Sex & Relationships

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.”

The curriculum warns, however, “The guy who is great at getting things done can become so goal-oriented that he walks all over people in his drive to achieve his goal. The girl who is wonderful with people can become so people-centered that she is distracted and has a hard time focusing on her goal.”

The pictures alone set gender equality back 25 years. More importantly, providing such stereotypical portrayals of what men and women excel at undermines the lesson’s goal of increasing self-confidence. Young people should understand that sex does not determine what they will and will not be good at in life.

All of these differences, however, seem only to be included in an effort to underscore how very different men and women are when it comes to sex and relationships. In truth, neither gender is depicted positively. Men are portrayed as cads who desire casual sex with any and all women but are frequently misunderstood and the victims of nagging women. Women, on the other, will use sex to get love and are forced to tolerate the bad behavior of the men.

These stereotypes are particularly apparent in the stories the curricula tells about young couples.

Choosing the Best JOURNEY tells the story of Ashley and Jerome who marry after just three months: “Soon Ashley began to notice some things about Jerome she had never seen before. He continued to go to sports bars and party on the weekend with his guy friends…She suggested that they go to museums or plays, but Jerome wasn’t really into ‘cultural stuff.’” Roughly the same story appears in SOUL MATE, though his name is now Michael: “When Ashley suggested they go to the library, Michael said he was proud that he hadn’t read a book since college and didn’t want to start now.”

A first person narrator in Choosing the Best SOUL MATE tells a different tale of woe:“My wife Lateisha has always been a major shopper…When I ask about her many new outfits, she always has some story about how she was ‘given’ the clothes. Lateisha keeps bouncing checks and running up credit card debt.”

The most offensive gender stereotypes, however, come in the stories of the “Disappointed Princess” and the “Knight in Shining Armor” also in SOUL MATE (which, by the way is intended for high school juniors and seniors). These parables give young people clear rules on how to interact with members of the opposite sex.

Soon after meeting a handsome and charming knight and considering marriage, the princess becomes upset because she “wanted to spend time talking about their future life together but the Knight was obviously not interested in listening. He preferred daily jousts with other Knights.” He did, however, bring her lots of gifts.
Still, the princess was lonely until one day she has horse trouble and meets a blacksmith. Despite the fact that he is “rather plain” he listens to her and she decides to marry him instead. The moral of the story “To win and keep a princess, expressing love through active listening and engaging conversation trumps gifts, activities and even looks.”

Though the moral of this story makes sense, the portrayal of women as princesses who simply crave the attention of a man is disturbing. More disturbing, however, are the messages in the curriculum’s other parable.

It begins: “Deep inside every man is a knight in shining armor, ready to rescue a maiden and slay a wicked dragon. When a man feels trusted, he is free to be the strong, protecting man he longs to be.”

Unfortunately for this knight in shining armor, his princess is not one to sit back and allow herself to be rescued. Instead, she has ideas about how he might best slay the dragons. When the second dragon attacks, she suggests that instead of the sword he uses a noose. This works and “everyone is happy, except the knight who doesn’t feel like a hero this time. He would have preferred to use his sword.” The princess’s continuing suggestions (for the third dragon she recommends poison) make the knight doubt his own instincts and feel ashamed despite the fact that he continues to slay dragons.

Then one day he hears another maiden in distress. Though he initially doubts himself, at the last minute he remembers how he used to feel “before he met the princess” and successfully uses his sword. He never does return to the princess. Instead, he lives happily ever after with the maiden, “but only after making sure she knew nothing of nooses or poison.”

The moral of this story: “Occasional suggestions and assistance may be all right, but too much of it will lessen a man’s confidence or even turn him away from his princess.” 

The suggestion that women should not have their own ideas, or worse, should suppress them in order to make men feel good, is remarkably offensive. It is bad enough that Walt Disney is teaching my daughter that she should be pretty but quiet; I don’t want her learning it in school.

Perhaps the princess knew more about dragons than the knight and understood that the second dragon had a skin too thick to be pierced by a sword or that the third should be poisoned because its neck was too strong to be quickly snapped by a noose. According to the curriculum, she should have kept this information to herself despite the risk to the castle all to ensure that she did not offend her man.

I have been married long enough to know that there is a grain of truth to the whole “men are from Mars women are from Venus” kind of thinking. But the solution isn’t, as John Grey and Bruce Cook would have us believe, to accept these behaviors as innate and unchangeable and let either sex (though let’s face it, mostly men) behave badly as result. Instead of just being told that this is what it is, students should be asked to question the nature, validity, and origin of these gender stereotypes, and to explore how stereotypes affect communication within friendships and sexual relationships.

I am pretty confident that my daughter’s princess phase will pass and she will use her strong will and stubborn streak to defend both her rights and abilities as a woman. Maybe I should remind her that the little mermaid saved the prince from drowning, not once, but twice. 

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