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At a school health conference last year, I was eager to attend workshops on research, curriculum, and teaching methodology related to healthy relationships education. Unfortunately, the one workshop I was able to attend on this topic was not just disappointing, but puzzling and ultimately upsetting.

I attended a workshop a new “research-based” curriculum called Relationship Smarts PLUS. And for at least 45 minutes, they had me fooled. The presenters described extensive program evaluation with thousands of students in Alabama public schools. They described decreases in students’ reported sanctioning and experiences of aggression within relationships. They shared with us their “7 Principles of Smart Relationships”—sound principles such as “expect good communication” and “seek…someone with common interests.” But red flags were raised when the facilitators (the writers and trainers of the curriculum) adlibbed gender stereotypes with glee whenever possible. When our handouts read Don’t Try to Change Someone Into Someone He or She Is Not, the workshop facilitators wasted no time telling us that “it is usually the girls trying to change the boys.” When the handouts said Don’t play games, be phony, or pressure someone, the facilitators added that “we all know that it is usually the boys trying to pressure the girls.” Their needless gender stereotypes only served to undermine their otherwise reasonable and universal advice for healthy relationships.

A similar pattern followed as we, the participants, shared from the slips of paper we’d been given to assess different experiences as Smart or Not-So-Smart expressions of the 7 Principles of Smart Relationships (page 23).  Participants would read their statements as they saw them fitting in with the 7 principles, classifying each as Smart or Not-So-Smart.   Two examples—

  • “Even though it was hard, I broke up with him. I just didn’t feel right around his friends. I always had to pretend I was someone I’m not. I don’t think I should have to change who I am to fit in and keep his love.”
  • “I like sports and the outdoors. She doesn’t. I’m basically high energy and like to try new things. She never seems to want to try anything. We mostly watch movies when we’re together. But, she’s hot. It’ll all work out—we’ve got chemistry.”

Here, the prompts seemed perfectly set up to be LGBTQ-inclusive—the first-person speaker’s pronoun or gender is never specified. And yet the workshop facilitators never failed to imply a heterosexual relationship in each of the scenarios. When I asked a question about whether the teachers in their extensive pilot and evaluation had received training on LGBTQ competency and inclusivity during their preparation, I was told: “This was in Alabama.”

I felt like I had been ambushed by a seemingly positive, or at least benign, program with a secret conservative agenda. I had to find out more about who wrote this curriculum—what were their values and motives?

Indeed, this curriculum from the Dibble Institute is undoubtedly in line with the legacy of marriage promotion programs—federally-backed initiatives that stemmed not from a true interest in promoting healthy, mutually-fulfilling relationships, but from conservative attempts to reform welfare. It turns out that one reason the facilitators were so set on implying the gender of the first-person speaker is that in the instructor’s manual of the curriculum, these relationship example cards are overtly divided into the Girl Class Set and the Guy Class Set (page 24). In other words, facilitators are supposed to give out separate prompts to girls and boys—prompts that almost universally refer to partners as he and she, respectively.

Upon closer investigation, the curriculum does have three mentions in these scenarios of young people who are questioning their sexuality and thinking they might be gay or bisexual, and they are primarily tied to an abstinence message. To separate these scenarios out—by stating, “I think I’m a lesbian and my girlfriend keeps pressuring me to have sex”—is to miss the point that healthy relationships matter across the range of sexual identity and experience. It would be far stronger to nix the Girl cards (where this example is one of 24) and the Guy cards and adopt more inclusive language, varied examples, and universalism to the understanding of the right to healthy relationships.

A look through the curriculum revealed additional gaps: in the multitude of relationship vignettes, why couldn’t any examples show young people openly discussing contraceptive options with their partners? Or planning to visit a clinic and speak with a health care provider? Or getting tested for STIs? The ability to do these things openly with a partner can very much be a positive or warning sign of a healthy or unhealthy relationship. To neglect to depict these important and responsible conversations and activities is to fail to paint them as such.

Lest we believe that this curriculum left out these aspects of relationships and decision-making by accident, the final of the Concluding Points for this activity is this:

“There is one thing that can be guaranteed – If you leave sex out of your relationship during your teen years, the pain of a broken heart, the level of regret, and the high-cost risks of STDs and pregnancy will be reduced or avoided. You will have less baggage and more freedom to experience relationships and to move on if you need to. For now, the best advice is to enjoy each other and have fun as you try out relationships and keep these principles as a guide.” (page 16)

The fundamental messages of healthy relationship education matter—and Relationship Smarts PLUS may have gotten a few things right—but the values of the messenger matter, too. Do you really want a curriculum from the same people who developed and promote a lesson for high school students on the perils of “cohabitation” called Why Buy the Cow When You Can Get the Milk for Free?

  • NewHampshire

    A’secret conservative agenda’? Well now that is one heck of a conspiracy theory! There is no ‘conservatism’ in education, which is a shame.