Analysis Sexual Health

Watch Texas Sen. Dan Patrick Snipe and Holler His Way Through a Sex Ed Hearing

Andrea Grimes

Patrick wants to keep Planned Parenthood from providing sex education curriculum in public schools. Watch how he treats citizens who respectfully disagree with him.

Texas legislators have proposed new laws that would keep abortion providers and their “affiliates”—specifically, Planned Parenthood—from providing sex education curriculum in public schools.

This proposed legislation is a one-size-fits-all solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. While Planned Parenthood does provide community education on family planning and sex, there’s no evidence that the organization has been, as lawmakers allege, secretly infiltrating schools with a pro-abortion agenda.

School districts in Texas choose their sex ed curriculum via a school health advisory committee (SHAC) made up of mostly parents. The vast majority of SHACs choose abstinence-only programs that discuss contraception in terms of failure rates and little else, though an increasing amount are choosing “abstinence-plus” programs, which include “basic, factual information about contraception and disease prevention,” according to a 2011 study from the Texas Freedom Network.

HB 1057 is the Texas House’s version of this law, while SB 521 is winding its way through the Senate. Each would impose intrusive, big government-style restrictions on Texas parents and SHAC members to choose the sex ed curriculum they feel is right for their individual districts. The proposed laws would also require that parents opt their children into the programs, putting the state’s most vulnerable students, who have little parental oversight, in serious danger of receiving no sex education at school whatsoever.

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At a committee hearing on SB 521 earlier this month, state Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), chair of the Public Education Committee and a conservative talk radio show host, heard public testimony about the bill, which he supports. As is frequently the case when children are involved, things got heated—mostly for Dan Patrick, who spent the afternoon sniping and even yelling at Texans who respectfully disagreed with him. Here’s what that looked like.

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.

News Sexual Health

Sex Ed Mandatory in Hawaii Schools After Years of Misinformation

Martha Kempner

After years of controversy, sex education will now be mandatory in Hawaii schools just as data suggests recent efforts to improve sex ed have worked to reduce teen pregnancy and abortion rates.

The Hawaii Board of Education voted on June 16 to make sex education mandatory starting in the 2015–2016 school year. The decision comes after years of efforts by educators to make the state’s sex education program more comprehensive and counter lawmakers’ attempts to make it more restrictive.

It also comes on the heels of data that suggest broadened sex education may have been partially responsible for the reduction of teen pregnancy and abortion in Hawaii.

Until now, Hawaii schools were not required to teach sex education at all. Efforts to improve how schools handle the topic began in 2009 with a state law requiring all sexual health programs in schools to provide medically accurate information. Under this rule, schools that chose to teach sex education were required to stress the benefits of abstinence and encourage sexually active students to become abstinent, but they also had to include education on methods of contraception and disease prevention.

Before 2009, many schools in the state were relying on Catholic charities that provided Try Waitan abstinence-only-until-marriage program. The program, which was supported with federal funding, used the Choosing the Best curricula.

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This popular series contains very little information about contraception and STDs, promotes heterosexual marriage, relies on messages of fear and shame, and includes biases about gender, sexual orientation, and pregnancy options, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. (SIECUS).

Other materials used in Hawaii schools were outdated and culturally inappropriate.

Judith Clark, executive director of Hawaii Youth Services Network, told the Associated Press that schools were using videos from the 1980s and at least one of them featured actors who were ice skating in heavy sweaters. “It was very didactic, very boring and very inappropriate for Hawaii because nothing looked familiar,” Clark said.

Clark explained that the state was awarded a $5 million grant to spend on sex education programs over five years beginning in 2010, which has led to the creation of new, more appropriate resources, and a focus on teen pregnancy prevention both in and out of schools.

Clark’s organization, for example, created new DVDs using local actors on the beach and at a Polynesian tattoo shop. In one video, the actors even speak in the local pidgin dialect throughout the story.

One new program that was designed to be culturally appropriate, however, became controversial. Pono Choices was created by the University of Hawaii for 11- to 13-year-old students. It is described by the university as being “culturally responsive,” and introducing “students to Hawaiian cultural terms, practices and concepts that stress positive character development, including making ‘pono’ or ‘right’ choices.”

Originally introduced as a pilot program in 12 schools across the state, the program was pulled twice in large part due to the efforts of Rep. Bob McDermott (R-Kapolei, Makakilo).

The state Department of Education first pulled the program in late November 2013 to review it after McDermott and a few other legislators complained, along with some parents. But after just two weeks, the department not only reinstated the sex ed program, but expanded it to other schools.

McDermott wasn’t satisfied and continued efforts to get the program changed or canceled.

He released a 21-page report in February 2014 charging that the program was too explicit, not medically accurate, and did not adequately explain the risk of homosexual sex.

“The program normalizes a homosexual lifestyle and anal sex, while failing to warn students of the extreme dangers of anal sex; it references multiple sex partners, while failing to inform students about the health benefits of monogamy; it fails to warn students about the ineffectiveness of condoms against HPV, herpes, and anal sex; and fails to educate students on the stages of human reproduction,”McDermott told WatchDog.org.

McDermott seemed very concerned that the curriculum referred to the anus as part of the genitals.

The GOP legislator introduced an amendment in 2014 that would have prevented the education department from describing the anus as a sexual organ in the program. Though the amendment failed with just seven of 51 members voting for it, the floor debate apparently got so heated that vice speaker John Mizuno had to call for a recess twice to resolve personal disputes between members.

Though the amendment was unsuccessful, continued controversy caused the state education department to temporarily suspend the program again in June 2014 while the University of Hawaii made some changes. Ten changes were made to the curriculum before it was reinstated in September. Changes included no longer calling the anus part of genitals, emphasizing the dangers of unprotected anal sex, and rewriting language on condom efficacy rates.

The other change made at the time: a switch to an opt-in system of parental permission for sex education programs. Previously, students were automatically enrolled in sex ed, but parents could choose to take their child out of the course by sending a form to the school. Under the opt-in policy, which was in place for the 2014–2015 school year, no student would be allowed to participate in the program unless their parent signed a permission slip.

Educators often worry that opt-in requirements will prevent some students from receiving sex education for administrative reasons, such as a permission slip that never made it out of a kid’s backpack.

McDermott called the changes to the curriculum and the policy a partial victory, but others worried that the stricter rules indicated a step backward in the progress made toward providing better sex education in Hawaii’s schools. These advocates noted that improved sex education deserved at least partial credit for the lower rates of abortion and teen pregnancy in the state.

Recently released data show that the Hawaii had the steepest abortion rate decline of any state, with the number of terminated pregnancies falling almost 30 percent from 2010 to 2014. The state’s historically high teen pregnancy rate has also been on the decline.

The Hawaii Youth Services Network’s Judith Clark told the Associated Press she believes the increased focus on sex ed has made a marked impact on teen pregnancies in Hawaii.

“I would certainly hope those efforts reduced the incidents of abortions by reducing the rate of pregnancies,” Clark said.

Dr. Donald Hayes, epidemiologist with the Hawaii Department of Health, agreed sex education could be one reason for the decline, but also pointed to high use of long-acting reversible contraception methods such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) or hormonal implants.

McDermott credited something else entirely. “It’s the availability of the morning-after pill,” he told the Associated Press. “The need for surgical abortions is diminished.”

Those who feel sex education is part of the teen pregnancy solution were concerned that controversy over the past few years would diminish that success. Hayes said, “All these gains could be lost if the education in the schools was a big portion of the reductions here.”

But the June 16 decision may allay these fears because the state Board of Education not only voted to mandate sex education in all schools, it denied the Hawaii Department of Education’s request to keep the opt-in policy. Sex education will once again be operating under an opt-out policy when the 2015-2016 school year begins.

Sex education advocates across the country are pleased with the decision. “Kudos to the Hawaii Board of Education for stepping up to ensure the health of Hawaii’s young people by requiring that their schools provide them with age appropriate and medically accurate sexuality education,” Monica Rodriguez, president of SIECUS, told Rewire. “Now begins the hard work of implementing that policy in schools across the state and making sure that schools and teachers have the resources and training they need to deliver high quality lessons.”

Of course, not everyone is pleased. McDermott called the implementation of fact-based sex education “a travesty.”