Marriage Promotion Trumps Effective Prevention Strategies In Abstinence-Only Programs

Martha Kempner

Abstinence-only-until-marriage program have always been more about marriage than they are about sex. Though they are often billed as replacements for comprehensive sexuality education or as teen pregnancy or STD prevention programs, in truth, they are more focused on promoting marriage than preventing anything.

Abstinence-only-until-marriage
program have always been more about marriage than they are about sex. Though they are often billed as
replacements for comprehensive sexuality education or as teen pregnancy or STD
prevention programs, in truth, they are more focused on promoting marriage than
preventing anything.

SIECUS reviewed
the five curricula in the Choosing the Best series as well as a new
supplemental curriculum produced by WAIT Training and found that the marriage
mandate is pervasive. a

According to
these curricula, everybody wants to and should get married. Choosing
the Best SOUL MATE
starts by asking students “Why do over 80% of teens have
a goal of being happily married?”

The author never
does say where he gets that statistic. Instead, the curriculum goes on to
explain why marriage is good. It describes marriage as the “super-glue that
holds a relationship together as it matures” and says it reduces abandonment
issues, fosters trust, and encourages resolving conflicts and disagreements.

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Maybe this is
true in some marriages but there are certainly married couples who still
grapple with trust and abandonment issues for example. Moreover, given the high rate of
divorce (which the curriculum readily acknowledges), it is clear that marriage
in and of itself does not necessarily encourage couples to resolve conflicts or
disagreements.

WAIT Training gets even more
specific in handout titled “The Good Stuff of Marriage” that includes such
assertions as:

Married couples
seem to build more wealth on average than singles or cohabitating couples

marriage
is associated with better health and lower rates of injury and disability for
both men and women

Healthy
marriages appear to reduce the risk that adults will either be the perpetrator
or the victim of a crime

Note the abundant use of qualifiers: “seems to build,” “appears to increase,” and “is associated
with.” What the authors deliberately
fail to include is a discussion of how these benefits may be linked to other
variables besides marriage and how other relationships may generate some of the
same benefits.

Marriage
is also hailed as the solution to unintended pregnancy and STDs. In the unit on
HIV, Choosing the Best LIFE says
this: “The only way to eliminate 100% of the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS
sexually is to be abstinent until
marriage, marry an uninfected partner and both people must remain faithful in
the marriage relationship.

There
is certainly truth to this statement; if two individuals enter into a
monogamous relationship when they are uninfected, stay faithful to each other,
and both avoid contracting HIV through other means such as infected needles,
they will remain HIV free. The key
to this arrangement, however, is the lifelong monogamous relationship. Whether
or not these two individuals are legally married is irrelevant from a public
health perspective.

Even some of the stories used in the curricula prove that a wedding ring
is not sufficient protection.

I
was rushed to the hospital with intense abdominal pain. Emergency surgery
revealed such an extensive infection that my uterus, tubes and ovaries all had
to be removed. My husband of six months had infected me with gonorrhea, which
he had contracted from a ‘one-night stand’ prior to our engagement. Our dreams
of biological children will never be realized.

It is entirely
possible that the narrator of this story followed the advice given by Choosing
the Best LIFE
and remained abstinent until her wedding night. Her exposure
to gonorrhea proves that she would have been better served by a curriculum that
provided her with information on how STDs are transmitted, how they can be
prevented, and the need for all partners to get tested. Moreover, both she and
her husband would have benefited from skills-based lessons on communications
around sexual health.

Instead, the curricula focus on marriage. Choosing the Best SOUL
MATE
includes exercises designed to help kids be good at marriage. For example, students are asked to pack
their “marriage survival kit” by selecting five items from a list of 18. Possible items include “a commitment to working to maintain
and improve your relationship,” “set of cookbooks,” “framed copy of marriage
license and best wedding photograph,” “Book: ‘What Wives Wish Husbands Knew
About Women,’” and “phone number of the nearest florist.”

The lesson here,
that communication and commitment are critical to a healthy marriage is not a
bad message for young people to learn.
Still, given that these students are a decade away from the average age
of first marriage, it seems silly to focus a lesson on communication solely on
marriage. These are skills that
young people should learn because they can help them in future friendships and
relationships regardless of whether they ever marry.

Unfortunately, the only
time the curricula discuss other relationships is when they are explaining why
such relationships are inferior.

SOUL MATE includes a lesson on living together
called, “Cohabitating: Sex without strings, relationships without rings.” It begins the lesson by saying “A
majority of young people feel it is a good idea to live together before getting
married to find out if they are really compatible and thus avoid the risk of
divorce or being ‘trapped in an unhappy marriage.’” It never does say exactly why this seemingly reasonable
opinion is not.

Instead, it just
reiterates that cohabitation is wrong, that couples who live together will not
have happy marriages, and even suggests that those who choose to do so have
inherent character flaws: “Unwed couples living together may have problems
making and keeping commitments.”

WAIT Training takes aim at
some other family structures and suggests that nothing but two-parent marriage
will work: “Teens in both
one-parent and remarried homes typically display more deviant behavior and
commit more delinquent acts than do teens whose parents stayed married. Studies show that two married,
biological parents have the means and the motivation to appropriately monitor
and discipline boys in ways that reduce the likelihood that they will pose a
threat to the social order.”

Let’s just put aside the fact that the authors called half their
class a potential threat to the social order —this quote reveals the rigidity
of WAIT Training’s ideas about marriage because it asserts that families with
parents who have remarried or parents who adopt or foster children, for
example, cannot successfully raise boys.

While these discussions are aimed at directing the future life
choices of young people, many students will likely see the implications toward
their own family structures. It is unfair and potentially harmful to suggest to
young people—who as children have no control over their current familial
situation—that their families are any less valuable than others.

This discussion on family structure brings us to the curricula’s
complete failure to acknowledge gay and lesbian students and families.

A number of the Choosing the Best curricula actually have as their
purpose helping young people develop healthy relationships with members of the
opposite sex. And, WAIT Training uses its lessons on brain
development to explain why young people feel a “strong attraction to the
opposite sex.” All of the
curricula simply ignore the possibility of same-sex couples or homosexual
individuals; all stories, video clips, references, and activities revolve
around heterosexual relationships.

In Choosing the Best JOURNEY,
for example, a lesson on “Developing the Best Relationships” starts with videos
about heterosexual couples.
Students are then divided into separate groups of guys and girls: “Ask
the guy group to write down the top five qualities they are looking for in a
girl and what they think the girls are coming up with [top five qualities they
are looking for in a boy].” The
girl group is asked the reverse.

This exercise leaves no room for young people who are attracted to
members of the same sex. There is
no reason for such discrimination, the same brainstorm could occur simply by
asking young people in mixed-gender groups to come up with a list of what they
are looking for in a romantic partner.

By refusing to be inclusive, the author is showing a clear bias
against same-sex couples, and curricula written exclusively for heterosexual
students are not appropriate for a classroom setting.

Contrary to the curricula’s presentation – the marriage imperative is
not a universally held value.
There are 98 million adults in this country who are classified as single
because they have never married, are divorced, widowed, or cohabitating. It is not the place for educational
programs to tell these adults that their relationships are inferior any more
than it is their place to tell young people that they must marry.

Students would be better served by programs that allow them to think
critically about relationships, make decisions based on their values and the
values of their families, and learn skills that will help them regardless of
what relationships they chose.

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