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The politics of sex ed leave a lot untaught

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Laura Antunez

Product, data and design intern, The Hechinger Report

Friday, September 17, 2021


The Hechinger Report

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

When Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani was 13, her mother died before she could ask her about the changes her body would soon be going through. She was introduced to sex education during a required course in high school. To discourage premarital sex, the instructor offered a student a stick of gum. Then she chewed it, and asked whether the student still wanted it.

At the end of the lesson, the instructor offered students a mint to symbolize a “commit-mint” that they would not have sex before marriage.

Eskamani did not take a mint. Instead, at 18, she volunteered for Planned Parenthood. She was eventually hired and became the senior director of public affairs and communications across 22 counties in Florida.

In 2018, she won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives — on a platform that included improving public education — and has been a vocal supporter of reproductive and sexual health education. During the last Florida legislative session, she was one of the lawmakers who fought to water down a bill that would have required parental consent for students to receive sex education. The version signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis requires school districts to inform parents about the curriculum through links on the district’s homepage and give them  a chance to opt out.

“I voted against [the original bill] because this is an insult to the needs of our young people,” she said. “Not every kid has engaged parents, and the reality is this is essential information for the health and well-being of young people.”

The politics around sex education are heating up in several states.

In 2020, legislators in Washington faced a backlash after approving a bill, without Republican support, that required schools to teach sex education to students at every grade level. A petition forced the issue onto the ballot, where it was approved by voters. In Utah, a bill originally designed to ensure that sex education curriculum included information about sexual consent was revised several times before failing in the House early this year.

In both 2019 and 2020, the Mississippi House of Representatives tried and failed to make sex education more comprehensive in the state’s public schools. A 2019 bill would have required all local school boards to implement education that is medically accurate and age-appropriate, while a 2020 bill would have required the state department of education to update a curriculum list every five years with evidence-based, medically accurate and age-appropriate materials.

At the same time, experts worry some states and districts aren’t paying enough attention to sex education, which could contribute to existing disparities in access. Teen pregnancy rates are down — the CDC says evidence suggests more teens are abstaining from sex or using birth control, although the rates of teen pregnancy vary widely by racial and ethnic group — and the pandemic has sidelined the topic as districts scramble to reopen safely and make up for learning losses.

“School districts who are well-funded and can prioritize sex ed may choose to do it,” said Jennifer Driver, senior director of reproductive rights at State Innovation Exchange, a group that collaborates with legislators on public policy. “There’s a disparity around the access young people of color, LGBTQ and rural young people have with how their school systems are funded.”

The discussion of LGBTQ individuals in sex education is one of the reasons why it is so highly politicized, and experts say the culture wars have hurt the quality of many sex education programs in public schools.

In Louisiana and Oklahoma, laws passed between 2010 and 2014 that regulate sex education  either prohibit or limit the discussion of homosexuality. In the case of Oklahoma, schools are required to teach that “engaging in homosexual activity, promiscuous sexual activity, intravenous drug use or contact with contaminated blood prod­ucts is now known to be primarily responsible for contact with the AIDS virus.” Of the 39 states that require information on abstinence to be provided, 28 say abstinence must be stressed, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group focused on sexual and reproductive health.

For over 30 years, Gayle Ruzicka has been part of the Utah Eagle Forum, where she is now a leader. The group, a chapter of the national Eagle Forum, which was created in 1975 to oppose the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, is a vocal supporter of pro-life policies. It backed a recent law  that would ban most abortions in Utah (which would take effect if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade), and regulations restricting what can be taught in sex education curriculums, such as consent and emergency contraception.

“Here in Utah we have always stayed away from comprehensive sex education,” she said. “It’s not just Eagle Forum, it’s a community and state [value] that we pass laws on a legislative level to protect children from comprehensive sex education.”

Ruzicka said when it comes to education, parents should always be in charge and are the only ones who can teach family values. She cites this as the reason why Utah is an abstinence- based, opt-in state.

“If you teach children comprehensive sex ed, you’re basically telling them it’s OK to have sex outside of marriage,” she said. “Just like we teach them to say no to drugs, we teach them to say no to sex.”

Most advocates of accessible, comprehensive sex education argue that sex ed has less to do with sex itself — or politics — than with physical, emotional and social learning. Driver likens sex education to core subjects such as math or science. She said foundational pieces need to be set before moving on to more complex situations. “You wouldn’t start a kindergartner off with trigonometry,” she said. “Where we have failed is we wait [to teach sex education] until very late and then oftentimes make it an elective.”

Driver said when she was teaching college students, some of them had never learned about consent, contraception, how their bodies worked or how to manage relationships. She has taught at institutions in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, and said this situation was not unique to any location.

Advocates for Youth, a group that works to advance  sex education, defines a comprehensive sex education as “a planned, sequential K-12 curriculum that is part of a comprehensive school health education approach which addresses age-appropriate physical, mental, emotional and social dimensions of human sexuality.” The program should be inclusive, medically accurate and culturally responsive, according to Driver.

States that do have comprehensive health education requirements, and that have allocated funding for them, still struggle to implement the standards fully. In Washington, until the passage of the recent bill, how sex education was taught was still largely left to local control. Individual districts could choose to teach comprehensive sex education, teach some, or not teach it at all,  according to Washington state Rep. Monica Stonier.

“I don’t believe this is a funding issue,” she said. “Whether or not a school district wanted to adopt a sex ed curriculum had more to do with the pushback they were going to get back from the community.”

Opponents of Washington’s bill disagreed with the inclusion of LGBTQ information in the curriculum, Stonier said.

“They really struggled with the idea of schools teaching what their parents should be teaching their kids — not something I disagree with,” Stonier said. “I just know from being an educator for so long that many kids don’t have access to a family that would provide them with life-saving health information like this.”

In Florida, district school boards have complete authority over their sex education policies, which range from abstinence-only to comprehensive curricula.

Florida state statutes require abstinence and consequences of teenage pregnancy to be stressed in all sex education programs. But Broward County’s curriculum is comprehensive, which it defines as providing students with “knowledge about abstinence, human development, contraception, [sexually transmitted infection] and HIV/AIDS prevention, healthy relationships and responsible decision-making.” The curriculum is also required to be medically accurate and nondiscriminatory against individuals based on sexual orientation.

Next door, in Miami-Dade County, sex education policies are not as clear. In 2018, the Board of County Commissioners adopted a resolution in support of the Getting 2 Zero initiative. The main goal was to reduce HIV and AIDS cases in Miami-Dade County. The changes included ensuring sex education is age-appropriate and stresses information on HIV and STDs.

Jennifer Lara, 26, a former student at Miami-Dade public schools, remembers students being divided by gender so the girls could learn about menstruation. Female students also pretended to be pregnant, using a balloon stuffed under their clothes, then raised flour-sack babies.

“They don’t teach you how to have a connection to your body,” she said. “Thankfully we have the internet — a lot of [my sex education] was self-taught.”

Leslie Gomez-Gonzalez, 22, another former student at Miami-Dade public schools, said during a reproductive health lesson in elementary school, the teacher stopped teaching altogether when a male student asked what semen is.

“I feel like I was educated by the media more than anything,” she said. “It is so heavily saturated with sexual [images], and we’re not guided through them and what they mean.”

Erika Moen is a cartoonist and comic book creator whose content focuses on sex and sex positivity. In college, she said, she was asked frequently how her relationship with a same-sex partner worked. She realized people genuinely had no idea how two women could have sex, and she saw comics as a powerful tool for education.

Moen spent her childhood and early adolescence terrified of men because of what her mother told her. “I was taught that sex is something that will be done to you whether you want to or not, and men cannot help themselves,” she said. In high school she saw sexually active friends in healthy relationships, and began educating herself about it.

“When I started to learn otherwise, that’s when I became a sex nerd,” she said.

“Without sex education and only fear-based, abstinence-only education, it puts you in a position where you make choices out of ignorance, and that can be dangerous and traumatic,” she said. “Sex ed is fundamental for people to make the right decisions for themselves about what kind of experiences they want to have, and give them a vocabulary so if they’re not OK with something, they can say something about it and change what’s happening.”

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