for eighth grade and high school are: “Guard Your Heart,” “Sexually Transmitted Diseases,” “What Goes on Behind Closed Doors,” “Sexual Progression,” “Real Love vs. False Love,” “Differences,” “Is Love Greek to You?,” “Taking a Stand,” and “The Price is Right.”

Why kNOw? was reviewed for The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence Only Education Programs, a 2004 report released by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), which roundly criticized 11 of the 13 most popularly used curricula in federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for including factual inaccuracies, religious undertones, false and misleading information about contraception and abortion, and gender stereotypes. Both Rep. Waxman and SIECUS reviewed the 2002 edition of the Why kNOw? curriculum. Why kNOw has informed SIECUS that the organization has created a second edition of this curriculum and that the authors are in the process of updating it.  SIECUS will update our review when the latest edition becomes available.

SIECUS' curricula reviews are based on the Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education, K–12 which were developed by a task force of professionals from the fields of education, medicine, youth services, and sexuality education. The Guidelines are a framework for comprehensive sexuality education programs and represent a consensus about the necessary components of such programs. Abstinence is one of 39 topics included in the Guidelines.

Like many other abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, Why kNOw? offers limited information about important topics in human sexuality such as puberty, anatomy, and human reproduction, and no information about sexual orientation or gender identity. Why kNOw? does contain some detailed information about sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS, however, much of this information is outdated, inaccurate, and misleading. In addition, the curriculum presents information about condoms which is focused on exaggerated failure rates, and contains almost no information about other forms of contraception.

Instead, Why kNOw? relies on negative messages, distorts information, and presents biased views on gender, marriage, family structure, sexual orientation, and pregnancy options. In addition, Why kNOw? teaches a “traditionalism” that is patently religious in nature, and even goes so far as to teach Bible stories as history. These biased and inaccurate messages are clearly out of touch with the health needs of America 's youth.

Not Appropriate for Public Schools

Why kNOw? is based on numerous biases that promote one world view largely based in Judeo-Christian religion as fact without acknowledging that there is not universal agreement on many of the issues it discusses.

Based on Religion—Promoting One World View

Both Why kNOw? Abstinence Education Inc. and its former parent organization, AAA Women's Services, refer to sex as a “gift from God” and refer students and other patrons to Christian service organizations. The curriculum also includes numerous references to religion and religious organizations.

Why kNOw? consistently refers to theology as history and to Christian customs as American traditions. For example, in the “Real Love/False Love” lesson, intended for students in eighth grade or higher, the curriculum tells students that the “best guideline about love ever written” is from 56 AD, and then hands out a direct paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:4: “Real Love: is patient; is kind; does not envy; does not boast; is not proud; is not rude; is not self-seeking; is not easily angered; keeps no record of wrongs; does not delight in evil; rejoices with the truth; always protects; always trusts; always hopes; always lasts; [and] never fails.” (Why kNOw?, 8 th grade and high school, p. 118) Why kNOw? also quotes the Song of Songs as a “historical book” and claims that “though the origin of the name ‘French Kissing' is unknown, King Solomon should take credit for the act.” (Why kNOw?, 8 th grade and high school, p. 108)

Although it does not identify it as such, Why kNOw? also uses religious language. In an activity on love, the curriculum uses several Greek words to define different types of love. The ultimate type of love, which the curriculum calls unconditional love, is referred to as Agape. While this does have its roots in ancient Greece, today the word is more commonly associated with Christianity where it means “love as revealed in Jesus, seen as spiritual and selfless.”[1]

Presenting biblical language, stories, and quotes as historical fact is never appropriate for public schools.

Why kNOw? also promotes outside religious organizations. For example, it refers several times to the “True Love Waits revolution” and recommends that students contact their local chapter to obtain a copy of the virginity pledge. (Why kNOw?, 7 th grade, p. 52) The True Love Waits program is sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources, which is owned and operated by the Southern Baptist Convention. True Love Waits hosts events across the country at which young people take virginity pledges—promises to remain abstinent until marriage. Its virginity pledge specifically asks young people to commit “to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children until the day I enter a biblical marriage relationship.”

It is not appropriate for an education program in a public school to refer young people to programs or services which are religious in nature and promote a specific set of religious beliefs.

It is also worth noting that research has found virginity pledges such as the one promoted by Why kNOw? to be ineffective and potentially harmful. Research has found that under certain conditions these pledges may help some adolescents delay sexual intercourse. When they work, pledges help this select group of adolescents delay the onset of sexual intercourse for an average of 18 months—far short of marriage. Researchers found that pledges only worked when taken by a small group of students. Pledges taken by a whole class were ineffective. More importantly, the studies also found that those young people who took a pledge were one-third less likely to use contraception when they did become sexually active than their peers who had not pledged. These teens are therefore more vulnerable to the risks of unprotected sexual activity such as unintended pregnancy and STDs, including HIV/AIDS. Further research has confirmed that although some students who take pledges delay intercourse, ultimately they are equally as likely to contract an STD as their non-pledging peers. The study also found that the STD rates were higher in communities where a significant proportion (over 20%) of the young people had taken virginity pledges.[2]

In our pluralistic society that believes in a separation of church and state, it is not sufficient for Why kNOw? to thinly veil its religious content or attempt to pass it off as history. This curriculum is patently religious in nature and therefore inappropriate for our schools.

Opinions Not Fact—Promoting a Biased Reading of History

Why kNOw? consistently slips politicized readings of history into lessons about sexuality. The curriculum spends a great deal of time blaming the problems of STDs, HIV, and families “being torn apart” on the “sexual revolution.” Blanket statements like “one of the worst consequences of the 60s was what is called the sexual revolution” (Why kNOw?, 7th grade, p. 50) suggest a conservative interpretation of American history and deny the importance of the social movements, such as women's rights and gender equality, that rose out of the 1960s. The curriculum makes no attempt to provide contrasting views of the sexual revolution, preferring to paint it as an evil consequence of an unfortunate time.

Relying on Negative Messages

While the immediate goal of many sexuality education programs may be to delay students' initiation of sexual intercourse (possibly until marriage) or to increase their use of pregnancy- and disease-prevention methods, many programs also have the long-term goal of promoting sexual health. Because abstinence-only-until-marriage programs are often the only formal setting in which young people learn about sexuality, the information and messages in the curricula can have a lifelong impact on how they view sexuality.

Abstinence is an integral part of any comprehensive sexuality education program. SIECUS ' Guidelines suggest that students be told that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the most effective method of preventing pregnancy and STDs, including HIV. The Guidelines include a number of age-appropriate messages about abstinence for students such as: “Young teenagers are not mature enough for a sexual relationship that includes intercourse”; “Abstinence from intercourse has benefits for teenagers”; and “Teenagers in romantic relationships can express their feelings without engaging in sexual intercourse.”

Instead of presenting this kind of balanced, complete picture of abstinence and sexual activity, Why kNOw? puts forth exaggerated message 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 and Shame—Trying to Scare Students and Instill Guilt

Why kNOw? is based on the assumption that sexual activity outside of marriage is inevitably harmful. Rather than allow young people to explore the values of their families and communities, the curriculum presents this as fact and uses it as a starting point for further conversations. It asks sixth grade students: “How many of you know that sex outside a faithful marriage relationship can cause out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, broken hearts, and shattered dreams and goals? Yet people continue to have sex out-of-wedlock and think that nothing will happen to them.” (Why kNOw?, 6 th grade, p. 28)

The curriculum underscores this message of fear when it compares sex to an amusement park ride. In a font normally reserved for the opening credits of a horror movie, a transparency tells students: “WARNING! Going on this ride could change your life forever, result in poverty, heartache, disease, and even DEATH.” It goes on to say that many “will board this ride and come out losers.” (Why kNOw?, 6 th grade, p. 26)

Throughout the program, Why kNOw? likens sexual behavior outside of marriage to clearly harmful or immoral behavior such as smoking, drinking, using drugs, lying, stealing, and cheating. In a lesson entitled “Let's Go Fishing,” the curriculum suggests that all of these behaviors are enticing lures, “But if we take the bait, they could lead to our ultimate destruction or death. It may not be a physical death, but just as real—the death of a relationship, a friendship, a dream or a goal.” (Why kNOw?, 7th grade, p. 45)

There is no evidence that sexual behavior outside of marriage leads to everything from poverty to shattered dreams; this emphasis on negative outcomes is clearly meant to scare students rather than inform them. In addition, while smoking, speeding, and using illegal drugs are behaviors we never want for our young people, sexuality is a natural and healthy part of life and most parents want their children to have a healthy adult sex life. It is important to remember that the negative messages young people learn about sexuality in programs such as Why kNOw? may very well follow them into adulthood.

Nonetheless, the curriculum blames many personal and societal problems on new social norms that have been more accepting of premarital sexual behavior and suggests that teens should feel guilty, embarrassed, and ashamed of sexual behavior. Why kNOw? claims that the sexual revolution has caused a previously unheard-of “breakdown of families and traditional values.” (Why kNOw?, 7 th grade, p. 58) It explains, “sex was never meant to make people sick, yet the practice of casual sex has done just that.” (Why kNOw?, 8 th grade and high school, p. 146) By seeking to connect sexual behavior to social failure, Why kNOw? sends the message that teens who engage in sexual activity are harming not only themselves, but all of society.

It is important to remember that 47% of all high school students and 61% of high school seniors have had sexual intercourse. Telling these students that they face a lifetime of failure and are responsible for societal problems can only do harm.

Sexual Arousal and Behavior—Portraying Sex as an Uncontrollable Force

After telling young people that sexual behavior is harmful, Why kNOw? goes on to describe sexual desire as a force that students cannot control. The curriculum explains the steps of sexual activity as: attraction, holding hands/simple kissing, prolonged kissing, French kissing, Star Trek kissing, and intercourse. Star Trek Kissing is so named because “hands will boldly go where no hands have gone before!” Sex is defined as any activity that causes genital arousal and Star Trek kissing is identified as the “final stage before intercourse.” (Why kNOw?, 8 th grade and high school, p. 108)

This explanation of sexual progression is problematic for many reasons. First, it suggests that all couples and all sexual activity follow the exact same pattern. It does not leave room for students to discuss the possibility that in some relationships sexual behavior may take other forms or progress in different orders and as such misses a critical opportunity to help teens explore responsible sexual decision making. Specifically, by lumping all sexual behavior other than kissing and intercourse into one category, the authors are missing an opportunity to discuss such sexual behaviors as oral sex, which is a growing concern for health educators because recent research shows that teenagers are not aware of the risks of STD transmission.

It appears that the authors' main purpose in describing these stages of sexual progression is to suggest that once teens engage in any sexual activity they will be unable to stop and will ultimately have intercourse. A transparency illustrates these stages as a river leading to the rapids of “Star Trek kissing” and then over the waterfall of intercourse. The other side of the falls is labeled “end of relationship in present form.”

The curriculum goes on to give teens the following advice for avoiding this uncontrollable force including, “do not lie down horizontally together—even to watch T.V;” “Do not go parking or place yourself in an isolated situation where a potential ‘make-out session' could occur;” and “don't go to the house of someone of the opposite sex when parents are not at home.” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 131) Students are told that if they do so, “you would be placing yourself in a potentially dangerous or tempting situation.” (Why kNOw?, 6th grade, p. 33)

Why kNOw? would better serve students with an honest discussion of sexual activity and skills building exercises designed to help young people think critically about sexual decisions and negotiate sexual behavior.

Unfortunately, the curriculum simply sticks to scare tactics. In fact, it teaches that sex is an addiction which can be hard to quit. In a diary section it tells the story of Kim who “got rid of those crab things but then she got pregnant and had an abortion in July. She and James are still having sex, even though she says she wants to stop but she can't.” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 136).

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 or have engaged in sexual activity in the past, they have the right and the ability to set their own sexual boundaries.

Sexual Assault and Abuse—Blaming the Victim

Although Why kNOw? does not directly address the issue of domestic violence or abusive relationships, several of the examples used in the “Real Love/False Love” lesson plan for eighth grade and high school include physical or emotional abuse. Why kNOw? places these in the category of false love that it calls “Addictive Love.”

The curriculum misses an important opportunity to open a discussion with students about the dangers of abusive relationships. Instead, Why kNOw? implies that students who find themselves in abusive relationships are unhealthy and irresponsible.

The curriculum uses the following example to illustrate its point: “A young lady breaks up a terrible dating relationship. She goes into a depression and her doctor puts her on Prozac. In talking with her, the counselor discovers that her boyfriend has hit her several times. When the counselor asks if she realizes this was not a healthy relationship and she is better off without him, she responds, ‘I know but I love him.'”

After hearing this story, students are asked why the young woman says she loves him and if this is normal. The answer explains that a woman who is addicted to love “can't distinguish between what is normal and what isn't. Because she has placed no real value on herself, all value was placed on the boyfriend and the continuing relationship. Being hit was just part of ‘being in love.' A healthy person can see through this in a minute, but to the person addicted to love, it's not so easy.” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 113)

With messages like this, Why kNOw? clearly implies that women in abusive relationships are only there because they are unhealthy. According to the 1998 Commonwealth Fund survey, 31% of American women report being abused by a boyfriend or spouse at some point in their lifetime.[3] It is therefore likely that some of the students in the class may have experienced abuse themselves or seen a parent or friend go through it. It is irresponsible and unconscionable for Why kNOw? to blame abuse on the victim rather than the perpetrator, and doing so can only serve to further harm these young people.

Distorting Information

Why kNOw? includes detailed discussions of STDs and condoms that offer some important information but nonetheless seem designed to scare students and make them feel guilty. Ultimately these discussions may discourage prevention, testing, and treatment.

STDs—Focusing on Worst Case Scenarios and Relying on Guilt

Why kNOw? includes a detailed lesson on STDs in which it lists the cause, modes of transmission, incubation period, symptoms, treatment, and prevention for each of the major STDs. Unfortunately, this information is often inaccurate, incomplete, exaggerated, and biased.

The curriculum explains that most STDs can be transmitted through oral, vaginal, and anal sex. Oddly, however, the discussion of Chlamydia omits oral sex as a possible mode of transmission even though Chlamydia infections of the throat resulting from oral sex are, in fact, well-documented. Why kNOw? also focuses its discussion of the transmission of syphilis on the remote possibility of non-sexual transmission: “[syphilis] can be spread by non-sexual contact if the sores (chancre), rashes, or mucous patches caused by syphilis come in contact with the broken skin of a non-infected individual.” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 90) At the same time, the curriculum limits modes of transmission of HPV to vaginal, oral, and anal sex, when in fact, intercourse of any kind is not necessary because this virus can be transmitted through simple skin to skin contact. In addition, in discussions of Hepatitis B and HIV, Why kNOw? suggests that prevention involves abstaining from “vaginal, oral and especially anal sex.” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 94)

This may leave young people with the mistaken impression that anal intercourse is by nature riskier than vaginal intercourse. These incomplete and inaccurate statements about transmission do not help young people accurately evaluate the risk of sexual behaviors.

The discussion of STDs also includes a list of symptoms for each disease, more often than not, however, the curriculum glosses over initial symptoms and focuses on the more severe consequences that might result if the STD is left untreated. For example, although the curriculum mentions that genital warts might not be visible, it describes HPV as causing “cauliflower-like warts” and explains warts “can become large and block urethra, vagina, anus, or throat.” While it is true that if left untreated genital warts can become large and resemble cauliflower, in their initial stages, warts are tiny, raised bumps. By focusing on what STDs might look like if left untreated, the curriculum is missing an opportunity to help young people identify a problem as soon as possible and seek testing and treatment immediately.

The curriculum also focuses much of its discussion on the health consequences of untreated STDs in pregnant women. Students are told that “premature birth, infant pneumonia, and neonatal eye infections may result from transmission of [Chlamydia] during delivery.” In the discussion of syphilis, students are told that “If treated (sic) is not received, a pregnant woman will usually transmit the disease to the unborn child. Stillbirth and death within the neonatal period occur in 25% of these cases.” A similar statement about herpes states “if a woman has an outbreak close to her cervix, it can kill the developing fetus.” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 92) It is worth noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's STD hotline could not confirm this last fact.[4]

Why kNOw? is produced and distributed by a crisis pregnancy center which may explain the authors' fascination with pregnancy-related complications of STDs. Still, the emphasis seems inappropriate given that pregnancy is not a primary health care issue for middle school and high school students. The authors seem to be using these facts as a way to scare students rather than educate them. Perhaps this is why the curriculum fails to mention that screening for STDs is a routine part of prenatal care.

Instead of scaring students, the curriculum could have used information about STDs during pregnancy as a way to emphasize the importance of proper screening and treatment for these diseases throughout life. Unfortunately, the curriculum says nothing about testing and very little about treatment except to consistently remind students that while some STDs can be cured, “antibiotics cannot undo the damage done prior to treatment.” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 92) The end result of this incomplete discussion may very well be to discourage young people from seeking testing and treatment when necessary.

In fact, the curriculum further discourages young people from taking care of themselves by suggesting that STDs are a cause for shame and embarrassment. It refers to herpes as the “gift that keeps on giving” and explains that “persons with herpes often feel ‘dirty' and their overall enjoyment of sex decreases.” (Why kNOw?, 8 th grade and high school, p. 93) This concept is underscored in a later activity called “the Diary.” According to the “author” of the diary, “Janice said that Lisa said that Kim said that she got crabs from her boyfriend, James. Kim knows that James is probably still sleeping with that dirty girl he was going with before he met her.” (Why kNOw?, 8 th grade and high school, p. 136) Although pubic lice, or crabs, are not mentioned in the lesson on STDs, the clear implication here is that only “dirty” people get STDs. Students need to know that STDs are the result of a person's behavior not his or her hygiene or moral character.

Finally, the curriculum says nothing about prevention methods other than abstinence from oral, anal, or vaginal sex which it describes as “100% effective.” Not only does this miss the opportunity to educate young people about the importance of using condoms if they do become sexually active, it's not entirely accurate. For example, a teen could abstain from oral, vaginal, and anal sex and still be exposed to HPV through other sexual activities that involve skin-to-skin contact.

Ultimately, Why kNOw's? discussion of STDs is dangerously biased, misleading, and incomplete.

Condoms—Exaggerating Failure and Discouraging Use

Why kNOw? consistently highlights its message that “saving sex for marriage, and each partner remaining faithful, is the only way to avoid STDs.” (Why kNOw?, 8 th grade and high school, p. 146) To convince students of this idea, the curriculum provides distorted information about other disease prevention methods such as condoms. While abstinence until a faithful marriage can be the most effective way of avoiding most STDs, it is irresponsible for a health curriculum to deny information about other methods of risk reduction to students.

Why kNOw? goes beyond that, however, and deliberately undermines young people's faith in condoms. Students are told that “the condom has a 14% failure rate in preventing pregnancy.” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 86) What they don't explain, however, is that this number refers to all failures, most of which are caused by incorrect use, not condom malfunction.

To fully understand condom effectiveness, students must understand the difference between method failure and user failure. Method failure refers to failure which 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.[5]

Still, Why kNOw? dramatizes condom failure with analogies such as one that compares having sex to jumping out of a plane. Married couples, the curriculum explains, have parachutes, but for unmarried couples, using a condom is equivalent to grasping the corners of a folded blanket and hoping for the best. Singles, Why kNOw? tells us, would be better off staying in the plane because “if we jump without being married, we're going to go ‘SPLAT.'” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 98)

The same lesson plan instructs teachers to construct an eighteen-foot long Speedy the Sperm © out of what essentially amounts to a pillow and a piece of rope. Speedy is designed to be exactly 450 times the size of a penny, because “the HIV virus is 450 times smaller than a human sperm.” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 96) The teacher is told to stretch Speedy © out to his full length, then hold up a penny and ask the students: “If the condom has a failure rate of 14% in preventing Speedy © from getting through to create a new life, what happens if this guy (the penny) gets through? You have a death: your own.” (Why kNOw?, 8 th grade and high school, p. 96) While the curriculum does not actually state that condoms may have holes large enough for the HIV virus to travel through, this is clearly the implication behind this activity.

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.[6]

Why kNOw? frequently relies on innuendo and implication instead of science. The curriculum explains that women are only fertile for “6 days each cycle,” then states: “since the HIV virus is smaller than a sperm and can infect you any day of the month, the failure rate of the condom to prevent AIDS is logically much worse than its failure rate to prevent pregnancy.” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 96) There is nothing logical about this statement—it is simply 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, including HIV.[7] To state otherwise is in direct conflict with the laws of probability and scientific research.

This lesson plan 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.

Why kNOw? does not teach about contraception options other than condoms, and yet it seems to discourage the use of these methods anyhow. The curriculum tells young people that “there will never be any form of birth control or protection that will teach faithfulness, trustworthiness, responsibility, and commitment.” (Why kNOw?, 6th grade, p. 34) It further discourages young people from seeking contraception by suggesting that family planning providers have ulterior motives. In an exercise designed to help young people see double messages, students read a letter from “Your friendly Family Planning Agency.” The letter states that young people should be abstinent but: “If, however, you find you can't control yourself, here are some condoms. They won't protect your emotions but they might protect your body. If you do contract a sexually transmitted disease, remember it's not the condom's fault; you probably didn't use it right. After all, who can expect perfection? It's only your life.” It's worth noting that the exercise includes similar letters from “Your local Tobacco Distributor,” “Your local Alcohol Distributor,” and “Your local drug pusher.” (Why kNOw?, 6th grade, p. 23)

Undermining young people's faith in health care providers who are there to help them can only make it less likely that they seek such services when the do become sexually active.

Promoting Biases

In addition to relying on fear, shame, and inaccurate information, Why kNOw? is based on a number of underlying biases and assumptions about gender, marriage, family structure, sexual orientation, and pregnancy options. Presenting these biases as universal truths does little to inform students and instead fosters myths and misunderstandings.

Gender—Promoting Stereotypes as True

Why kNOw? relies on gender-biased assumptions throughout the curricula, from the discussions on sexual arousal to those on relationships. Statements 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 Why kNOw?.

Specifically, Why kNOw? perpetuates the stereotype of female responsibility for male desire. In this curriculum teen girls are held accountable for the effect that their appearance and behavior has on men. Why kNOw? warns that “the young girl learning to understand her changing body often has no idea the effect it has on surrounding males. Signals she doesn't even know she is sending can cause big problems.” (Why kNOw?, 6th grade, p. 17).

The idea that teen girls are to modify their behavior so that the boys around them can control theirs is also highlighted in the scenarios used as class activities. One such example tells students about Stephanie and Drew, a couple trying to save sex for marriage. Stephanie is too affectionate and wears tight clothing: “Drew likes her a lot, but lately keeping his hands off her has been a real job!” Stephanie has been clear with Drew that she doesn't want to have sex, “her actions, however, are not matching her words.” (Why kNOw?, 7th grade, p. 76).

By highlighting Drew's difficulties “keeping his hands off” Stephanie, Why kNOw? misses an opportunity to promote good communication about sexual expectations. The curriculum ignores the importance of Stephanie's words while choosing to focus on her clothing. As a result, it teaches that men cannot control themselves and that women cannot dress sexually or behave affectionately without provoking expectations of sex. Messages like these undermine the importance of teaching responsibility to teen boys. The lesson suggests that Stephanie's tight clothing and affectionate behavior are an invitation to sex, instead of focusing on her expressed desire to remain abstinent. Why kNOw? makes Drew's sexual desire Stephanie's fault, and reinforces a lack of male sexual responsibility.

The curriculum also reinforces the idea that men do, and perhaps should, have more control over a relationship. Cultural assumptions like “young girls especially have a tendency to get their identity from a young man and the relationship” (Why kNOw?, 6 th grade, p. 35) are taught as psychological fact, and not as an opportunity to foster discussion about the importance of individuality and expression. Why kNOw? uses this statement to warn girls out of all relationships rather than helping young people recognize healthy and unhealthy relationships.

Why kNOw? goes so far as to reinforce an outdated cultural view of women as property. One activity instructs teachers to ask their high school students if any of them would hand over the keys to their car to a complete stranger on a Saturday night. When the teens say no, the teacher is to “remind them that parents may feel the same way when surrendering their daughters to a date they have never met.” (Why kNOw?, 8 th grade and high school, teacher note, p. 139). The expectation that parents will be worried about letting their daughters date, but not their sons, undermines teachings of individual responsibility and gender equality. It also implies that parents own their daughters in the same way that teens might own a car.

A similar implication is made during a lesson plan on marriage traditions. Why kNOw? claims that the tradition of lifting the veil shows that “the groom [is] the only man allowed to ‘uncover the bride,'” and that it demonstrates “her respect for him by illustrating that she [has] not allowed any other man to lay claim to her.” (Why kNOw?, 7th grade, p. 60) While this may be one interpretation of this custom, it is not how all religions view the lifting of the veil. Moreover, this interpretation once again implies that women are property; this time it is a husband who may “lay claim to her.”

Once again, Why kNOw? 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. More importantly, however, these outdated messages portray an alarming view in which gender inequality in relationships is not just acceptable but expected. Young people need to be taught that in any relationship, men and women have equal rights and responsibilities.

Marriage—Promoting One Lifestyle

Like most abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula, Why kNOw? is based on the belief that the only appropriate context for sexual behavior is a heterosexual marriage. Marriage, and abstinence before marriage, are explained as the social norm. Students are told that “today many do not realize that sex outside of a faithful marriage commitment breaks the rules of relationships. They want the freedom to ‘shop around' sexually without realizing how dramatically this dilutes the physical and emotional bonding of intercourse.” (Why kNOw?, 6th grade, p. 11) Why kNOw? is so adamant about this “rule” that the authors “…expect teachers or instructors who are single to live by the guidelines taught in this program.” (Why kNOw?, introduction)

While many individuals and religions believe that premarital sexual behavior is wrong, this is far from a universal value. The vast majority of Americans begin having sexual relationships in their teens, fewer than seven percent of men and 20 percent of women ages 18–50 were virgins when they were married, and only 10 percent of adult men and 22 percent of adult women report their first sexual intercourse was with their spouse.[8] It is likely this “standard” was never true in America ; a third of all Pilgrim brides were pregnant when they were married.[9]

The concept of chastity until marriage for all people may be unrealistic in an age when young people are reaching puberty earlier than ever before, when 62 percent of high school seniors have engaged in sexual intercourse, when 80 percent of college students ages 18–24 have engaged in sexual intercourse,[10] and when the median age of first marriage is 27.1 for men and 25.3 for women.[11]

Nonetheless, the curriculum presents this message as indisputable scientific fact: “At some point we have to acknowledge that medically, socially, economically, and psychologically, the healthiest form of sexual activity is a faithful, monogamous marriage relationship.” (Why kNOw?, 7th grade, p. 49)

To convince young people to follow this standard, Why kNOw? explains that married people are happier, healthier, and have better sex. The curriculum assures students that, “marriage is not old-fashioned, it is the healthiest choice for this generation and the next.” (Why kNOw?, 8 th grade and High School, p. 149) It explains that, “to experience the fullness of sexual intimacy, a lasting commitment must be present. This commitment is known as marriage.” (Why kNOw?, 6th grade, p. 22) The curriculum offers the following as proof: “Sex therapists tell us that the most satisfying sex occurs in a faithful, committed marriage in which each person is fully accepted for who he/she is—strengths and weaknesses.” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 127)

Although Why kNOw? insists that marriage is the right choice for all couples, the curriculum does acknowledge that some students may believe that they never want to marry. Teachers are told to explain that the motivation for this statement is fear, most likely based on the fact that many young people in our society have never seen a good marriage. The curriculum tells teachers to “help them see that just because they have never witnessed a happy marriage does not mean they are doomed to a bad marriage.” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 109)

While some students may be uninterested in marriage because of fear, others may have different, personal reasons or values that have lead them to this conclusion. Rather than prescribe one future relationship to all students, Why kNOw? would better serve students by allowing them to explore their own views on marriage as well as the views of society, their communities, and their families.

Family Structure—Depicting non-Traditional Families as Troubled

Why kNOw? continues to emphasize the importance of marriage by suggesting that a married, two parent family is the healthiest environment in which to raise children. The curriculum explains that “two parent households produce the greatest sense of stability and security for children.” (Why kNOw?, introduction) It argues that “divorce in our country has become all too common. But does that mean it is ‘no big deal?'” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and High School, p. 81) Why kNOw ? goes on to blame many of today's social problems on the decline of marriage, “single women are trying to be both mother and father. The absentee dad has become a norm in many communities. It is interesting that domestic violence, child abuse and increased poverty have also increased in proportion to the decline in the sanctity of marriage.” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 88)

While this discussion is aimed at directing the future life choices of young people, many of the students will likely see the implications towards their own family structures. There are many reasons—including divorce, death, desertion, cohabitation, and gay and lesbian partnerships, amongst others—that a student may live in a family that does not match the ideal model espoused by Why kNOw?. Suggesting that these families bear the responsibility for domestic violence, child abuse, and more will undoubtedly distress and alienate many students.

Sexual Orientation—Refusing to Accept Diversity

This emphasis on heterosexual married couples and their families shows a clear bias against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals. In fact, throughout the curriculum Why kNOw? refuses to acknowledge the existence of same-sex relationships. In the introduction, Why kNOw? explains that students are expected to “explore the differences between healthy and unhealthy male/female relationships” (Why kNOw?, introduction).

This underlying assumption that all relationships are heterosexual remains clear throughout the curriculum's activities and discussions. All scenarios and examples provided by Why kNOw? utilize heterosexual couples. Teachers are consistently instructed to choose one male and one female volunteer to act out scenarios involving couples. In fact, lest students get the wrong idea about certain activities, Why kNOw? tells teachers that “if your group is all one sex, you might want to write the names of the players from each scenario on the board instead of having students come to the front of the class” (Why kNOw?, 8th grade and high school, p. 83).

It is important to remember that some students in the class are likely to be gay or lesbian. By consistently ignoring the existence of LGBT individuals, Why kNOw? is reinforcing the cultural invisibility and bias that these students already face in many schools and communities. Moreover, the curriculum's focus on marriage as the only appropriate context for sexual behavior, essentially tells these students—who cannot legally marry in this country[12]—that they can never have a sexual relationship.

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. In addition, 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 Why kNOw? fails to provide these students with any realistic strategies for protecting themselves from such risks.

Abortion—Mandating Decisions for Pregnant Teens

Why kNOw? is produced by a crisis pregnancy center and yet it includes a surprising lack of discussion about pregnancy options. While out-of-wedlock pregnancy is mentioned as one of the likely consequences of premarital sex, the curriculum does not discuss what young people can or should do in such a situation. The curriculum discusses neither abortion nor adoption.

Why kNOw? does, however, use biased language that supports an anti-abortion point of view. It teaches that life begins at conception, referring consistently to the “new life” or “baby” and never teaching the term “fetus.” Students are told that “Pregnancy occurs when the sperm and the ovum join (FERTILIZATION) and a new life is formed.” (Why kNOw?, 6th grade, p. 15). By refusing to use scientific language or even acknowledge any level of scientific and religious debate about the beginnings of life, Why kNOw? clearly intends to bias students about reproductive options.

Denying students even the opportunity to discuss practical information about teenage pregnancy prevents them from being capable of making healthy and responsible choices regarding their reproductive futures.

It is also worth noting that this curriculum provides Abstinence Education Inc. and its former parent organization AAA Women's Services, with an entrée into schools and an introduction to students. It is therefore likely that some students facing an unintended pregnancy would turn to this organization without knowing that it does not provide information or services related to all pregnancy options.


Effective sexuality education programs provide accurate information in an unbiased manner and encourage students to think critically in order to define their own values and beliefs regarding sexuality. Unfortunately, Why kNOw? does not do this. Instead, it provides incomplete and inaccurate information, presents stereotypes and biases as truths, and presents one set of values as universally accepted. The curriculum instills fear and shame in young people and discourages them from using condoms or seeking reproductive health care when they do become sexually active.

Ultimately, Why kNOw?, 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.

[1] The American Heritage College Dictionary, fourth edition (New York : Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002), 25.
[2] Peter Bearman and Hannah Brückner “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and the Transition to First Intercourse.” American Journal of Sociology 106.4 (2001): 859-912.; Peter Bearman and Hannah Brückner, “After the promise: The STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges,” Journal of Adolescent Health 36.4 (2005): 271-278.
[3] Family Violence Prevention Fund Factsheet: Health Concerns Across a Woman's Lifespan: 1998 Survey of Women's Health (Boston: The Commonwealth Fund, May 1999) accessed 22 May 2006, <>
[4] Phone call to CDC STD hotline, 28 April 2006.
[5] R.A. Hatcher, et al. 1998. Contraceptive Technology, Seventeenth Revised Edition (New York: Irvington Publishers, Inc, 1998)
[6] CDC Update, Questions and Answers on Condom Effectiveness, (Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, January 1997.)
[7] Latex Condoms and Sexually Transmitted Diseases-Prevention Messages, National Center for HIV, STD & TB Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA (undated document).
[8] Edward Laumann, et. al., The Social Organization of Sexuality—Sexual Practices in the United States (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994).
[9] John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).
[10] Jo Anne Grunbaum, et. al., “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance — United States, 2003,” Surveillance Summaries, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 53.SS-2 (21May 2004): 1- 95; “Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System— National College Health Risk Behavior Survey, 1995,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 46.SS-6 (14 November 1997).
[11] Jason Fields, Current Population Reports: America 's Families and Living Arrangements: March 2003 (Washington, DC : U.S. Census Bureau, November 2004).
[12] 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.