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.
Part II: The Specifics
Following Townsend’s appeal to the school board, numerous conservative groups popped up to oppose FLSE and its supporters. “It wasn’t long before the community members became acronym crazy and started forming their own groups”(Paige C., 2009, p.2). Numerous organizations, such as People Against Unconstitutional Sex Education (PAUSE), Sanity of Sex (SOS), Mothers for Moral Stability (MOMS), Parents Opposed to Sex and Sensitivity Education (POSSE), and the Movement to Restore Decency (MOTOREDE) all formed with the same goals for opposing FLSE, Cook, Williams, and SIECUS in their efforts to provide inclusive sex education for Anaheim students. Ultimately these groups banding together, argued based on three premises, insisting that parents should be responsible for teaching children about sex, the courses were too specific and sexually explicit, and that those who taught sex education were evil. Those arguments were wrapped up into the elements of the conflict in Anaheim.
Like many community conflicts, the debate over sex education in Anaheim involved policy, object and leadership. “The policy issues in the Anaheim controversy revolved around the fundamentalist, conservative ideology of the opponents”(Hottois & Milner, 1975, p. 75). Ultimately, they viewed sex education as in opposition to the conservative ideology of the purpose of education. “They seemed to sense that sex education was related to an approach centered on a rationalist morality of consequences”(p.75). This was in contradiction with their own absolutist approach, and threatened their notions of morality. This same basis in ideology was held by proponents, such as Paul Cook, and Dr. Mary Calderon, Director of SIECUS (Sex Information and Education Committee of the United States). However, as Hottois and Milner (1975) point out, they failed to grasp the reality that sex education, by its very nature, raised moral issues.
Secondly, an object of focus is required as a focal point for community controversy. In the Anaheim case, these objects were the sex education curriculum itself, and the decision-making authority in the schools. With both objects, opponents characterized them as meaning to focus on a program of “life adjustment”, which was reinforced by the vocal, antagonistic approach Paul Cook at various times. Former school nurse Sally Williams, who designed the curriculum and named the program Family Life and Sex Education (FLSE), originally offered the content to juniors and seniors in the spring of 1965, and it was spread to grades seven through twelve the following fall.
The curriculum itself was basically an upgraded four-and-a-half-week session, which covered topics such as reproduction, pregnancy, birth, and physical changes during puberty. “The difference here is the format. Anaheim’s FLSE was coeducational and based on a discussion format often related to sensitivity training. Students spent a good amount of class time discussion not just on the mechanics of sex, but also gender roles within relationships and male and female stereotypes”(Paige C., 2009, p.1). The overall goal was to foster open, honest, and frank discussion about the topics, which was seen by many as an intrusion into the responsibilities of parents and other community groups.
More specifically, the objects within the curriculum that raised the most concern were the topics of masturbation and homosexuality. Masturbation has brought about the initial conflict, and the objections were amplified by the message being conveyed that it was a healthy sexual expression with no negative consequences. “This was a major issue for the religious members of the community, as was the section devoted to an explanation of homosexuality”(Paige C., 2009, p.1). Although these two issues were held up by the opposition as evidence of the moral decay of the program, proponents hailed them as evidence of the model program that had been created in Anaheim. James Collier, a writer for the Village Voice wrote that Anaheim was giving children “what is unquestionably the most intelligent, realistic, honest, and complete course in sex education anywhere in the United States, if not the entire world”(Collier, 1967).
The last element of conflict in Anaheim was that of leadership. From proponents, Cook attempted to be that leader. “While Cook sought to lead the proponents, he didn’t seem to have a following. It was as if the parents who had said that they favored sex education in the 1962 opinion poll has all moved away; none emerged publicly to support the embattled superintendent”(Hottois & Milner, 1975, p.76). However he did receive support from the school board and teachers. Additionally, and perhaps most publicly, was the support of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers (PTA). “Through both literature and legislation, the PTA continued to push for a broader sex education program for students of all ages. ‘The Case for Sex Education’, a press release in their national publication, laid out their support of similar programs”(Paige C., 2009, p.3).
To be continued…