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.

News Sexual Health

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

Nicole Knight Shine

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 808 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2011—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.”

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.

Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.

Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.

Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.

“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”

“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.

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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.

But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.

The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.

“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.

Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms

Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.

Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.

“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.

Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.

“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.

Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.

State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.

So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.

This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.

“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”

Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.

“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”

Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.

“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”

For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.

These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.

“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.

“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”

By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.

States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.

A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.

As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”