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Policy Matters: Louisiana Legislators are Worried Questions will Cause Action

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.


The Anaheim Debate of ’68: Part II

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…


Sex(uality) Education within ESL Curricula

“In countries all over the world, children who do not speak the societal language face many difficulties in schools” (Valdes, 2001, p. 10). These difficulties extend to all aspects of the curriculum, and are increasingly difficult in content areas such as sexuality education, where the topic is politically contentious and teachers are uncomfortable delivering the content, even in their native language.

The debate over the content and delivery of sexuality education poses a clear problem for educators in the United States. This pressure to develop and implement a certain approach has made educators across the United States apprehensive about what they can and cannot teach or even address with students. Additionally, their own political, social, and religious beliefs continue to impact their willingness and confidence in presenting this material. Furthermore, the level at which educators are prepared to have these conversations is not universally adequate either. This tension is in large part due to the lack of continuity of curricula across the U.S.

Many similar debates exist over the delivery of bilingual education. Many of the same changing perspectives on the parts of politicians, administrators, and educators have impacted the ideology and practice of bilingual education over the years (Andersson & Boyer, 1970; Crawford, 2004; Lyons, 1990; McCarty, 2004; Miguel, 2004; Ovando, 2003; Wiley, 2002). “The challenges of educating students who do not speak a societal language are enormous. In the United States, it is not just a question of teaching English; rather, it is a question of providing large numbers of students with access to the curriculum at the same time that they are learning English” (Valdes, 2001, p. 14). These challenges mean that newly arrived immigrant Latino students entering American schools at the secondary level face significant challenges as they navigate the educational system (Chamot, 1992; Davis & McDaid, 1992; Lucas, 1992).

These overlapping debates make the study of the content and delivery of sexuality education of bilingual students of particular importance. In essence, sexuality education is made up of “social spaces where cultures meet, class, and grapple with each other” (Pratt, 1999, p. 584). As such, this has “brought to the forefront pedagogic questions about how to address important but potentially contentious issues of social identity and inequity and what exactly a teacher’s role, and goal, ought to be in such endeavors (Pennycook, 2001, as cited in Nelson, 2009).

According to Ward and Taylor (1992), sexuality education as it is currently taught does not meet the needs of large percentages of children in the United States. In particular, students of color are not represented and given a voice in the design, content, and delivery of sexuality education. When viewed as socially constructed, sexuality education can be seen as being created and delivered within a larger social and political context, which includes inequalities based on race, class, and gender. Furthermore, “various cultures interpret, define, and regulate sexuality differently, and cultural group members socialize their children to cultural norms, taboos, and expectations regarding sexual behavior” (Ward & Taylor, 1992, p. 183).

This lack of representation for cultural and ethnic minority groups represents an even greater problem when one considers the increased rates of pregnancy among Hispanic adolescents especially, which is 1.7 times greater than that for whites.  Many of these adolescent girls also represent English Language Learners or bilingual students as well, but “sexuality education is seldom introduced in bilingual education classrooms, and children with limited English language proficiency” (Ward & Taylor, 1992, p.187).  Additionally, the topic may be of far less significance for students attempting to adjust to a curriculum and school culture that does not support their language, culture, values, and beliefs. When access to sexuality education is provided, “language differences and the necessity of adjusting to the linguistic concepts in a new culture may affect comprehension of sexuality education course content” (Ward & Taylor, 1992, p. 187).

Much like many other aspects of education, sexuality education curricula are inaccessible to a majority of bilingual students, and teachers are doubly unprepared to present difficult curricula in a language and culture they are equally uncomfortable working with on a daily basis (Pick, Givaudan & Brown, 2000). This poses a significant problem for bilingual and ESL students, who statistically possess higher rates of teen pregnancy, STD contraction, and lack of contraceptive use. These concerns lie in sharp contrast to the assertion that “the development of sexual identity and the skills necessary to navigate healthy sexual relationships should begin early and continue through adulthood”(Pick, Givaudan & Brown, 2000, p. 98).

In much the same way that sexuality education rarely addresses the needs of a diverse student population, language education research rarely represents linguistically or sexually diverse student groups (Nelson, 2005). In both cases, the needs of mainstream student populations are effectively addressed, but those of diverse student populations are not met in a substantial way. Furthermore, “although identity research in language education draws on critical social theory, postcolonial theory, gender studies, and, increasingly, critical race studies, for the most part, queer studies remain oddly overlooked”(Nelson, 2006, p.2). For the most part, the queer education work that has been done has focused on a monolingual subject group, and “is only beginning to give serious attention to how issues of sexual diversity interface with issues of cultural and linguistic diversity, especially transnationally”(Nelson, 2006, p.3). Thus, the fates of sexuality education and bilingual education are uniquely intertwined as efforts for reform move forward.

The positionality of teachers of English as a second or foreign language play a significant role in the means by which sexuality education is presented and provided as well. As Duff and Uchida (1997) assert, issues of sociocultural identity and representation are very important in EFL (English as a Foreign Language) classrooms. These same issues are equally important in ESL (English as a Second Language) classrooms.

These aspects of sociocultural identity and representation intersect individually with the teaching of English as a second language and sexuality education and are exponentially increased when discussing aspects of sexuality education within an ESL context. Teachers must be prepared to navigate the social and political contexts of the material they are delivering, and must understand the broader implications of what and how they delivery information in the classroom. Additionally, teachers must understand their own positionality with regard to these issues before they can navigate them on a broader scale.

Academic, moral, and political issues such as sexuality and bilingual education can be approached from a variety of perspectives, and the implementation of these educational forums is influenced by the beliefs, background, and moral and political leanings of those conveying the information. Both aspects of education will remain highly controversial issues for at least the immediate future. As the number of children being served by ESL and ELL programs increases, the significance of an equitable approach to sexuality education for these students will be more and more important. As a result, the process of reform involves numerous key stakeholders.

This process begins with those individuals funding the curriculum, extends to those developing the curricula, and ultimately rests with the K-12 educators charged with implementing the curricula. The approach to bilingual education thus has a direct impact on the content and effectiveness of sexuality education provided to ESL students, which in turn plays a significant role in influencing rates of STD contraction and pregnancy, as well as fostering a stronger sense of identity in line with their own cultural backgrounds and beliefs.


Andersson, T. & Boyer, M. (1970). Bilingual Schooling in the United States (2 volumes). Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Laboratory.

Chamot, A. U. (1992). Changing institutional needs of language minority students. Third National Research Symposium on LEP Students. Washington, DC: Department of Education.

Crawford, J. (2004). Educating English learners: Language Diversity in the Classroom. Los Angeles, CA: Bilingual Education Services.

Davis, D., & McDaid, J. (1992). Identifying second-language students’ needs: A survey of Vietnamese high school students. Urban Education, 6, 217-244.

Duff, P. A. & Uchida, Y. (1997). The negotiation of teachers’ sociocultural identities and practices in postsecondary ELF classrooms. TESOL Quarterly, 31(3), 451-486.

Lucas, T. (1992). What have we learned from research on successful secondary programs for LEP students? A synthesis of findings from three studies. Third National Research Symposium on LEP Student Issues. Washington, DC: Department of Education.

Lyons, J. J. (1990). The past and future directions of Federal bilingual-education policy. In C. B. Cazden & C. E. Snow (Eds.), Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 508, 119-134. London: Sage.

McCarty, T. L. (2004). Dangerous difference: A critical-historical analysis of language education policies in the United States. In J. W. Tollefson & A. B. M. Tsui (Eds.), Medium of Instruction Policies: Which Agenda? Whose Agenda? Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Miguel, G. S. (2004). Contested Policy: The Rise and Fall of Federal Bilingual Education in the United States 1960-2001. Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press.

Nelson, C. D. (2005). Transnational/Queer: Narratives from the contact zone. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 21(2), 109-117.

Nelson, C. D. (2006). Queer inquiry in language education. Journal of Language, Identity, and Education, 5(1), 1-9.

Nelson, C. D. (2009). Sexual identities in English language education: Classroom Conversations. New York: Routledge.

Ovando, C. J. (2003). Bilingual education in the United States: Historical development and current issues. Bilingual Research Journal, 27(1), 1-24.

Pennycook, A. (2001). Critical applied linguistics: A critical introduction.Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Pick, S., Givaudan, M. & Brown, J. (2000). Working for school-based sexuality education in Mexico: Strategies for advocacy. Reproductive Health Matters, 8(16), 92-102.

Pratt, M. L. (1999). Arts of the contact zone. In D. Bartholomae & A. Petrosky (Eds.), Ways of reading: An anthology for writers (5th ed.), pp. 581-596. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins.

Valdes, G. (2001). Learning and not learning English: Latino students in American schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ward, J. V. & Taylor, J. M. (1992). Sexuality education for immigrant and minority students: Developing a culturally appropriate curriculum. In J. T. Sears (Ed.), Sexuality and the curriculum: The politics and practices of sexuality education (pp. 183-202). New York: Teachers College Press.

Wiley, T. G. (2002). Accessing language rights in education: A brief history of the US context. In J. W. Tollefson (Ed.), Language Policies in Education: Critical Issues. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sex(uality) Education & Sexual Violence

Over the past two weekends, I completed a 32-hour advocate training program with A.C.C.E.S.S. (Assault Care Center Extending Shelter & Support) in town. This wonderful shelter and organization provides resources, counseling, and shelter services for victim survivors of domestic violence (DV) and sexual assault (SA), as well as outreach to the community for education and training. I’m humbled by the opportunity to volunteer for this wonderful organization, and although the work is difficult, it is also incredibly important and rewarding. This is work I’ve been involved with in various capacities since my undergraduate days at the University of Minnesota, and something I am very passionate about. The nature of the work, and my identity as a White male continually gives me pause as I consider my positionality, and how I engage, advocate, and assist others.

Following the training, I engaged in quite a bit of reflection. I’ve been thinking about and working with issues of DV and SA for close to 15 years now, but the work I did was previously only loosely connected to my professional life. Now that I am also teaching and researching various aspects of sex(uality), this volunteer work seems to take on an even greater significance in my life. One topic that arose out of this training, and one that I hadn’t previously considered to any great degree, was the connection between sex(uality) education and sexual assault. I firmly believe that sex(uality) education is key to eliminating sexual violence.

There continue to be conflicting studies on the hereditary nature of violence, as well as research on the impact of violent media on the actions of young people. I’m not sure we’ll ever reach a conclusion in either one of these areas, and even if we did, what would significant change look like? In this era of globalization and capitalism on steroids, any quest to squelch the violent nature of media content and the multi-billion dollar pornography industry is an uphill battle with no end in sight. I would like to believe that making changes here may decrease the violence we see in real life, but without a clear endpoint, arriving at such a conclusion is difficult. On the other hand, comprehensive, feminist, multiculturally-inclusive sex(uality) education is within our grasp, and presents a very real opportunity for positive change.

Currently, only 22 states require that schools teach sex education (loosely defined), and only 19 of those states require the information required to be “medically accurate”, a term that varies in meaning and scope (National Conference on State Legislatures, 2014). Opponents of sex education continue to push for more and more restrictive content, despite a constant flood of evidence that indicates that access to information does not increase risk-taking behavior (Mayhew et. al., 2014), and that rates of sexual activity do not increase with comprehensive sex education. Furthermore, rates of unintended pregnancies continue to remain a concern for health educators and policy makers (Finer & Zolna, 2014). These facts alone make it clear that more sex(uality) education is necessary, not less. However, the numbers get far more disturbing when we look at rates of violence against women.

Congress struggled to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013. The main objections involved extending protection to additional groups of women, including undocumented women, Native American women, and LGBT women. Reporting rates for sexual assault are notoriously low and continue to be so, and we struggle to even agree on how to define sexual assault for reporting purposes. On an even more fundamental level, the topic of consent is rarely discussed, and high school and college students (along with many adults) fail to understand what it means.

Now, I should be clear in stating that sexual assault is not about sex, desire or pleasure. It is about power and control, and a fundamental lack of respect for women (and men) as human beings. Thus, educating young people about respect and consent in the context of sex(uality) education is crucial. We need to begin educating young people much earlier than we do about their bodies, their identities, and healthy relationships. Many teens are already the victims of sexual violence before they receive any sort of sex(uality) education. The myth persists that young people must reach a certain age before they are “ready” to have “the talk”. However, sex(uality) education is a scaffolding process, just like any other subject we teach our young people (and test/assess them on, I might add). They need to begin with developmentally appropriate content, and build on that foundation with more and more information. Not only does this provide them with greater access to the information, but also with the language to ask the right questions and a comfort in doing so when they arise.

This information begins with learning to be comfortable and knowledgeable about their own bodies. There is no excuse for adults who can’t say penis out loud and then teach their children to say “wee wee” and “pee pee”. There is no reason why boys are socialized to be comfortable (to a greater degree) with their anatomy, but girls are taught to be ashamed of their bodies and view them as dirty and not even be able to look at their vulva in the mirror. On top of this, we continue to segregate boys and girls for what little discussion does take place. We need to talk about sex(uality) with all young people in a gender-inclusive manner. The human body isn’t a secret, and you certainly can’t respect something or someone who you don’t understand.

We also need to acknowledge that many young people have already experienced sexual violence, either firsthand or as an observer, and they need an outlet for conversation. They need an advocate in the one consistent environment they are in outside of the home. They need to know that asking questions and sharing information is ok, and that teachers and other adults care about them and are willing to listen and help them if necessary. We encourage kids to report other problems, and seek out the help of adults. We talk about “stranger danger” and they have a vocabulary to voice those concerns. They don’t have the vocabulary to voice questions about their sex(uality) or about sexual or domestic violence. They receive the message loud and clear, through what is said, what isn’t said, and through body language, that sex(uality) is not something that we talk about. Perhaps this brings us back full-circle to the media and the beginning of our conversation. If young people aren’t comfortable discussing issues of sex(uality) and sexual violence with other adults in their life, then they increasingly turn to the media for answers. If the media is to blame, in any way, for the violence taking place around the country, then perhaps it’s because young people were taught that it was the only place to get answers, and there is nobody inside their TV or computer fact-checking.

Young people deserve to learn respect for themselves, and learn about the importance of respect for others. Through sex(uality) education, we have an opportunity to instill that respect, along with a thorough a timely understanding of the diverse aspects of sex(uality) that each of us possess and engage with every single day. In doing this, perhaps we can decrease the rates of sexual violence and raise our young people to have a healthy respect for themselves, their bodies, and those of others in the process.