War on sex ed heats up: Right-wing activists in California weaponize fake news

A supposed "grassroots" rebellion against sex ed in California is fueled by a right-wing propaganda campaign

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published June 26, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)

A ninth-grade Teen Talk High School class at Carlmont High School in Belmont, Calif., Oct. 8, 2015. (AP/Jeff Chiu)
A ninth-grade Teen Talk High School class at Carlmont High School in Belmont, Calif., Oct. 8, 2015. (AP/Jeff Chiu)

After George W. Bush left the White House, many people believed that his failed sex education policies — which forced states to teach kids abstinence until marriage and rejected contraception education — were over and done with. The sad reality is that in the decade since then, undoing the damage has been a slow and incomplete process.

Many states are still pushing a no-sex-until-marriage program that research shows more than 95 percent of Americans reject in their personal sexual behavior. But there's been real progress towards ensuring solid, evidence-based sex-ed programs for kids in some places, especially in California, which passed the Healthy Youth Act of 2016, requiring school districts to provide comprehensive sex education that emphasizes not just disease and pregnancy prevention, but healthy self-esteem and relationships.

California is leading the way when it comes to better sex ed, but because of that, the state has become a target for the Christian right. Conservatives have turned to the same tactics to undermine California's law that right-wing forces and Russian propagandists used to distort the 2016 election: Disseminating fake news and lies through social media.

“What we’re seeing is district by district, school districts are having to face an insurmountable amount of pressure, but also misinformation being spread about what’s being taught in schools," explained Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes, the director of public policy at Advocates for Youth, whose 3Rs curriculum — for "Rights, Respect, and Responsibility" — is a popular choice for schools implementing California's sex ed standards. 

In Fresno, San Diego, Oceanside, Orange CountyFremont and other California school districts, parents are flooding school board meetings and sometimes succeeding in preventing the schools from implementing comprehensive sex education programs. These efforts look from the outside like grassroots efforts conducted by concerned parents through Facebook and Change.org. But a broader focus makes clear that the same basic talking points are cropping up again and again, especially false accusations that the curriculum is "pornographic" and that it "sexualizes" children.

What may seem like a spontaneous parental uprising on the local level is, in fact, a response to a coordinated Christian-right misinformation campaign, conducted by groups such as the Family Research Council, the National Center for Law & Policy and the Liberty Counsel. Using titillating but false accusations, such as the claim that kids are being taught how to have anal sex in school, conservatives are sowing panic in local communities, spreading fear that a curriculum meant to keep kids safe is hurting them instead.

Salon obtained a list of talking points being distributed by the National Center for Law & Policy to bolster the "grassroots" rebellion against sex education in the San Diego Unified School District. The document, for instance, suggests that opponents of sex ed say the program "promotes pornography," "promotes transgenderism" and "undermines sexual purity & abstinence."

No one at the National Center for Law & Policy respond to a request for comment.

These talking points were in abundance during a May school board meeting. Parents cited the example that the National Center mentions prominently, a video called "Porn: Fact or Fiction?" The video isn't in the school curriculum but is part of a website run by Advocates for Youth that provides supplemental materials to parents, sex educators and youth with questions. Despite conservative claims that the video itself is pornographic, it is, in fact, a goofy cartoon geared to discouraging teenagers from looking at online porn or treating it as valid sex education.

"However, keep in mind that porn is meant to be viewed by adults," the site conservatives are calling "pornographic" reads. "If you come across porn and have questions, it is always a good idea to talk to a parent or trusted adult."

Activists also objected to textbooks used in the classroom that included drawings of naked bodies, equating these drawings with pornography.

Debra Hauser, the president of Advocates for Youth, spoke to Salon about why the curriculum has pictures of naked body parts. “Research shows us that if young people know the proper names of their body parts, they are much less likely to be victims of child sexual abuse," she explained. "To teach young people the proper names of their body parts, you have to have a line drawing, you have to show them what the parts are.”

Another frequent objection, coached in the talking-points document and echoed throughout conservative media, is that schools "have dictated that all children will go through the district LGBT indoctrination program, with no exceptions."

These claims are based on an aggressive misinterpretation of the anti-bullying lessons that are part of the 3Rs curriculum. For instance, here is an excerpt from the third grade teaching text for the 3Rs:

Say: “Everyone has a right to feel good about themselves, their families and what they believe. That is why it is so important to treat everyone with dignity and respect." Write the words “dignity” and “respect” on the board/newsprint. Say, “Treating people with dignity and respect means treating them well and showing appreciation for other people’s beliefs, ideas, and how they live (what they eat, how they dress, how they celebrate holidays, etc.) even if they are different from us or if we don’t agree with their ideas or beliefs."

"Our nation’s public schools have been turned into indoctrination centers by a gang of radical, sex and gender revolutionaries," Fox News radio host Todd Starnes said in response to lessons like that one. "Our education system has been taken hostage."

Hysteria about "gender indoctrination" and "pornography" spread across social media through Facebook groups like Sex Ed Sit Out and were aided by sites like Breitbart, which have implied that kids are being taught actual techniques for oral sex and masturbation.

In reality, the lessons for high school students simply acknowledge that things like oral and anal sex exist, something teenagers are already talking about and many experiment with.

Here's a screenshot from a handout for ninth-graders, which shows how the mentions of oral and anal sex are framed:


The misinformation about sex ed got so bad in Fremont, California, that local parents put together a Facebook group called Save Fremont Sex Ed to correct some of the false claims. The group made a short video, with a whiteboard, debunking rumors such as the claim that the classes had "secret anal sex diagrams." According to the video, that rumor is a misinterpretation of a lesson teaching kids what sexual abuse looks like and how to report it if it happens to them.

Hauser explained that the 3Rs curriculum is based on the National Sexuality Education Standards project, conducted by the American Association of Health Education, the American School Health Association and other groups. The project created guidelines on "what young people need in each grade level" and "scaffolding the information." Much of the education provided for elementary-grade kids, Hauser said, doesn't really address sexuality at all so much as it addresses topics like respecting difference and learning about personal boundaries. 

For instance, Hauser explained, there's an increasing amount of interest from schools in teaching sexual consent to teenagers, in order to prevent sexual harassment and assault. But she argues that it's much easier to do this if schools start consent lessons when kids are young.

Such a lesson might involve “understanding one can say no when someone wants to borrow something -- you do have to ask, and you have to respect the answer," she explained. For instance, she said, they recommend teaching little kids that it's not OK to just take someone else's toy without asking and that if a kid says no, it's also not OK to scheme some way to steal it from them. 

"When you start young, it’s easier to layer that on later -- to talk about sexual consent -- if you talked about consent and mutual respect early, related to non-sexual things," she said. 

Despite the accusations that 3Rs or other comprehensive sex education programs are some form of "indoctrination," the reality is that opponents of sex education are far more invested in using schools for ideological indoctrination.

Comprehensive sex education curricula tend to be centered on an inclusive message that all families and religions and people are OK. But the anti-sex-ed forces want to privilege one morally acceptable way to live, based on a very narrow version of Christian ethics that is rejected by nearly all Americans, including most of those who identify as conservative Christians.

"God has made us all in his image, he has set out for us rules for living that enable us to live rich and full and healthy lives and all of this that is going on now is directly aimed at tearing all of that down," Mary McAlister of Liberty Counsel, which is spearheading much of the anti-sex-ed movement, said in April. "Well, we know who does that. That’s the Enemy, that’s Satan and his minions.”

"Withholding of information is not helpful to anybody," said Hauser of Advocates for Youth. Research shows, she continued, that "young people who get good information are much more likely to delay sexual initiation, and when they do have sex as they mature, they are more likely to use condoms and contraception at first sex and thereafter."

Unfortunately, as the 2016 election showed, many people simply won't pay attention to research and facts but can all too easily get caught up in the fake news and propaganda that spreads across social media. The waves of panic over sex education breaking out in various California communities demonstrate that the Christian right is getting better all the time at these social-media misinformation campaigns. Fake news isn't just undermining our political system, it's even damaging public health.

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By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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