Sexual Health Roundup: States Have Made Little Progress on Sex Education


Welcome to our new Weekly Sexual Health Roundup! Each week, writer and sexual health expert Martha Kempner will summarize news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STDs, and more.  We will still report in depth on some of these stories, but we want to make sure you get a sense of the rest and the best.

Little Progress in Sexuality Education

A new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that there has been little progress made in expanding sexuality education in public schools in the last few years.  While we’ve all been encouraged by the dwindling presence of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, this is not enough. Sex educators have sought to expand instruction geared toward preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, but the survey of schools in 45 states found that such progress is not happening. 

Between 2008 and 2010, the percentage of public schools teaching key topics on prevention did not increase.  In fact, in 11 states the percentage of middle schools addressing these topics declined. The CDC suggests middle schools address 11 prevention topics in grades six through eight. The percentage of schools that address all of these topics, however, varies widely between states from 12.6 percent in Arizona to 66.3 percent in New York. Similarly, the share of schools that teach eight of the suggested high school topics ranged from 45.3 percent in Alaska to 96.4 percent in my home state of New Jersey.

Laura Kann, one of the study’s authors said: “We have evidence that teaching these topics can contribute to reduction in risk for HIV, STDs and pregnancy.” But she reminded us that: “The decision about what gets taught is a local decision.” She went on to say that the study cannot explain how these decisions are made or why we’ve seen such little progress.

Monica Rodriguez, president of SIECUS, suggested that the push for higher test scores may make schools less likely to expand health education.  This could certainly be part of the problem, especially over the last few years where resources have been very tight. At the same time, she notes, sexuality education is still controversial and some districts or teachers may be censoring what is said for fear of negative community reaction.     

Tennessee Lawmakers Amends Sex Ed Laws

Tennessee law already mandates that sexuality education focus on abstinence. In fact, it requires that all sexuality courses “include presentations encouraging abstinence from sexual intercourse during the teen and pre-teen years.” It goes on to say that all HIV-prevention instruction and material must place “primary emphasis on abstinence from premarital intimacy and on the avoidance of drug abuse in controlling the spread of AIDS.”  Nonetheless, lawmakers felt compelled to up the ante a little bit. 

Last week the state Senate voted 29 to 1 to amend the law to include stronger language about abstinence.  Among other things, the amendment says that schools that teach sex education must “exclusively and emphatically promote sexual risk avoidance through abstinence, regardless of a student’s current or prior sexual experience;” and that programs must “encourage sexual health by helping students understand how sexual activity affects the whole person including the physical, social, emotional, psychological, economic and educational consequences of non-marital sexual activity.”

In some of the odder language, the Senate added that these programs cannot “promote any gateway sexual activity or health message that encourages students to experiment with non-coital sexual activity.”  As Amanda Marcotte noted in her piece this week, such language uses the framework of addiction to discuss sexual behavior which demonstrates a misunderstanding of both sexuality and addiction, and perhaps pleasure in general. The lawmakers didn’t elaborate on their definition of “gateway” activities but one can imagine teachers dropping lesson plans commonly included in even strict abstinence-only programs designed to help kids consider non-sexual ways to express affection – like holding hands.

Of course, my favorite new provision states that programs cannot, “Display or conduct demonstrations with devices manufactured specifically for sexual stimulation.” I guess that means the days of students bringing in Hitachi Magic Wands for show-and-tell or teachers using the Rabbit for condom demonstrations are over.    

It’s unclear whether these provisions will ever become law. While they have been passed by the Senate, the House Education Committee has yet to even take up its version of the bill.  

Springfield, Massachusetts Approves New Condom Availability Program

So lest we lose all hope for sexuality education, a vote out of Springfield, Massachusetts shows that some communities are still willing to brave controversy in order to give students the information and tools they need to protect themselves.  Springfield, which happens to be the town where my Bubbie grew up,  is the second largest school district in the state and has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates. The new policy will make condoms available through school nurses or health centers to students in both high school and middle school. Students will also receive counseling (including a discussion on abstinence) as well as instruction on the proper use and storage of condoms.  Parents may “opt out” of this program, meaning their children would not be allowed to receive condoms. 

Those who supported the vote pointed to a condom availability program in nearby Holyoke which was found in a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health to reduce the rates of STDs in male students.  They also noted that half of Springfield’s ninth graders reported having already had sexual intercourse. Many in the community, however, opposed the program including the bishop of the Springfield Roman Catholic Diocese who wrote a letter against it which was read at masses.

Ultimately, the vote was four to three in favor of condom availability.

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