California’s Board of Education updated its statewide framework in May for teaching comprehensive sex education that prioritizes medical accuracy and sensitivity to diverse sexualities.
And in Virginia, a measure signed into law in March requires school-based sex education to include instruction on human trafficking.
The 2019 state legislative season is producing a bumper crop of sex education bills across the U.S., with at least 79 bills introduced in the legislatures of 32 states and the District of Columbia, according to a recent report by the Guttmacher Institute, a sexual and reproductive health research and advocacy organization. Most of the bills have been aimed at expanding youth education around healthy sexuality and relationships — and reducing the reach of the abstinence-only ideology that had become part of many sex ed classes over the past four decades.
But it wasn’t just socially liberal states reconsidering the approach to sex education this year. Several conservative states were among those taking steps toward broader sex ed that, while not as far-reaching as California’s, represent important shifts that could lead to more comprehensive policies down the line.
In Tennessee, for example, where Republicans control the Senate, House and governor’s office, lawmakers passed a bill encouraging schools to provide education on sexual violence awareness.
And in Utah, where Republicans hold a veto-proof majority in both chambers, the state’s Republican governor signed a law allowing educators to discuss contraception in public school classrooms.
Mississippi, Georgia and Arkansas lawmakers attempted bills, too, although theirs did not pass.
Renewed interest in the issue was fueled in part by legislative flips during last November’s midterm elections that brought into office more Democrats — and more female lawmakers — but also by questions about sexual assault and consent raised by the #MeToo movement.
Although women hold fewer than 30% of state legislative seats, they introduced five out of every seven state bills updating sex education standards that were enacted in the past year, according to a recent brief by the left-leaning Center for American Progress think tank. Women also introduced more than half of the bills to modernize sex education in this year’s sessions.
“When you have different, new people, you’re going to have new conversations and new ideas,” said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute.
The birds and the bees evolve
Although U.S. House and Senate versions of new sex education standards have been reintroduced this year, too, they are unlikely to pass, according to Jennifer Driver, state policy director at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, an organization that advocates for comprehensive sex education.
Decisions on such curriculum choices in public schools are largely determined by the states. Twenty-six states do not require sex education, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and only 13 require it to be medically accurate.
Attitudes about sex ed have been politically polarized since at least the 1960s, hinging on whether premarital abstinence should be taught as the expected moral standard, or as one of several strategies to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Since the introduction of abstinence-only programs in 1981, according to the SIECUS advocacy group, more than $2 billion in taxes has been spent on disseminating those programs even as they have been linked to increased or, at best, unchanged rates for unwanted pregnancies and STDs.
But an uptick in public conversations about the danger of unhealthy relationships is changing the game. First came a spate of highly publicized episodes of dating violence, followed by several episodes of brazen sexual assault on college campuses, and then #MeToo, when powerful men were called out for sexual violence and harassment. With each wave of outrage, state legislators began passing bills mandating school-based education focused on healthy relationships — if not healthy sexuality.
“That has meant more energy around an issue that has long been lacking in sex education, which is consent,” said Nash.
Conversations about teaching and learning consent led to conversations about control over one’s own body and the right to accurate, nonjudgmental information about health and sexuality. That has led back to conversations about comprehensive sex education. “It’s not quite a circle, but this is the path that it’s moved on,” said Nash.
When several state legislatures then shifted leftward with the 2018 elections, the wheels began turning quickly.
Changing the conversation in red states
It was two weeks after those elections when Jaime Winfree first decided Georgia needed a sex education bill.
Winfree, director of the Georgia Coalition for Advancing Sex Education, was at a reproductive rights conference when she heard a presentation from advocate Jennifer Chou, an attorney with the Northern California affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Chou was detailing the 2015 passage of the California Healthy Youth Act, which requires schools to provide middle and high school students with comprehensive sex education that prioritizes medical accuracy and sensitivity to diverse values and beliefs on sexuality. She told the conference the bill was the result of 20 years of incremental change.
“I almost fell out of my chair,“ Winfree recalled.
If the process took 20 years in California, it’s going to take 200 years in Georgia, Winfree thought. But both states had to start somewhere. She decided Georgia’s first step should be the same as California’s: pass a requirement that any sex education taught in public schools be medically accurate.
It seemed like an easy sell, but it wasn’t. The bill that Winfree and her colleagues helped author was sponsored by several Democratic legislators and ultimately died in committee. It was disappointing, she said, but her fight is far from over — Winfree is already plotting her pre-filing strategy for next year’s version of the bill.
In Mississippi, a bill was introduced this year that would have made school sex education opt-out instead of opt-in, mandated consent education and required more frequent updates to the curriculum.
Recent high school graduate Ava Davis of Jackson helped shape the language of the bill as a member of the Mississippi Youth Council, which advocates for comprehensive sex education in the state.
“It’s important for students to be heard, because education is directly affecting us,” she said.
The bill did not pass, but to Nash, it still represented progress. “Five years ago, six years ago, there were very few legislators who would say that they were for comprehensive sex ed in Mississippi,” she said. “Now, to get to a bill? There’s a lot of building happening there.”