A Double Shot of Paranoia
I’m at Starbucks to meet Joy Maxwell. Maxwell is Curriculum Coordinator for the increasingly controversial “Best Choice” sex education program, a project operated by ThriVe St. Louis and taught in public schools in and around the Midwestern city. In recent weeks, Best Choice has been the subject of numerous articles – and even protests – questioning its scientific accuracy and its promotion of conservative Christian moral attitudes about sex. I’ve been offered the opportunity to review the curriculum for the purpose of writing this article, a privilege some frustrated parents in the area have not been afforded, despite requesting details from their school districts and from Best Choice itself. Indeed, a lack of transparency is one of the main criticisms parents and activists are making of Best Choice, and the first few minutes of my meeting with Maxwell soon shows those concerns to be well-founded.
It starts when I’m asked to sign an agreement not to take photographs or video of the materials (not something I had planned to do), and not to share the materials with anybody else. Almost all my adult life has been spent in education and educational research: three years as an undergrad studying education (Cambridge University), two as a high school teacher, one doing a Master’s in education (Harvard), and eight doing my doctorate in education (Harvard again). While I am not a specialist in sex education, I have reviewed countless curricula during my studies, including curricula designed by non-profit organizations like Best Choice. Never before have I been asked to sign an agreement like this prior to viewing lesson plans and teaching materials. I say this to Maxwell: “This is really weird, you know!” She replies “If you think this is weird, this next bit is really going to surprise you: can I see your ID?” My jaw didn’t exactly hit the floor, but I did almost lose my eyebrows off the top of my head. I told Maxwell I don’t carry ID (I don’t drive, and prefer not to take my passport around with me), and asked whether Best Choice regularly had problems with people pretending to be local clergy in order to steal their curricula. She didn’t really respond.
Non-response to questions became a trend: every time I had a question about the curriculum, Maxwell would refer me to Bridget Van Means, the President of ThriVe, rather than offering an answer herself. I noticed that the questionnaire given to 6th grade children at the start of the program asked whether the child had ever had sex or ever been pregnant – extremely personal and sensitive information, especially for a child of 12. I asked Maxwell how the forms were anonymized, to prevent associating the information given back to a particular student (a particular concern because parents report their children being asked to place their initials at the top of the form). “That would be a question for Bridget.” When Best Choice receives the information, do they store it securely, as would be required by educational researchers who took such information from young children? “That would be a question for Bridget.” What training do Best Choice teachers receive in order to handle this sensitive information? “That would be a question for Bridget.” After a few such responses, I asked Maxwell directly: did she not know the answers, or had she been told not to answer any questions? She indicated she had been instructed not to answer my questions – despite the fact I had been invited there to learn about the curriculum Best Choice is teaching in public schools right now, and even though the questions I was asking have significant legal implications (there are strict legal requirements when minors are asked to divulge sensitive personal information such as that which ThriVe is requesting in their questionnaires).
So let’s start with this: here is an organization teaching sex education classes in St. Louis public schools which is not simply lacking in transparency but is deeply paranoid. It’s afraid that people want to steal its curriculum, and that they will lie about their identity to view their materials. It is so closed to query that, even when it schedules a review of its curriculum with someone, it gives its staff instructions not to answer the most basic questions about it. It makes it extremely difficult for parents to view the materials which will be taught to their kids: as numerous parents have recently reported to me, even if they get to view the materials Best Choice often claims that they are “under review” – so the actual materials to be taught are never available. Activists who are taking Best Choice to task for their lack of transparency are absolutely correct. Even if their sex ed program were the best ever created, this paranoia is deeply concerning: no organization should be teaching in public schools without total openness to the questions of parents and the public. That the instinct of Best Choice is to avoid, rather than to answer, simple questions about its operations is reason enough for school districts to drop the program.
I don’t say this to denigrate the efforts of the program’s staff. I have no doubt that the staff at ThriVe believe in their program and genuinely think it is good for students. Bridget Van Means, when I interviewed her for this article, spoke movingly of her passion for educating young people about the risks of sex and early pregnancy. This work is personal for her, and she believes that the Best Choice program both meets legal requirements for sex ed in Missouri and will prepare young people well for their future relationships. Van Means feels that the protests against the Best Choice program are driven by animus against Christians, and uses words like “insults,” “discrimination,” “harassment,” “bullying,” and “hate speech” when describing them. Faced with such a perceived onslaught it is understandable that ThriVe has closed ranks, and is cagey about speaking with people about their program. But the fact remains that they are teaching in public schools, during school time, and therefore have a responsibility to the public to be open with their materials and to respond to questions about what they are teaching our children.
Having followed the protests and public meetings in response to Best Choice closely, I can attest that while some of the exchanges have been heated, and some of the activists persistent and forceful, the campaign has not risen to the level of “harassment” or “hate speech”: these are parents passionately concerned with their children’s education, and they are frustrated by the lack of answers they are getting. Best Choice have simply been taken off-guard by a sudden escalation of complaints, and is responding in a way which is increasing suspicion rather than reducing it. The best thing they could do is release the entire curriculum to the public immediately, and let parents decide if they want their kids learning it.
Problems with the Program
But how is the program itself? The honest answer is that it mixes scientifically accurate information and responsible guidance about the potential risks of sexual activity with misleading moralizing and scientific inaccuracies – but the balance is squarely on the bad side of the ledger. To be completely fair to Best Choice, there are parts of the program I wouldn’t mind children of mine learning. There are sections on healthy and unhealthy friendships that seem wholesome. Warnings about cyber bullying and sexting are wise. A role play activity in which children are taught how to say “no” to partners who want to do more than the child is comfortable with addresses a genuine need. A game in which kids pass around a sponge soaked in blacklight paint to show how easily STDs can spread seems to me an engaging way to make an important point: STDs can spread quickly, and we teach kids how to avoid them (although, disturbingly, little is done during this activity to stress how the risks of contracting an STD can be mitigated). Were these sections part of an open, honest, and balanced curriculum, which taught children both about the risks of sex and the potential for fulfilling sexual relationships, I think they could do some good.
But Best Choice is not an open, honest, and balanced curriculum. A deeply conservative moral attitude about sex and relationships is woven through it, and it is clear that the whole curriculum is designed not to empower youth to make informed choices about their sex lives, but to scare them into refraining from sex until marriage. Sex, whenever it is mentioned in the program, is associated with unhealthy behaviors like alcoholism, drug addiction, smoking, and drunk driving – the clear implication being that sex, like smoking, is harmful in itself. Slide after slide after slide presents terrifying (and increasingly explicit) images of the most extreme potential outcomes of STDs, including STDs that are easily treatable – it’s almost as if, according to Best Choice, STD’s are not an avoidable, manageable risk of unsafe sex, but part of the definition of sex itself. Sex is scary and gross, the program seems to say. You shouldn’t do it.
This scaremongering is reinforced by a heavy dose of sexual shaming. Even though the teachers’ notes for the curriculum repeatedly stress that teachers should not shame students for any revelations they make about their sex lives, some of the activities which are part of the program are inherently likely to evoke shame. The most heinous example is an exercise in which high school children are asked to line up with cups of water and chew Cheez-its. The students – all except one – spit the Cheez-its into the water, and then add their gross Cheez-its water to the cups of other students. Finally, the students are asked which they would rather drink: the “pure,” no-Cheez-its water, or the one filled with saliva and masticated food from a classful of high school teens. The choice is as obvious as the symbolism: that having sex with other people makes you dirty and disgusting, and no one will want to “drink you” if you’re contaminated with others’ stuff.
There are moments, too, when the Best Choice curriculum gives out blatantly false and woefully unsupported information. The high school curriculum concludes with a spreadsheet comparing different methods of birth control, claiming that the most effective forms of birth control (apart from abstinence) are the Creighton Model and the Marquette Method – both forms of “natural family planning” which rely on couples only having sex at specific times when the woman is not ovulating. The trouble with these methods is that they have low reliability, and often result in pregnancies which are unplanned: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says “Natural family planning is not as effective as most other methods of birth control,” cautioning that “One in four women who use this method become pregnant.” Yet Best Choice ranks the Creighton and Marquette approaches more highly in their spreadsheet than any other birth control method, including condoms and the pill.
What evidence do they provide for this high assessment? The websites of the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis’ Office of Family Planning and of the creators of the Creighton Model and Marquette Method themselves. This is not good, unbiased evidence – certainly not good enough to go against the recommendations of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. This is particularly concerning because Missouri law requires that sex education classes provide students with scientifically accurate information. In the spreadsheet which concludes the High School curriculum Best Choice does not do this: the information is scientifically inaccurate and taken from sources with a clear interest in promoting their own products.
Some of the other claims Best Choice makes are even more disturbing. The High School curriculum includes a teacher’s note which states “Sex creates an emotional bond that will prohibit and impede your ability to move on,” a bizarre claim, and one which parents I interviewed suggest was even more prominent in earlier versions of the program. This suggestion, made without any evidence, is used to encourage young people to refrain from sex until marriage by creating the sense that somehow having sex with people prevents you from developing deep romantic relationships with others later in life.
This is flatly false and harmful information: there is no link between the number of sexual partners a person has and their potential to develop emotional bonds with other people. The only reason I can think of for why a program would tell this untruth to children is that they have a moral objection to sex before marriage – precisely the sort of moralizing we don’t want in young people’s sex education. Young people should certainly learn the risks of having sex, but they should be empowered to manage those risks for themselves and to make their own decisions, not given false information in an attempt to scare them into leading a particular type of sex life.
Dangerous for LGBTQ Children
Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the Best Choice curriculum, though, is its treatment of young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer in another way. While both Maxwell and Van Means stressed to me that Best Choice is “gender neutral”, and said that it does not discriminate against LGBTQ students, in reality it deals with gender and its relation to sex in a deeply problematic way. For many LGBTQ youth, talking about sex and relationships with parents is not a safe option – the risks of outing themselves to their parents are just too high, given the possibility of a bad or even violent reaction. Furthermore, these youth face widespread social stigma which makes them victims of higher rates of bullying, hate crimes, and mental illness, while driving them to higher rates of risky behaviors such as drug use, alcoholism, and unsafe sex. So public schools are often the only places where these vulnerable young people might receive honest, unbiased advice about their sexuality and gender. Schools therefore have a particular responsibility to ensure that LGBTQ youth receive open and affirming sex education classes which recognize their existence and counter the litany of cultural messages they receive about how being LGBTQ is disordered, disgusting, and sinful.
Best Choice fails LGBTQ kids in every conceivable way. The Best Choice curriculum erases LGBTQ people: it doesn’t once mention their existence, and provides absolutely no attention at all to the particular and pressing needs of these minority communities. Every single example of a romantic relationship in the program – in images and film clips – portrays heterosexual relationships between cisgender people, perpetuating the invisibility many LGBTQ people feel in school and in life. LGBTQ youth, given the hostile environment in which they grow up, need positive models of relationships and sex as much – indeed more than – other students do, and Best Choice doesn’t provide them with any at all. It doesn’t address the spectrum of sexuality or the potential for fluidity of sexuality through life. It doesn’t talk about coming out. It doesn’t discuss gender identity, and even equates sex with gender throughout the program, a flatly inaccurate maneuver which totally invalidates any trans kids in the classroom. This failure to address the needs of sexual and gender minorities is a critical failing of Best Choice, and makes it flatly dangerous to these populations. I cannot stress this strongly enough: no one who potentially has an LGBTQ child should allow them to take the Best Choice program – and everyone potentially has an LGBTQ child.
The program’s gender stereotyping is extremely worrying even for students who are not LGBTQ. One of the videos the program uses is a clip from comedian Tim Hawkins, who does a cringeworthy bit on the differences between girls and boys:
“Boys and girls are totally different. My boys are just violent. Girls just dance everywhere…they’re adorable. Boys are violent, man. Even when a boy likes a girl, he’s violent”
He goes on to describe how boys express their affection for girls by holding their heads under the water in swimming pools and throwing rocks at them. I struggle to find the educational value of this clip, and see plenty of ways it could be harmful: it normalizes the idea that male children will be violent toward female ones, and that this is a natural expression of romantic or sexual desire. This messaging is irresponsible and potentially deadly in a culture in which women face extraordinary levels of sexual violence already. Absolutely no one is served by Best Choice’s rigid and inaccurate approach to sexuality and gender.
Consent is Underplayed
The most astonishing problem of the Best Choice program – and it’s a catastrophic one – is that in its relentless effort to promote sexual abstinence before marriage, it criminally underplays the importance of consent in sex and relationships. Sexual ethics is based on consent, on the idea that sex is only ok if the people involved, making an informed judgment about what they are doing, all consent. I cannot recall seeing the word “consent” at any point in the four binders of materials I reviewed, and it certainly isn’t a major topic. The focus, exclusively, is on the dangers and risks of sex, and how to avoid them by not having sex at all. This simply doesn’t prepare young people for adult life: the overwhelming majority of adults do have sex before they are married, and they need to know how to regulate their sex lives responsibly and safely given this fact. It is not a public school’s job to promote a particular way of having a sex life: it is their job to empower all young people to decide what sort of sex life they want to have when they are adults, and to encourage them to respect the boundaries and desires of all their sexual partners.
Best Choice’s focus on abstinence before marriage and the dangers of STDSs makes a responsible, adult conversation about consent impossible. The idea that people might have responsible, safe, enjoyable sex lives without being married – without ever getting married – is anathema to this program, even though it is how huge numbers of adults live happily today. Never is the possibility explored that a young, unmarried person of legal age might genuinely consent to sexual activity – and so a huge part of the meaning of sexual consent is totally absent from the program. For young people to be able to make informed decisions about their own bodies they need to be taught a lot more than simply “sex can give you diseases and don’t have it until you’re married.” They need to know the honest truth about both the risks and the potential of sexual intimacy: Best Choice inflates the former and ignores the latter.
Even young people who choose to abstain from sex until married – a perfectly legitimate choice – are poorly served by Best Choice. The focus on the potential negatives of sexual activity is so relentless that there is no chance that their eventual sex lives will be improved by it. The question “Now that we’re married, how do we have a good sex life?” is never presented, and the possibility that, within a marriage, sex might be bad or abusive is not explored. In truth, Best Choice isn’t really a sex ed program at all: it’s an anti-sex ed program. Best Choice teaches children how to say “no,” but never how to say “yes.” This is irresponsible, because it doesn’t fully prepare young people for adulthood – and isn’t this what public schools should be doing?
Our Children Deserve Better
I do not think the staff who created and teach the Best Choice curriculum are bad people: I have no personal relationship with or personal animus against any of them. But I do think they have created a bad sex education program which should be nowhere near public schools. Best Choice, in my judgment as a former high school teacher with multiple degrees in education and human development, does not give young people fully accurate and honest information about the risks and rewards of sex. Rather, it tries to scare kids into delaying sex by providing an overblown sense of the risks of sexual intercourse, reinforced by thinly-veiled moralizing about what having sex says about young people who choose to have it.
Best Choice promotes unreliable “Natural Family Planning” methods on the basis of inadequate and biased data, while underplaying the effectiveness of more reliable techniques (it even lists discomfort and irritation as a potential drawback of condoms, giving a useful line to every horny teenager who wants to avoid wearing one). It acts as if LGBTQ people don’t exist, and totally fails to offer them any support in navigating the particular challenges they face on their journey to adulthood (especially dangerous is the equation of sex and gender, which is exceptionally harmful to trans kids). It promotes frankly violent gender stereotypes, in a world which already normalizes violence against women to an obscene degree. And in its ferocious focus on the risks of sex and the primacy of abstinence, it distorts out of all recognition any discussion of consent – the foundation of an ethical sex life.
While the Best Choice program has some good qualities, they are not remotely enough to redeem these manifest and overwhelming flaws. Best Choice is not the best choice for St. Louis-area youth. Every school district should kick ThriVe out. Our children deserve better.