Analysis Sexuality

Utah Lawmaker Proposes Sex Ed for Parents (For All the Wrong Reasons)

Martha Kempner

Utah State Senator Stuart Reid (R-Ogden) is proposing legislation that would offer sexuality education to parents and then allow parents to choose whether their children receive similar education in school.  Before you start applauding know that his ultimate goal is to see more young people “opted out” of sexuality education in Utah schools.    

Utah State Senator Stuart Reid (R-Ogden) is proposing legislation that would offer sexuality education to parents and then allow parents to choose whether their children receive similar education in school. Reid says that he feels that parents need training on how best to approach this topic with their children. Before you start applauding and giving a shout out to Utah of all places, you should know that his ultimate goal is to see more young people “opted out” of sexuality education in Utah schools.    

Utah has a relatively strict set of laws regarding sexuality education. While the state board of education must create curriculum requirements regarding disease prevention for students in grades eight through 12, the instruction must stress:

“the importance of abstinence from all sexual activity before marriage and fidelity after marriage as methods for preventing certain communicable diseases; and personal skills that encourage individual choice of abstinence and fidelity.”

The law also states that sexuality education cannot discuss:

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  • the intricacies of intercourse, sexual stimulation, or erotic behavior;
  • the advocacy of homosexuality;
  • the advocacy or encouragement of the use of contraceptive methods or devices; or
  • the advocacy of sexual activity outside of marriage

I remember a big controversy in Utah a number of years ago when a state legislator, apparently fearful that the law might leave room for teachers to provide inappropriate information, proposed new legislation stating that teachers could not discuss certain topics even in answer to a student’s question. Despite efforts on behalf of state and national organizations who felt this amounted to unfair and certainly unnecessary censorship, the legislation passed and is now law. Specifically Utah law states:  

“[at] no time may instruction be provided, including responses to spontaneous questions raised by students, regarding any means or methods that facilitate or encourage the violation of any state or federal criminal law by a minor or adult.”

It’s worth noting that Utah is one of those states that still has, shall we say, old-fashioned laws about sex on the book. In Utah consensual sexual intercourse outside of marriage is illegal.

Perhaps most telling though is that Utah is one of just a few states that requires parental permission before any student can take a sexuality education class. Most states provide parents the option of removing their child from class if they find the material offensive or contrary to their religious beliefs. These are called “opt-out” policies and they are preferred by educators because they respect parents’ wishes but do so without the administrative work involved in the kind of law Utah has, which is referred to as an “opt-in” policy.  Educators also worry that opt-in policies will mean that some kids miss out on important information about sexuality just because their permission slip got left at the bottom of their backpack or their parents simply forgot to sign it (two things that could easily happen in my house). According to the SIECUS state profiles only Utah, Mississippi, and Nevada have blanket opt-in policies. A few other states have a combination of opt-in/opt-out policies. 

Reid’s new legislation comes on the heels of a failed attempt by the state legislature to make sex education in Utah even stricter. Earlier this year, the Utah State Legislature passed a bill which would have required schools to take a strict abstinence-only approach and would have prohibited all discussion of premarital sex, STDs, contraceptives, and homosexuality — again, even if a student asked. The bill, HB 363 passed the state Senate with very little debate because when Democratic Senators attempted to raise issues or ask questions, the bill’s sponsor, Margaret Dayton said:

“I think everybody basically knows where they are on this issue. Obviously, the senators may speak, but I don’t know that it’s going to be beneficial for me to try to debate or answer questions.”

Of course, Dayton also compared sex education to telling kids not to do drugs and then showing them how to “mainline” heroin. Reid, for one, was in favor of that bill:

“To replace the parent in the school setting, among people who we have no idea what their morals are, we have no ideas what their values are, yet we turn our children over to them to instruct them in the most sensitive sexual activities in their lives, I think is wrongheaded.”

Many in the state opposed the bill, noting that the law already required schools to stress abstinence and arguing that such a law usurped parental authority. Thousands of residents wrote letters to the governor, 40,000 signed a petition asking him to veto the bill, and hundreds protested the bill at the state Capitol. Ultimately, Governor Gary Herbert vetoed the legislation, saying in a tweet: “I cannot sign a bill that deprives parents of their choice.”

Not only did parents in Utah rally against stricter sex education rules, nearly 95 percent of parents choose to send their children to sex education programs despite the administrative hurdle posed by the state’s opt-in policy.  While one might assume this means that parents in the state (like parents around the country) want their children to receive sexuality education courses from trained professionals in schools, Reid’s take away is that parents are simply scared to do it themselves: “I think often the parents choose not to opt out for their children out of sex ed in the schools because they’re uncomfortable providing that training.” 

Personally, I’m fascinated by Reid’s new approach.  There is not a sexuality educator I know who wouldn’t jump at the chance to ensure that parents had accurate information about sexuality and provide them with strategies for talking with their kids about sex.  Most of them would probably agree with Reid that many parents avoid discussing sex with their kids, “either because they don’t know how to do it or it’s sensitive, or they need training how best to approach that with their children.”

Of course, our hope as sexuality educators would be that once parents had this training, they would not only be more comfortable having conversations about sex with their kids at home but they would be eager for their kids to learn more about such important topics from trained professionals in school.

If Reid’s bill manages to pass, it will be interesting what happens after parents attend the sexuality education seminars. 

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