Roundups Sexual Health

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

Martha Kempner

CDC study finds schools making little progress in sex education; Tennessee lawmakers warn against gateway "sexual behaviors," and Springfield Massachusetts decides to provide condoms to middle school and high school students.

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.

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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.

Culture & Conversation Politics

Latino Votes Count or ‘Why Would They Be Trying to Suppress Them?’: Dolores Huerta on What’s at Stake in 2016

Ally Boguhn

“We know that we’ve had this problem that Latinos sometimes don’t vote—they feel intimidated, they feel like maybe their vote doesn’t matter,” Huerta told Rewire. Huerta encouraged people to consider both what is at stake and why their vote might be suppressed in the first place.

Republican nominee Donald Trump launched his campaign for president in June 2015 with a speech notoriously claiming Mexican immigrants to the United States “are bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists.”

Since then, both Trump’s campaign and the Republican Party at large have continued to rely upon anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric to drum up support. Take for example, this year’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio—whose department came under fire earlier this year for racially profiling Latinos—was invited to take the stage to push Trump’s proposed 2,000-mile border wall. Arpaio told the Arizona Republic that Trump’s campaign had worked with the sheriff to finalize his speech.

This June, just a day shy of the anniversary of Trump’s entrance into the presidential race, People for the American Way and CASA in Action hosted an event highlighting what they deemed to be the presumptive Republican nominee’s “Year of Hate.”

Among the advocates speaking at the event was legendary civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, who worked alongside César Chávez in the farm workers’ movement. Speaking by phone the next day with Rewire, Huerta—who has endorsed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton—detailed the importance of Latinos getting involved in the 2016 election, and what she sees as being at stake for the community.

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The Trump campaign is “promoting a culture of violence,” Huerta told Rewire, adding that it “is not just limited to the rallies,” which have sometimes ended in violent incidents, “but when he is attacking Mexicans, and gays, and women, and making fun of disabled people.”

Huerta didn’t just see this kind of rhetoric as harmful to Latinos. When asked about its effect on the country at large, she suggested it affected not only those who already held racist beliefs, but also people living in the communities of color those people may then target. “For those people who are already racist, it sort of reinforces their racism,” she said. “I think people have their own frustrations in their lives and they take it out on immigrants, they take it out on women. And I think that it really endangers so many people of color.”

The inflammatory rhetoric toward people of color by presidential candidates has led to “an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom,” according to an April report by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The organization’s analysis of the impact of the 2016 presidential election on classrooms across the country found “an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.” Though the SPLC did not name Trump in its questions, its survey of about 2,000 K-12 educators elicited up more than 1,000 comments about the Republican nominee, compared to less than 200 comments mentioning other presidential candidates still in the race at that time.

But the 2016 election presents an opportunity for those affected by that violent rhetoric to make their voices heard, said Huerta. “The Latino vote is going to be the decisive vote in terms of who is going to be elected the president of the United States,” she continued, later noting that “we’ve actually seen a resurgence right now of Latinos registering to vote and Latinos becoming citizens.”

However, a desire to vote may not always be enough. Latinos, along with other marginalized groups, face many barriers when it comes to voting due to the onslaught of voter restrictions pushed by conservative lawmakers across the country—a problem only exacerbated by the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling gutting portions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) meant to safeguard against voter suppression efforts. The 2016 election season will be the first presidential election without those protections.

As many as 875,000 eligible Latino voters could face difficulty voting thanks to new restrictions—such as voter ID laws, proof of citizenship requirements, and shortened early voting periods—put into place since the 2012 elections, a May analysis from the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials found.

When it comes to restrictions like this, Huerta “absolutely” saw how they could create barriers for those hoping to cast their ballot this year. “They’ve made all of these restrictions that keep especially the Latino population from voting. So it’s very scary,” said Huerta, pointing to laws in states like Texas, which previously had one of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. (The state has since agreed to weaken its law following a judge’s order).

“We know that we’ve had this problem that Latinos sometimes don’t vote—they feel intimidated, they feel like maybe their vote doesn’t matter,” Huerta went on.

Huerta encouraged people to consider both what is at stake and why their voting rights might be targeted in the first place. “What we have to think about is, if they’re doing so much to suppress the vote of the Latino and the African-American community, that means that that vote really counts. It really matters or else why would they be trying to suppress them?”

Appealing to those voters means tapping into the issues Latinos care about. “I think the issues [Latinos care about] are very, very clear,” said Huerta when asked how a presidential candidate could best appeal to the demographic. “I mean, immigration of course is one of the issues that we have, but then education is another one, and health care.”

A February survey conducted jointly by the Washington Post and Univision found that the top five issues Latino voters cared about in the 2016 election cycle were jobs and the economy (33 percent), immigration (17 percent), education (16 percent), health care (11 percent), and terrorism (9 percent).

Another election-year issue that could affect voters is the nomination of a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Huerta added. She pointed out the effect justices have on our society by using the now-decided Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt case as an example. “You know, again, when we think of the presidents, and we think of the Supreme Court and we know that [was] one of the issues that [was] pending in the Supreme Court … whether what they did in Texas … was constitutional or not with all of the restrictions they put on the health clinics,” she said.

Latinas disproportionately face large barriers to reproductive health care. According to Planned Parenthood, they “experience higher rates of reproductive cancers, unintended pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections than most other groups of people.” Those barriers are only exacerbated by laws like Texas’ HB 2, as the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health explained in its amicus brief in the Whole Woman’s Health case prior to the decision: “Texas Latinas already face significant geographic, transportation, infrastructure, and cost challenges in accessing health services.”

“H.B. 2’s impact is acute because of the day-to-day struggles many Latinas encounter when seeking to exercise their reproductive rights,” wrote the organization in its brief. “In Texas, there is a dire shortage of healthcare facilities and providers in predominantly Latino communities. Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured adults in the country, and Texas Latinos are more than twice as likely as whites to be uninsured …. Additionally, the lack of public and private transportation creates a major barrier to accessing health services, especially in rural areas.”

As Rewire’s Tina Vasquez has reported, for undocumented women, the struggle to access care can be even greater.

Given the threats cases like Whole Woman’s Health have posed to reproductive rights, Huerta noted that “Trump’s constant attacks and misogynist statements” should be taken with caution. Trump has repeatedly vowed to appoint anti-choice justices to the Supreme Court if elected.

“The things he says without even thinking about it … it shows what a dangerous individual he can be when it comes to women’s rights and women’s reproductive rights,” said Huerta.

Though the race for the White House was a top concern of Huerta’s, she concluded by noting that it is hardly the only election that matters this year. “I think the other thing is we have to really talk about is, the presidency is really important, but so is the Senate and the Congress,” said Huerta.

“We’ve got to make sure we get good people elected at every level, starting at school board level, city council, supervisors, commissioners, etc. state legislatures …. We’ve got to make sure reasonable people will be elected, and reasonable people are voted into office.”

News Sexual Health

State With Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

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