California judge: Abstinence-only sex education isn't sex education at all

A superior court judge says students have "a public right" to comprehensive, medically accurate sex ed -- finally

Published May 13, 2015 7:50PM (EDT)


A California judge issued a ruling this week that affirms what reproductive health advocates and science have been saying for a long time: Abstinence-only sex education isn't really sex education at all.

Fresno County Superior Court Judge Donald Black ruled on Monday that "access to medically and socially appropriate sexual education is an important public right," and that state law requires students receive accurate information in public school sex ed courses. Black's is the first ruling to interpret a 2003 law that prohibits California schools from providing biased sex ed instruction, and instead emphasizes "age-appropriate" STI prevention and contraception education beginning in seventh grade. The ruling explicitly excludes abstinence-only curricula, which incorrectly -- and ineffectively -- teach students that remaining celibate until marriage is the only route to avoiding sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy.

“This is the first time that abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula have been found to be medically inaccurate,” Phyllida Burlingame, director of Reproductive Justice Policy for the ACLU, told the San Francisco Chronicle. Burlingame also called the ruling "a victory for students" as well as a "historic" step toward providing comprehensive sex ed statewide.

While Black's ruling applies only to 40,000 students in the Clovis Unified School District, it could set a precedent for later challenges to abstinence-only curricula across the state. A group of Clovis parents sued the district in 2012, for relying on sex ed curricula that was allegedly homophobic, sexist and scientifically unsound; in one video from a sex ed course cited in Black's ruling, a woman who was not a virgin was compared to a dirty shoe. The parents dismissed their suit last year, after the district agreed to change its policies. Black, however, has required the district to pay the parents' attorneys' fees, as their suit led Clovis high schools to institute sex ed policies compliant with state law.

California is, of course, not the only state where students often receive medically inaccurate sex education, if they receive sex education at all. A lack of national requirements for comprehensive sex education -- as well as millions of dollars in federal funding -- allows nearly two dozen states to enforce abstinence-only sex ed standards; numerous districts allow parents to opt out of sex ed courses for their students entirely. Research has indicated that these methods do not work.

Apparently, judges like Black are starting to notice. Even if the California ruling doesn't have far-reaching implications for the state of abstinence-only sex education just yet, it is a step in the right direction.

By Jenny Kutner

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