“The Abstinence Teacher” Gets Schooled

Nicole Summer

Secularists and evangelicals attempt to divide and conquer suburbia in the biting new book, "The Abstinence Teacher" by Tom Perrotta. And divide they do.

Secularists and evangelicals attempt to divide and conquer suburbia in the biting "The Abstinence Teacher" by Tom Perrotta. And divide they do, although both sides have a harder time conquering.

After liberal sex ed teacher Ruth Ramsey responds to a high school student's question about oral sex by saying "some people enjoy it," she is besieged by a small group of irate parents, led by the strangely charismatic pastor of a new evangelical church in town, the Tabernacle. The school district cedes to the Tabernacle's wishes, holds an "Abstinence assembly" and brings in a "Virginity Consultant" to keep an eye on Ruth and make sure that she toe the new abstinence-only party line.

Ruth reluctantly resigns herself to the abstinence curriculum, but after she sees her young daughter being led in prayer by her soccer coach after a game, she's done. She confronts the coach, a former drunk and junkie named Tim Mason who gave up his destructive ways with the help of the Tabernacle and its pastor. Tim tells Ruth that her daughter might actually need Jesus, just as he did and does. The soccer player sets up the ongoing conflict in the novel, pitting secularists, who want Jesus kept in churches and out of their classrooms and playing fields, against the evangelicals, who want Jesus everywhere and in every sinner's heart.

With a dose of wit and intelligence, Perrotta shows us the uncompromising characters on both sides of the aisle. Self-righteous and nosy, Pastor Dennis of the Tabernacle encourages Tim and his young Christian wife to spice up their marriage with "hot Christian sex." Virginity Consultant JoAnn Marlow, a 28-year-old looker who rides Harleys and listens to Coldplay but is saving herself for marriage, tells students horror stories about sluts contracting awful STDs even if they use condoms; as Ruth puts it, JoAnn traffics in "shameless fear-mongering, backed up by half-truths and bogus examples and inflammatory rhetoric," something those familiar with abstinence-only education will recognize. On the flip side, several people in Tim's life, including his wild-child ex-wife, his mother and his former rehab counselor, are skeptical and somewhat fearful of his newfound faith and love for all things Christ and can be just as narrow minded as the devout churchgoers of whom they steer clear. But the atheists and holy-rollers aren't Perrotta's only targets. Also in his satiric gunsights are McMansions, Nancy Grace, litigiousness, consumerism, soccer moms and dads – everything that comes with in today's suburban lifestyle.

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Ruth's frustration with the faux-science in her new curriculum and with private religious life intruding in the public school sphere resonates. Undone when she is forced to spout dubious statistics about the rate of condom failure in the new curriculum, Ruth makes an unwise comment to her class and is forced to go to an "abstinence refresher" course with other "reprobate Sex Education teachers," all of whom committed similar sins. JoAnn forces them all to write an essay titled "A Sexual Encounter I Regret," promising that she is not there to judge them. Yet, her hypocrisy rears its well-coiffed head when she feeds on one of the repeat offender's shame and lets out a very judgmental "eeew" after hearing one of the reprobate's essays.

The rise of the religious right in this country and its influence is on full display here, with Pastor Dennis encouraging members of his flock to recruit new converts through youth sports coaching. The new abstinence-only sex ed curriculum is funded by a federal grant and loaded with deceptive statistics. But for the most part, Perrotta stays away from heavily criticizing the religious right, allowing the characters and caricatures to do that for him. What's most palpable is the unwillingness of either side to compromise or to see a situation from anything other than that perspective, something familiar to anyone who pays even half-attention to political discourse in this country.

Ruth and Tim find common ground, perhaps the only common ground in this story, in their alienation from their daughters – Ruth's daughters want to start going to church and getting to know Jesus, while Tim's daughter refuses to pray with her father on the soccer field or have any part of it. Tim's daughter is beginning to worship at the altar of money and materialism, and Ruth's daughters seem to rebel against their progressive mother by becoming holy. United by their alienation from their offspring, Ruth and Tim begin to break down each other's boundaries, defenses and unstinting principles, and assisted by their mutual attraction, these divorced and lonely 40-somethings take small steps toward meeting in the middle. Perhaps the impasse is passable after all.

Commentary Sexual Health

South Carolina Mom Shows Homophobic Sex Education Isn’t a Thing of the Past

Martha Kempner

A mom in South Carolina was shocked to learn that what young people in her state hear about homosexuality in schools is biased, intolerant, and downright homophobic. But her state is not alone: At least eight states have laws that require teachers to present biased information about same-sex relationships.

This summer, the country made great strides in the fight for LGBTQ rights as the U.S. Supreme Court declared state same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional. Yet as the school year started, one mother in South Carolina was shocked to learn that what young people in her state hear about homosexuality in public schools is biased, intolerant, and downright prejudiced. She is now working with advocates to overturn the decades-old law that requires teachers to present this skewed information. But South Carolina is not alone: At least eight states have similar laws.

While we celebrate all the progress we’ve made in securing marriage equality for same-sex couples, we can’t let ourselves believe that the struggle for LGBTQ rights is over or that homophobia is a thing of the past, including in our school systems. Parents and advocates need to take a close look at what children in their states will be learning this year and work both to remove these outdated and unfair laws, and to help their children learn accurate and unbiased information in the meantime. 

Such was the case with Marie-Louise Ramsdale, whose daughter attends Wando High School in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. According to the Post and Courier, like other high school students scheduled to receive sexuality education, she brought home a letter at the start of the academic year from a health teacher designed to inform parents of what was going to be taught and let them know that they could “opt out” of the class if they objected to its content. The letter explained:

The program of instruction for this unit may not include discussion of alternate sexual lifestyles from heterosexual relationships including, but not limited to, homosexual relationships except in the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted infections.

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Ramsdale, who is an attorney, told the Post and Courier: “I’m very concerned about the message it sends to children in the schools who may be gay, not by choice, but by birth. I’m concerned that it promotes homophobia, and I’m equally as concerned that they’re teaching a curriculum that violates the U.S. Constitution,” in the sense that the state is attempting to restrict individuals’ First Amendment rights.

The letter actually quotes the state law regarding sexuality education. South Carolina requires that between ninth and 12th grade, students receive at least 750 minutes of “reproductive health education” and pregnancy prevention education. The law defines this as instruction in human physiology, conception, prenatal care and development, childbirth, and postnatal care. According to the law, however, such education does not include “instruction concerning sexual practices outside marriage or practices unrelated to reproduction, except within the context of the risk of disease. Abstinence and the risks associated with sexual activity outside of marriage must be strongly emphasized.”

When the law was written in 1988, only heterosexual couples could get married—so all abstinence-until-marriage messages would have, by nature, excluded gay or lesbian students and suggested by extension that all same-sex behavior was wrong because those couples could never get married. But the message in South Carolina is worse than just exclusion. By leaving same-sex couples out of discussions of healthy sexual relationships but including them in the discussion on sexually transmitted infections (STIs), young people are essentially being told that gay people are nothing more than disease vectors: a false and dangerous stereotype that arose during the height of the HIV epidemic. This biased message could have a devastating impact on students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or questioning their orientation, as well as students who are being raised by parents in a same-sex relationship.

Ramsdale has taken her concerns to the State Board of Education. In addition, she has also contacted Colleen Condon, a Mount Pleasant city council member who successfully challenged South Carolina’s same-sex marriage ban as a plaintiff in 2014. Condon agreed the law is troubling, asking the Post and Courier: “Are we trying to encourage young gay teens to believe there is something aberrant about their decisions?”

The two have since been working with the South Carolina Equality Litigation Post-DOMA Task Force, which was formed after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. The task force is now launching an investigation into what districts across the state are teaching in the hopes of overturning South Carolina’s law.

Unfortunately, students in South Carolina are not the only ones who will hear such information in school. In Arizona, schools are not required to teach about sexuality at all. If they choose to address it, however, the instruction must be medically accurate but cannot promote a “homosexual lifestyle,” portray “homosexuality as a positive alternative lifestyle,” or “suggest that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.”

Of course, this is impossible: A medically accurate course would actually explain that when it comes to HIV transmission, certain behaviors carry more risks than others. Unprotected anal sex, for example, is very risky for the receptive partner; performing oral sex on a woman, by contrast, is less risky. The genders involved do not make a difference.

Alabama’s law is even more inflammatory. It requires sexuality education to “emphasize, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”

This statement is horrifyingly wrong from a number of angles. First, public health experts do not tend to use “acceptable” as a test as to whether something is likely to keep a population safe. Second, there is no difference from a public health perspective between same-sex and opposite-sex couples, as long as everyone takes precautions to prevent STIs and unintended pregnancy. Moreover, though it once might have been unfortunately true that homosexuality was not “accepted” by the general public—and, as these laws demonstrate, pockets of discrimination linger throughout the country—this is thankfully no longer the case. A Gallup poll conducted in May 2015 found that 60 percent of adults thought marriages between individuals of the same sex should be valid and have the same rights as those between opposite-sex couples. And, finally, laws criminalizing homosexual behavior were declared unconstitutional over a decade ago in the 2003 Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas.

Policies like these, which propagate fears and damaging stereotypes, are a vital reminder that the struggle for LGBTQ rights and equality did not end with this summer’s Supreme Court decision. Young people—whether they are gay or not—should not be told that homosexuality is unacceptable, dangerous, and illegal. And the effect of these laws extend beyond sex-ed curricula: In fact, the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s 2009 National School Climate Survey found that LGBTQ students in states with stigmatizing laws were more likely to hear homophobic remarks from school staff, less likely to report incidents of harassment and assault to school staff, and less likely to report having support from educators.

These classes also represent a tremendous missed opportunity. Ideally, sex-ed classrooms should be a place in which students can learn what sexual orientation is, how individuals come to understand their own sexual orientation, and what we can all do to respect each other’s choices and identities. This kind of critical thinking about sexual orientation is necessary, not just to help those students who are LGBTQ or questioning their sexuality, but to help us all move toward a future free of homophobia and discrimination.  

To combat this continuing campaign of misinformation, parents should find out what is being taught in their child’s school and, like Ramsdale, should fight if the curriculum is biased. States and localities have made strides when challenged—the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota, for example, changed its Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy after being sued by several students who claimed it fostered an unsafe environment.

In the meantime, while educators’ hands are still tied in certain states and they are forced to provide misinformation, parents should remain invested in the lessons their children are learning. If those lessons are propagating homophobia, it’s up to parents to correct that inaccuracy at home.

Analysis Sexual Health

Vagina Is an ‘Inappropriate’ Word, and Other Ridiculous Tales from the World of Sex Ed

Martha Kempner

An Idaho science teacher has found himself under investigation for using the word vagina in a class on human reproduction. As ridiculous as this sounds, he is not alone.

Last week, a science teacher in Idaho found himself under investigation for the language he used in a class on reproductive biology. What outrageous thing did he say? It wasn’t the F word; it was the V word. That’s right, in explaining the human reproductive system to a room full of high school sophomores, he used the word vagina. And he got in trouble for it. In reality, it would have been shocking if he hadn’t said the word, given that it is a medically accurate term for a body part that plays an important role in the reproductive process. However, even though it is 2013 and references to sex are everywhere, sex education teachers across the country continue to get in trouble for the topics they cover, the information they teach, and the language they use.

In the most current controversy, science teacher Tim McDaniel is being investigated for saying the word vagina, teaching sex ed in a science class, talking about birth control, using inappropriate humor, and showing a video clip that depicted genital herpes. (The complaint also suggests that he shared confidential student information with people other than the students’ parents, but that is an entirely different issue.)

McDaniel has been teaching about vaginas—and the rest of the human reproductive system—at a Dietrich, Idaho, school for 17 years. He teaches this part of the curriculum in science class because the health teacher at the school is too uncomfortable with the material and won’t teach it. McDaniel says that he teaches right out of the textbook without adding anything and that this is the first time in nearly two decades that anyone has complained.

For their part, the parents asked for more warning before the class is taught so that they can exercise their right to opt out of the class on behalf of their children. McDaniel says that he gives kids that option but that he thinks they need this information. “It’s important to teach this to kids,” he told the Times-News. “Hopefully, the students are being abstinent but most of these students will be getting married a year or two after graduation and they need to know about this.”

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School administrators say that it is unlikely he could be fired over this incident, but he might get a letter of admonishment in his file.

McDaniel is also being investigated for showing Al Gore’s film on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, to students in his science class.

While I don’t know how often science teachers get in trouble for talking about climate change, teachers around the country, whether they specialize in health or science or other areas, frequently get in trouble for what they say about sex.

At the end of the 2011-12 school year, for example, a principal at Onalaska Elementary School in Washington state caused controversy when she answered questions during a lesson on HIV and AIDS. Reportedly, a student asked about other forms of sexual activity (presumably other than vaginal intercourse), so the principal explained oral and anal sex.   Onalaska superintendent Scott Fentor defended the principal for sticking to the curriculum and only giving factual information. As he told Q13 Fox News, “It’s pretty difficult to talk about STDs or sexually transmitted diseases without explaining what that is, or how it’s transmitted.”

A handful of outraged parents, however, felt quite differently. They claimed that the discussion included graphic accounts of oral sex acts and that the principal compared oral sex to licking a lollipop. The parents spoke to the media, with one father calling himself a “pissed off cowboy” on Q13. “Basically, how I feel is, it’s just the same as raping somebody, but you’re raping their innocence instead of their physical being,” he said.

Parents of students from the Cy Fair Independent School District in Houston were also outraged by what they say was a graphic lecture on sex education. This time the parents focused not on what the teacher said, but on videos that had been approved as part of a recent curriculum overhaul. One video depicted talking cartoon condoms, while another showed scenes of young people kissing on a couch and discussing the need to use condoms. The videos also included condom demonstrations.

In an interview with the local ABC affiliate, one parent called the video “shocking” and said she was disturbed by the concepts she is now forced to discuss with her 12-year-old daughter. Another said, “I don’t need the school district showing my kid how to put on condoms.” A third called it “soft porn.”

Some parents in the district disagreed, however, telling the affiliate that this information is necessary because 12- and 13-year-olds can and do get pregnant. Administrators reminded the outraged parents that the curriculum had been approved by a committee of parents, teachers, and other community members before being approved by the entire school board.

Prior approval is at least part of the issue in a controversy that started last November in Michigan. Susan Johnson, a middle school performing arts teacher in South Lyon, was suspended for two days without pay for playing a music video in class that supported same-sex marriage. The video for the song “Same Love” by rapper Ben Macklemore is about a gay man facing homophobia. A student asked Johnson if the students could view the video in class. She asked him if it was violent or included profanity, and when he said no she gave him the go ahead.

The music video became controversial after at least one student complained. Administrators said the video was inappropriate because of its use of the word “faggot” and its political and religious references. Administrators were also upset that the teacher did not have the video approved ahead of time as she should have, and that the video’s subject was not related to what the class was discussing that day.

In this case, however, parents took the teacher’s side. A group of parents gathered 180 signatures in support of the teacher and brought them to a school board meeting. Administrators ultimately decided to restore her pay for those two days.

Each of these controversies played out differently, but they share some common themes. First, talking about sex in school, even with the prior approval of a school board, can quickly become controversial. Though controversies over medically accurate terms for body parts, like vagina, are not common, the other topics—condoms, oral sex, anal sex, and same-sex relationships—may be the third rail of sex education, as they are frequently at the center of debates.

Whether parents want to believe it or not, these are things kids really need to know about. If a teacher or a sex ed video doesn’t teach a child how to put on a condom, who will? And if nobody does, how can we make sure kids will be protected when they start having sex, whether that’s in high school, in college, or later.

It may not be a teacher’s place to give a how-to on oral or anal sex, but that is not what sex education classes typically focus on. More importantly, these are behaviors that many teens engage in, and as such students need to learn about them and learn how to make them safer.

As for same-sex relationships, those are being talked about everywhere—on television shows, in sports news coverage, and in the Supreme Court—so it’s absurd to think students can’t have important discussions about the issue in school.

The real problem is that for every controversy that makes the news, there are probably two or three more that we don’t hear about. Worse, there are probably five or ten incidents that never even happen because a teacher sees the writing on the wall and censors him or herself before giving students potentially controversial information.

Much of this could be solved with better communication and training all around. Many of the teachers who are assigned to teach sex ed classes have had no formal training on the subject, leaving them unprepared and uncomfortable. (Think about the health teacher in Idaho who refused to even touch the subject.) Giving teachers better training about topics related to sexuality, proven ways to approach these topics, and the specific policies of the school district might help prevent controversies without educators having to censor themselves.

Equally as important, however, is communication with parents so they can better understand the reasons why educators need to tackle these topics. Then it’d be less likely that they’d be shocked when their middle schooler comes home having learned about vaginas.