States Inch Towards Comprehensive Sex Ed

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States Inch Towards Comprehensive Sex Ed

Kay Steiger

Across the country, in states red and blue, legislatures are taking steps toward mandating comprehensive, medically-accurate sexuality education for students.

In states across the
country this spring, the mounting evidence condemning abstinence-only programming
that reveal it is ineffective
and half
of states rejecting federal funding for it
— is having an effect on legislatures. Some states
are introducing bills that would compel schools to teach comprehensive sex
education, and many are stipulating that curricula be "medically
accurate." While some of the states are the usual blue state suspects, including
Hawaii, New York, Minnesota, and Oregon, others are more surprising: the Indiana,
Texas, North Carolina, Florida, and Utah legislatures have all introduced bills
that are taking a big step toward teaching comprehensive, medically accurate
sex education in schools. About 19 states total have introduced such

The momentum has been building for a long time. Measures to require more
comprehensive sexuality education began appearing 15 years ago. Teen pregnancy
rates are once
again on the rise
after dropping
during the 1990s. The Centers for Disease Control reports that one in four teenage girls has a sexually
transmitted infection. Even Bristol Palin, daughter of the conservative darling
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, said that abstinence wasn’t a "realistic" expectation. States are beginning to realize that abstinence-only programs
aren’t working for students. Such proposed legislation comes on the heels of changes to California’s sex education
and adoption of a
comprehensive sex education program in the District of Columbia
, both of which passed last year.

"It seems that right now is a really good time for states to try to make
sure that students are getting the most they can out of sex education,"
said Elizabeth Nash, public policy associate at Guttmacher Institute. The
reason it’s a good time, besides the increased number of social progressives in
state legislatures, is that, of those state legislatures that meet every year, odd
years are those when state legislature focus on non-budget-related bills
(legislatures tend to work on two-year state budgets during even-numbered
years).  Several states are trying to use
that window of opportunity to  create a
comprehensive sex ed strategy in schools.

Nash noted that Utah is an interesting example. Technically, Utah already has a
definition of sex education on the books — but that definition is damaging.
The law currently
that sex education
that is taught in Utah schools "…shall stress…the importance of
abstinence from all sexual activity before marriage and fidelity after marriage
as methods for preventing certain communicable diseases." It even goes
farther, forbidding the "advocacy or encouragement of the use of contraceptive
methods or device." The bill proposed in Utah would require the state to not only
teach sex ed in a comprehensive way, including contraception as means of
preventing the spread of infection and preventing pregnancy, but also be
"medically accurate." The term, which is defined in about half of the
states that uses it in laws, usually has language along the lines of
"verified or supported by research conducted in compliance with scientific
methods and published in peer-reviewed journals, where appropriate, and
recognized as accurate and objective by professional organizations and agencies
with expertise in the relevant field, including the federal Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention and the American College of Obstetricians and
Gynecologists." Unfortunately, the clause of the Utah legislation that
would have pushed public schools to provide comprehensive and medically
accurate information to students in the state was struck last Friday, essentially
killing the bill. The measure would have overturned Utah’s current damaging

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North Carolina’s proposed
, called the
"Healthy Youth Act" is a slightly compromised step forward. While the
legislation would require the state to teach comprehensive sex education
classes, it would also allow parents to "opt out" by signing a form.
The students whose parents have opted out of the comprehensive sex ed class can
be placed in an abstinence-only class. This may be while the legislation in
North Carolina is gaining traction in a more socially conservative state.
Still, "I think it’s going to have a real fight on its hands," Nash

Advocates for Youth, a pro-sex ed youth organization, held a lobby
in North Carolina
earlier this month that more than 200 teens attended. "There are
definitely a lot of young people on the ground who are talking to principals,
who are talking to school boards, who are talking to their governors, to their
state legislators, to their federal representatives about sex education,"
said Meghan Rapp, state strategies program manager at Advocates for Youth.
"There’s a shift going on in that people are waking up after almost a

Rapp noted that one Pittsburgh teenager, Madeline Chandler, began working as an
activist to start conversations with her principal and school board to push for
comprehensive sex education. In a blog
, Chandler wrote,
"I was treated with wonderful respect. Nobody yelled at me or called me
inappropriate names. Many adults and teachers even walked up to me, thanking me
for being at the meeting. … A few days later, I was on Facebook when my dad
sent me a link. The board had passed the new policy. Students will now be
learning from a comprehensive sex education curriculum." Thanks to the
work of young activists like Chandler, teens can get the education that most
benefits them.

Even if a state were to pass legislation that would require medically accurate
comprehensive sex education, the policy takes time to implement. "A lot of
times it is working with the state board or the state entity that supervises
education, usually the department of education or the superintendent of
education, or like in California’s case, the school board association. But then
it’s also working school board by school board, which is really challenging and
is actually one of the big challenges we’re facing right now, is
implementation," Rapp said.

Of the states that have introduced legislation, the ones that look most
promising to actually pass it are Oregon and Hawaii. Oregon already has
comprehensive sex ed requirements, but this law would just codify them. Hawaii
has already passed the bill through the state senate and under consideration by
House committees, Nash says.

Even if legislation is only introduced and won’t pass in red states like Utah,
it’s important that states are beginning to beginning to open up the discussion
about what kind of sex education is best for the students. Unless Congress
passes the REAL Act, states are left to decide to choose a path of abstinence-only
programming or to do the best they can to distribute accurate information about
the best ways to prevent pregnancy and the spread of HIV and other infections "Even
though a lot of young people, especially high school students can’t vote, they
have a really powerful voice and they’re the ones that are actually being
affected by this," Rapp said.