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How Abstinence-Only Programs Perpetuate Dangerous Stereotypes

It's bad enough the media teaches my daughter harmful gender stereotypes. Does she have to get it at school, too?

I’m fighting a losing battle right now. My enemy is dead, or if you are to believe the rumors cryogenically frozen, but in some ways he seems to have more influence over my three-year old daughter than I do. We’re in the princess phase that seems to have been mandated, if not by Walt Disney himself, than by his brilliant and powerful marketing machine.

I am trying to teach my daughter to be an independent thinker and have aspirations that go far beyond being pretty. She wants dresses that go all the way to the floor. I want her to understand that women are able to do anything they want to and that there is more to life than finding a man.She wants to twirl.

The other day we watched Little Mermaid, a movie I had once thought I liked, but seeing it through my daughter’s eyes, I was horrified. If you strip away the upbeat music, the scary octopus queen, and the Rastafarian crab, the message of this movie is that if you’re pretty and don’t say too much, you can get a prince to fall in love with you (because, after all, landing the prince is your ultimate goal).

The thing is, if abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have their way, all of our daughters are going to learn awfully similar messages in school. This year, SIECUS reviewed the entire Choosing the Best series which includes Choosing the Best WAY, PATH, LIFE, JOURNEY, and SOUL MATE. This series, written by Bruce Cook, founder of Choosing the Best, Inc. and a leader in the abstinence-only-until-marriage industry, remains quite popular around the country.These programs hold marriage (though not necessarily to a prince) out as the ultimate goal and are littered with age-old gender stereotypes that might even make old Walt wince.

Choosing the Best WAY, which is for sixth grader, starts by saying “guys and girls are really different. That’s one reason why it’s so hard to understand the opposite sex.”To illustrate this, the teacher is supposed to ask students first to hold three to four books and then to look at their fingernails. The teacher then explains, “…guys usually carry their books down by their sides. Girls usually cradle their books in their arms… guys usually look at their fingernails with their fingers curled toward the palm. Girls usually look at their nails by holding their hands outstretched in front of them.”

The activity then divides the class by gender and asks each group to answer questions such as: “Why do guys act silly and clam up around a girl? Why do guys pay so much attention to the way a girl looks?” and “Why do girls talk on the phone so much? Why do girls talk about guys all the time? Why do girls get their feelings hurt so easily?”

The notion that men and women sure are different is at the center of best-selling books, at least one Broadway play, and pretty much all episodes of “Everybody Love Raymond.” But as much as it can be mined for humor, it can also be pretty damaging.

Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, which is for juniors and seniors, prides itself on helping young people gain confidence and improve their self-esteem. Much of the program reads like a Myers/Briggs personality test or What Color is Your Parachute. Unfortunately, there are some incredibly stereotypical assumptions about what guys and girls can do.

One exercise asks young people to look at pictures which depict guys in football jerseys and a girl in a cheerleading uniform attempting to convince others of a point using a chart and a megaphone.The instructor is supposed to explain:“Look at the two pictures at the top of the page – one showing a guy who is good at getting things done and a girl who excels at relationships.”It goes on to say “Our guy will do well in ‘success situations’ that give him a chance to plan and achieve his goal; while our girl will excel in situations that allow her to influence and interact with people.”

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