Ohio Lawmakers Work to Prohibit Teaching About ‘Gateway Sexual Activity’

Touching thighs is, according to Ohio lawmakers, a gateway to other sexual activity and they would like to see anyone who teaches about it in school subject to a $5,000 fine.

young couple sitting closely on couch
Touching thighs is, according to Ohio lawmakers, a gateway to other sexual activity and they would like to see anyone who teaches about it in school subject to a $5,000 fine. young couple sitting together on couch via Shutterstock

Though most of us are still not quite sure what it is, the concept of “gateway sexual activity” is back, or at least a ban on teaching about it is back.This time it is Republicans on the Ohio House Finance Committee who are worried about our young people heading down the wrong sexual path. So worried, in fact, that they are willing to impose fines on anyone who teaches about such sexual activity. That’s right, an amendment to the budget passed by the committee yesterday would prohibit providing or distributing condoms or other contraceptives on school grounds and ban any instruction that promotes “gateway sexual activity.” Teachers or organizations that violate this ban could be subject to lawsuits by parents as well as a $5,000 fine.

Some of us remember the first time we heard this phrase; it was last year when Tennessee Republicans passed a similar law that became the butt of national jokes because no one knew what a “gateway” behavior would be—a kiss, a foot rub, an expensive dinner? The law didn’t define it but lawmakers in Tennessee promised that we would know it when we saw it. As I reported for Rewire at the time, one legislator explained in testimony on the floor:

“Everybody in this room knows what gateway sexual activity is. Everybody knows there are certain buttons when you push them, certain switches when you turn them on, there’s no stopping, especially for undisciplined, untrained, untaught, and unraised children who just want to feel affection from somebody or anybody.”

I can’t say that this explanation helped enlighten me though it did infuriate me with all of its judgment and blame.  Like many others, I preferred comedian Steven Colbert’s snarky take on it:

“Kissing and hugging are just the last stop before the train pulls into Groin Central Station. We desperately need to intervene earlier to keep kids from engaging in… all the things that lead to the things that lead to sex.”

In an effort to avoid any similar confusion (and perhaps prevent being made fun of on Comedy Central), Ohio legislators provided a definition of “gateway sexual activity.”  And, because teenage sexual behavior is so bad as to be felonious, they took the language straight from the state’s criminal code. So schools cannot promote:

“…any touching of an erogenous zone of another, including without limitation the thigh, genitals, buttock, pubic region, or, if the person is a female, a breast, for the purpose of sexually arousing or gratifying either person.”

Despite this very clear definition of behaviors that Ohio lawmakers think will inevitably lead to teens boffing like bunnies, I imagine that teachers in the state are still confused as to what they can and can’t say. After all, sexuality education is not about promoting specific behaviors, it is (among many, many other things) about helping young people think critically about those behaviors they will and will not choose for themselves. I suppose, though, that such confusion, combined with a hefty fine, will have the exact effect that lawmakers want; teachers will play it safe and say nothing.

As Damon Asbury, a lobbyist for the Ohio School Boards Association told the Dayton Daily News:

“I don’t think we should have teachers put on trial for teaching a prescribed curriculum. It takes you back to the Scopes Trial.”

Kellie Copeland of NARAL Pro-Choice Ohio told the Dayton Daily News that she also opposed the ban noting the amendment appears to be an attempt to ban comprehensive sex education programs in schools. She added:

“I just have to wonder if this legislature is trying to take the state back to the 1950s.”

Ohio lawmakers do not have a good track record when it comes to sexuality education. In 1998, they passed a law requiring that sexuality education “stress abstinence” as the only way to prevent STDs and pregnancy. Under the law schools must tell students about the potential physical and emotional hazards of sexual activity,  state laws on financial responsibilities of parents, and the state restrictions on people over the age of 17 having sexual contact with people under the age of 17.

In 2001, legislators made sure that the Department of Education could not sneak in extra sex education by passing a law that prevented the adoption of statewide physical education or health standards without legislative approval.

My favorite Ohio sex education controversy, however, began in 1998 when Ohio legislators froze HIV-prevention from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) because of what they felt were inappropriate messages in a funded-training for teachers. Specifically, lawmakers objected to the training’s information on condoms and a hand-out that included slang phrases. They voted to prohibit the Department of Education from using or dispensing the money until the legislature could be assured that no funds would be used to teach Ohio school students about condoms. Though they debated the issue a number of times over the year that followed, they could not reach a compromise and the money—a total of one million dollars—was returned to the CDC. What was truly sad about that decision was that only 10 percent of the money was designated for HIV-prevention, the rest was supposed to be used for health initiatives focused on physical exercises, nutrition, and tobacco use, among other things. Some of the funds were meant to provide dental services to low-income students.

The current budget amendment not only goes after sex education but also defunds Planned Parenthood Clinics and redirects the money to crisis pregnancy centers that do not provide any health services.  It seems that whenever Ohio lawmakers get involved in sex education, the people of the state lose something.

The full House is likely to vote on the budget this week.