Pre-Packaging Gender Roles: Abstinence-Only Programs Perpetuate Dangerous Stereotypes

Martha Kempner

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. While there is some truth to the whole “men are from Mars women are from Venus” kind of thinking, the solution isn’t, as ab-only programs 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 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’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.

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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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