From the outset, sex education has been controversial. Indeed, shortly after the first organized program emerged in Chicago in 1913, it was targeted by the Catholic Church for being immoral. As a result, classes were canceled, and the superintendent of schools—one of the first women ever to hold such a position in a major U.S. city—was forced to resign.
More than 100 years later, it appears that things haven’t changed all that much. In fact, a lot of the current outcry over sex education sounds pretty familiar. Opponents still call it immoral and argue that lessons on birth control condone sex and childbirth outside of marriage. Or that programs are “anti-Christian.”
There are also newer claims, including that LGBTQ groups are trying to indoctrinate kids, that sex ed promotes BDSM, or that it is pornographic.
In April, a group describing itself as a “grassroots movement fighting graphic, taxpayer-funded, gender-bending sex ed” called upon families across the country to participate in a “sex ed sit out” where parents would keep their children home from school to protest “the graphic and perverse sex education being pushed in schools” and “the indoctrination of children by abortion and LGBT proponents.”
The April date was apparently chosen for pragmatic reasons. As the Christian Post reports, organizers “were looking for a date in the spring in which most schools are in session before the hustle and bustle of graduations and proms began.”
Seemingly organized by a handful of like-minded parents, the sit-outs were promoted heavily by one North Carolina mom, Elizabeth Johnston, who calls herself “The Activist Mommy” and homeschools her ten children, but became passionate about getting sex education out of schools. Another organizer, Rhonda Miller, explained the group’s rationale, saying, “Comprehensive sex ed is being rolled out across America, often sponsored by special interest LGBT groups like Human Rights Campaign, and disguised as anti-bullying programs.”
In addition to calling for sit-outs, the group is active on social media, railing against organizations like Planned Parenthood, calling for the occasional book burning, and highlighting sex education it deems “pornographic.”
But for those who actually teach comprehensive sexuality education, this view is off-base. Julia Feldman, who runs the Oakland, California-based organization Giving the Talk, which provides sexuality education for students, parents, and educators, said, “I’ve never seen pornography or BDSM actually included in any formal curriculum aside from the vague but inclusive mention that people express their sexuality in different ways. The claims that textbooks include “pornographic materials” are inaccurate. [However, in some places] some concerned community members have claimed that the detailed anatomy illustrations constitute pornography. This actually constitutes adults sexualizing bodies, not the textbooks or curriculum.”
Nevertheless, these explanations make little difference for the sex ed protesters, many of whom are bolstered by social-media support from evangelical and anti-abortion leaders such as Franklin Graham and Flip Benham.
The sex ed sit-out group’s website listed sit-outs for about 15 U.S. cities and a few Canadian sites, but hopes for a large-scale national event didn’t seem to pan out. Despite the claims of one of the organizer’s personal Twitter feeds, there was no local or national coverage documenting any large-scale sit-outs. But that didn’t stop another group, this one in San Diego, from launching its own sit-out. Its May 29 protest was organized by parents upset by a curriculum that they said “encourages early sexual curiosity, experimentation and involvement in immature minds,” and which they believed undermined the abstinence message and “parental values.”
Parental values are not monolithic, and the ones the protesters claimed they were upholding clearly did not resonate with the larger community. As Maureen Magee, the director of communications for the San Diego Unified School District, told me in an email, attendance on the sit-out day was actually slighter higher than the 93.9 percent attendance rate a year earlier. Those numbers indicate that few parents kept their kids home in solidarity.
That low response isn’t a surprise, considering that the San Diego curriculum in question was developed with input from parents, faith leaders and community residents, and had widespread support. Indeed, comprehensive sex education is supported by many organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the American Psychological Association.
Magee also explained that when given the option, less than 1 percent of parents in the school system opted their children out of the sexual health program when it was implemented at the start of the 2016 school year.
This nominal opt-out rate isn’t unique to San Diego. The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) reports the opt-out rate for sex education is low across the country, generally ranging from less than 1 percent to as high as 5 percent in the cities where data is kept on this issue.
In turn, those opt-out rates reflect broad support for sexuality education among parents and slowly changing attitudes about teen sexuality. Many parents know that comprehensive sex education has been proven to to lower the likelihood of teens becoming sexually active, increase the likelihood of contraception use if they do, and help prevent sexual violence, among other things.
According to a 2017 study of both Republican and Democratic parents, 93 percent of respondents reported supporting sexuality education in schools. Of these people, 89 percent wanted classes that covered puberty, healthy relationships, abstinence, sexually transmitted infections, and birth control. A June 2018 Gallup poll found that the percent of respondents who reported that they consider teen sex to be “morally acceptable” rose by ten percentage points since Gallup first asked that question in 2013, including a six-point increase in the past year alone.
Despite Low Numbers, Opposition Carries Risks
Even though the number of parents choosing to actively protest comprehensive sex education remains low, there has been a resurgence of government support for abstinence-only education due to a raft of Trump administration officials who back it. These programs, which teach that the only acceptable place to have sex is within an opposite-gender marriage, have been found to be wildly ineffective at their stated goal of preventing teens from having sex. They have also been widely criticized for omitting crucial information, presenting medical inaccuracies as fact, and promoting homophobia and gender stereotypes.
The second coming of abstinence-only education has bolstered opponents of sex education who clearly don’t speak for the majority. Nevertheless, emboldened by political gains, they readily claim the moral high ground left vacant by a population wary of openly expressing anything that can be taken as support for teen sex.
Within this context, simply getting evidence-based sex education implemented can be an uphill battle. Even one attack can call a program’s future into jeopardy.
Take the experience of Dianne Jones of Fremont, California. Jones has been fighting for inclusive, up-to-date sex education for more than a decade. As she explained in an email to Rewire.News, “my interest in the topic is general but became more focused as my own children took the health and sex ed classes offered by FUSD [the Fremont Unified School District]. I realized from personal experience that our outdated and noncompliant curriculum left gaps in the knowledge my own children had with reproductive health. This is particularly true for LGBTQ youth.”
She became passionate about the need for comprehensive sexuality education and began serving on a range of committees to help oversee curriculum. In 2016, California enacted the California Healthy Youth Act (CHYA), which mandated comprehensive sexual health education and changes to the curriculum. But those revisions upset some parents who called the curriculum too detailed and too graphic.
Such criticisms worry Jones, who has watched other districts encounter resistance to CHYA-compliant programs. “We saw organized opposition in Palo Alto, Cupertino, and San Diego,” she said. “We are now seeing opposition in several districts in Southern California.”
So now, in addition to her work on sex education, Jones is running for her local school board on a platform that covers a broad range of issues.
Luckily, Dianne Jones isn’t the lone advocate for comprehensive sex education. Parents around the country are involved in similar fights. For example, in St. Louis, parents advocated to get crisis pregnancy center workshops out of their school district. Parents in upstate New York have banded together and formed an organization called Stop the Shaming to remove abstinence-only education from their schools and to bring comprehensive sex education in.
States are also stepping up. After the U.S. Health and Human Services Department (HHS) announced that it was ending grants to teen pregnancy prevention programs, a number of states fought back and sued the agency for illegally cutting the funding for services that many consider instrumental in contributing to America’s falling teen pregnancy and birth rates.
Those lawsuits seem to be paying off. Judges in Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; and Spokane, Washington, have all recently ruled that the HHS acted illegally. Now additional municipalities are also taking action. Most recently, Multnomah County in Oregon announced it was suing the federal government for prioritizing grant applicants who promote abstinence-only sex education programs.
Additionally, a few states have seen a push for legislation similar to California’s Healthy Youth Act. A bill proposed in the Michigan House of Representatives this spring would require school sexuality education to include instruction on informed consent between partners; in Massachusetts, a bill is pending that would require school districts choosing to provide sex education select an evidence-based curriculum supportive of LGBT youth.
Though the outrage machine continues to misrepresent comprehensive sexuality education, there are voices calling for curricula and programs that have actually been demonstrated to help teens stay safe.