In matters of education, as with many social concerns, there continues to be a disconnect between policy and practice. Sex(uality) education has long suffered from ineffective policies handed down by federal, state, and local agents (i.e. politicians) that don’t bother to critically think through the decisions they are making. I remember a conversation that took place during the 2008 presidential election surrounding the appeal to the “average American” (whatever that actually means) by politicians. They wanted to demonstrate that they could connect with the hearts and “minds” of “every man” (yes, the use of man is very intentional) and in doing so, seemed to limit intellectual discourse. A journalist (I wish I could remember who) responded to this trend in the most logical manner I had heard in quite some time by making it clear that we shouldn’t want an “every man” in the White House. We should want our president to be the smartest person in any room they walk into around the world. Unfortunately, that just hasn’t been the case, and the evidence continues to mount as we suffer from over-simplified justifications for otherwise illogical policy decisions.
Most recently in the ongoing sex(uality) education debate, the Louisiana legislature struck down a bill that would have given the state Department of Education the ability to ask teens about their sexual health. These questions, which are a part of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted nationally by the CDC since 1991, ask young people about sexual activity and sexual risk behaviors. The survey is grounded in a solid public health approach, which is in keeping with a majority of mainstream comprehensive sexuality education, and avoids any discussion of morals or values related to sex(uality). However, legislators were concerned that asking about such activities would desensitize them and give them “ideas”. Louisiana law currently reads that
It is the intent of the legislature that, for the purposes of this Section, “sex education” shall mean the dissemination of factual biological or pathological information that is related to the human reproduction system and may include the study of sexually transmitted disease, pregnancy, childbirth, puberty, menstruation, and menopause, as well as the dissemination of factual information about parental responsibilities under the child support laws of the state. It is the intent of the legislature that “sex education” shall not include religious beliefs, practices in human sexuality, nor the subjective moral and ethical judgments of the instructor or other persons. Students shall not be tested, quizzed, or surveyed about their personal or family beliefs or practices in sex, morality, or religion.
Sex education is not required in the state, and is even banned in elementary schools. It amazes me that in 2014, when children are born with smartphones in their hands and Netflix accounts embroidered on their baby blankets, that we are still worried that discussing sex(uality) is somehow going to lead to increased rates of sexual activity. I realize that this is the same logic that has led to debates over discussing homosexuality, as if the mere mention of it will “turn kids gay”, but I can’t help but continue to shake my head. How long must we cater to an anti-intellectual fringe minority instead of the educators and researchers who continue to produce sound scientific evidence and pedagogically effective means of providing our young people with a well-rounded education that teaches them to think critically about the world around them. I can only assume that the ultimate threat isn’t that asking kids about sex will make them go have sex, but that it will encourage more critical thinking, which will lead to young people not blindly following outdated beliefs in the first place.
Clearly, those screaming the loudest in Louisiana aren’t presenting a more effective sexuality education curriculum and yet we continue to deny young people access to important health information. This out-of-touch ideology has led to a full 25% of students in the state not having had any education concerning HIV/AIDS, and higher than average pregnancy and birth rates (in a country that already has the highest rates in the industrialized world). Not surprisingly, the rates of HIV and STI infection in Louisiana are also well above the national average. Most recently (May 27), the legislature took the added step of banning any organization the provides abortions from distributing sex education materials in schools (H.B. 305). Planned Parenthood, who no doubt was the main focus of this legislation, is perhaps the largest private provider of sex education in the country.
Now, there are folks in Louisiana, as there are nationally, that are trying to combat these educational mistakes. Legislation has been presented in Louisiana several times over the past five years that would require comprehensive, medically accurate sexuality education for young people but it has been defeated each time. Most recently, Rep. Patricia Smith (D), who sponsored the bill, went as far as to say that a lack of sex education “is really a form of child abuse.” These policy debates play out across the country every month, and young people are left twisting in the wind as a result. Until we make it clear to our elected officials that we want them to vote based on educated and informed evidence, they will continue to strike an unwritten bargain with a vocal minority that doesn’t reflect the beliefs of most citizens or the scientific evidence as a whole.
I realize that relatively small legislative decisions such as this can get lost in the black hole of larger social and political issues, but each of these decisions are connected to one another. As educators, it is our responsibility not only to provide young people with open-minded, diverse, and critical perspectives on a host of issues. We must also engage in these policy debates and voice our opinions to those elected officials that are responsible for defining the bounds of our discourse. They may not remember any single vote a few years from now, but our young people will be feeling the effects of those votes for years to come. Policy matters.