Starting in middle school, students attending the Canyon Independent School District are instructed that they should remain a virgin until they get married. And the teachers who work in those Texas schools are instructed to drive this point home by telling kids that they don’t want to be like a used toothbrush or a chewed-up piece of gum.
The exercise is part of the “Reality Check” curriculum, the academic materials that the school district uses for “human sexuality instruction” at the middle and high school levels. “Abstinence from sexual activity is presented as the preferred choice of behavior in relationship to sexual activity for adolescents both physically and emotionally,” the school district explains on the Reality Check site.
The materials aren’t sent home with kids, but parents can make a trip to the school’s front office to review the curriculum. One parent did exactly that — and wasn’t happy with what she found. She snapped a photo of the reference to gum and toothpaste, which appears in instructional materials for 6th graders. She also found a lesson for 5th graders that teaches them they should be like “locks, fences, and stop signs” to prevent sexual advances. The 5th grade lesson warns that sexuality needs to be “protected,” and if it’s given away before marriage, “it can be physically, emotionally, and financially harmful.”
That parent — who prefers to remain anonymous — passed the photos along to another parent in the community, Kristina Drumheller, who shared them more broadly. Drumheller told ThinkProgress that although her own daughter is homeschooled, she has many friends enrolled in Canyon Intermediate School who are receiving this information, and she wanted their parents to know exactly what they’re being taught.
“When I was sent the picture of the Reality Check curriculum, I felt it was important to inform others of what was being taught to the children in this community,” Drumheller explained in an interview. “There is a difference between teaching children about the real consequences of any sexual encounter and teaching them that they become less valuable because they chose to have sex before marriage.”
The photos sparked some controversy in Drumheller’s circle. Katie Gustainis Vela was one of the people who helped spread them. “I’m frustrated because children are being taught that their worth is synonymous with their level of sexual activity,” Gustainis Vela, who used to live in Canyon and now works for a women’s health organization in Boston, told ThinkProgress. “Information like this suggests that anyone who has sex before marriage is undesirable, worthless, and disposable.”
Indeed, there can be serious consequences to this type of abstinence-only approach to sexual health instruction. Earlier this year, Elizabeth Smart — a kidnapping and sexual assault victim who now works to prevent predatory crimes — made national headlines when she pointed out emphasizing the importance of purity can make rape victims feel dirty and worthless. Smart described hearing the exact same gum analogy when she was growing up. And after she was repeatedly sexually assaulted, that message had an extremely negative impact on her. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m that chewed up piece of gum, nobody re-chews a piece of gum, you throw it away.’ And that’s how easy it is to feel like you no longer have worth, you no longer have value,” she explained.
Nonetheless, these messages are deeply-ingrained in the conservative approach to sexual health instruction in many classrooms across the country. Since there aren’t currently any national standards for comprehensive sex ed, 19 states still teach strictly abstinence-only material. And just two states in the entire country stipulate that sex ed courses can’t promote religion.
Texas, which has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the U.S., is one of those abstinence-only states. The Lone Star State has aggressively sought out federal and state funds for programs that stress the importance of sex within marriage, and its most recent attempt to bring down the number of teen births involved building a website that doesn’t include any mention of birth control.
Not all of the state’s residents support that current approach — particularly if it involves gum, toothpaste, and locks. “We should be teaching children healthy sexuality, not damaging platitudes,” Drumheller noted.