Commentary Sexual Health

We’re Letting Schools Off the Hook on Sex Education

Martha Kempner

A report from the CDC shows that schools are failing to teach about STI and pregnancy prevention. But even if they were, students would still be left in the dark about many important issues.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released very disappointing data about sexuality education. Its School Health Profiles report, a survey of policies and practices across the country, found that fewer than half of all high schools and only a fifth of middle schools teach all 16 sexual health topics recommended by the CDC. Topics such as the importance of limiting the number of one’s sexual partners and the influences of peers, media, and family on sexuality are being left out by many schools. Particularly alarming were the findings about condoms, which showed that fewer than 60 percent of high schools tell students how to obtain condoms and only about half teach them how to use them correctly.

This is unconscionable in an era when half of all of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) occur in young people, and yet that is not what upsets me the most about the data. Based on my experience as a sex educator, I’m much more concerned about what agencies like the CDC don’t even expect schools to teach.

The CDC’s 16 sexual health topics, which largely focus on the prevention of STIs, HIV, and unintended pregnancy, are certainly important. As noted on the organization’s website, schools often use these guidelines and survey results to shape their future educational policies. But I would argue that even if 100 percent of schools in every state taught these topics, we would still be graduating students who don’t know some of the most basic information about sexuality. Based on what the CDC recommends exploring in depth, young people are certainly not prepared at this moment to think critically about more complicated issues—such as gender roles, relationships, sexual orientation, or sexual assault.

I say this based in large part on my years teaching college students in the great state of New Jersey, which, according to the School Health Profiles, does the best job covering prevention issues of any state. Here in the Garden State, 89.5 percent of high schools teach all 16 topics. Compare that to the worst-performing state, Arizona, where only 21 percent of high schools teach them all. This is great news for my home, to be sure. And yet, the recent graduates of New Jersey high schools who sit in my sociology of sexuality class each semester bemoan a lack of sex education—and what they don’t know may shock you.

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As expected, those who say they got any sex education (and some swear they did not), are most likely to report learning about STIs. The quality of the lessons, however, which the CDC’s “yes-or-no” survey questions do not measure, may leave something to be desired. A surprising number of students say this information revolved around a slide show of infected genitals and fallopian tubes injected with dye to show a blockage caused by untreated STIs. I have never seen the value in this method of teaching about STIs. It’s shocking, to be sure, but beyond that what do students learn? The pictures included are almost always of advanced infections, meaning they do nothing to help students identify the tiny sores and bumps that should have sent the people in the photographs running to the doctor months, if not years, before the pictures were taken.

Moreover, these slides are often the only time that young people see pictures—even illustrations—of genitals. There seems to be a belief that pictures of healthy genitals are inappropriate for a classroom, but once you add disease, they are educational. This just perpetuates the idea that these are dirty and shameful parts of our bodies.

This might be why I was met with a sea of confused faces when I began to discuss labiaplasty and the trend among young women to surgically alter their genitals to look more “normal.” It quickly became clear that many of my students did not know what labia were. So, even though my course is not supposed to be about the basics of human sexuality or anatomy, I put up a drawing of female genitalia and explained what was where and what function it served. One woman stared closely at the screen and admitted that she had not known women had three holes—the vagina, the urethra, and the anus. She was 20 years old and had always believed urine came out of her vagina.

I’m not suggesting that most schools in New Jersey fail to teach the basics of human anatomy. In fact, this young woman’s school may even have done so, she may have just been absent or not paying attention that day. What I do believe, however, is that if we keep focusing our attention on preventing negative consequences, our schools will never teach more than the basics. While it’s understandable that the CDC sticks to its mission of preventing pregnancy and disease, we cannot use that as the ultimate goal for sex education: policymakers, teachers, advocates, and parents have to demand something more of our schools, and provide them with the support and resources to do more.

SIECUS’ Guidelines for Comprehensive Sexuality Education—which many educators see as a framework for the ideal sexuality education program—suggest young people learn from kindergarten through 12th grade 39 topics related to sexuality. Of course, the prevention of STIs, HIV, and pregnancy are among these topics, but the list goes far beyond that. This model of sexuality education, which I totally support (I co-authored the third edition of the Guidelines when I was at SIECUS) wants young people to learn about families, friendships, love, romantic relationships, and marriage and lifetime commitment. It tries to help students understand their values and practice communication, negotiation, and assertiveness skills so as to stick to these values. It informs young people about sexual behavior, masturbation, sexual response, and fantasy. It actually tells them that sex feels good. And it begins the conversations about gender, sexual orientation, society, the media, and the law that I try to take on in my college course.

It is this well-rounded type of education that can get young people to think critically about the sexuality issues that set up the world around them, affect how they interact with that world, and directly impact the decisions they will make throughout their lives. Unfortunately, the vast majority of schools do not have the time or resources to devote to such teaching models, even when they are not limited by restrictive local policies mandating “abstinence-only education.” Most adults want young people to grow up to have a happy and healthy sex life, and yet schools are often limited to discussing the negative consequences of sex. This leaves young people uninformed and confused.

We know that almost two-thirds of high school students have had sex by their senior year. We know that although teen pregnancy and birth rates in this country are at an all-time low, there are still more than 270,000 babies born to teens each year. And we know that nearly half of the 20 million new STIs each year are diagnosed among young people between the ages of 15 to 24. It is sad that in this environment, our schools are failing to provide even the most basic prevention education.

Even so, what I think is truly pathetic is that we’ve evidently given up on the idea that schools can, and should, strive for more than that.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Republicans Can’t Help But Play Politics With the Judiciary

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Republicans have a good grip on the courts and are fighting hard to keep it that way.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Linda Greenhouse has another don’t-miss column in the New York Times on how the GOP outsourced the judicial nomination process to the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick has this smart piece on how we know the U.S. Supreme Court is the biggest election issue this year: The Republicans refuse to talk about it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging doctors to fill in the blanks left by “abstinence-centric” sex education and talk to their young patients about issues including sexual consent and gender identity.

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Good news from Alaska, where the state’s supreme court struck down its parental notification law.

Bad news from Virginia, though, where the supreme court struck down Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will leave behind one of the most politicized state supreme courts in modern history.

Turns out all those health gadgets and apps leave their users vulnerable to inadvertently disclosing private health data.

Julie Rovner breaks down the strategies anti-choice advocates are considering after their Supreme Court loss in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.   

Finally, Becca Andrews at Mother Jones writes that Texas intends to keep passing abortion restrictions based on junk science, despite its loss in Whole Woman’s Health.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.