I learned something today. Louisville Sexual Education Now and the Family Foundation of Kentucky each want to change how sex education is taught locally. Both want children taught how to avoid sexually transmitted disease and early pregnancies. And both think delaying sexual activity is important for the development of young minds.
So what is the difference?
That we still are debating in 2017 how we teach young people about sex and their bodies is a testament to the damage wrought by our puritanical roots, which have long made our bodies the locus of shame.
But here we are…
Louisville Sexual Education Now, or LSEN (pronounced listen) is pushing Jefferson County to change its sexual education standards. In a two-page document submitted to the school board, the coalition of community groups and businesses has proposed updates to the current sex ed guidelines set by the state. They have, at this point, been able to present their case at school board meetings and have support from teachers, parents and administrators. They also have some board support.
“LSEN saw that because these standards are so vague, a lot of students are actually not getting the comprehensive sex education that they deserve,” LSEN fellow Meghana Kudrimoti told me. “A lot of students in Jefferson County attend schools where they might not be teaching sex ed at all or they might not be teaching very good sex ed. It’s very variable and not all students in Jefferson County are getting equal access to comprehensive sex education.”
By comprehensive, LSEN relies on guidelines from the Sexuality Information Education Council of the United States — “age-appropriate, medically accurate information on a broad set of topics related to sexuality including human development, relationships, decision making, abstinence, contraception, and disease prevention.”
This goal is to teach that delaying sex will help to prevent disease and unwanted pregnancies, but also how to protect yourself if you do have sex.
On the other side is Kentucky Right to Life Association, which has submitted a petition to stop action by the school board on LSEN’s proposals. The KRLA said it intends to oppose all actions by LSEN. The group also wants “to encourage, society-wide, a richer, more humane understanding and approach to human relationships and sexuality, one that does not ‘individualize’ what is by nature designed to draw people into self-giving relationships: women and men, parents and children,” according to a statement from the group. In brief, it wants to educate on relationships that fit their religious beliefs only.
Like KRLA, the Family Foundation of Kentucky opposes comprehensive sexual education and advocates for Sexual Risk Avoidance programs, or SRAs. The Foundation sees SRA as middle ground between the failed policy of abstinence-only and what it sees as overly liberal public school sexual education.
Gregory Williams, director of the Kentucky Marriage Movement, part of the Family Foundation, said public schools are too permissive in how they present sex education. “These programs were found to have more pregnancy, more sex and more sexual initiation,” he told me.
The Foundation wants sex ed that “focuses on risk-avoidance,” once called abstinence. SRA advocates abstinence before all else, and it also emphasizes the importance of heterosexual marriage and family-making. In contrast to abstinence-only, the SRA curriculum mentions contraception, but it will not distribute or demonstrate their use.
If contraceptive is to be effective in preventing disease or pregnancy, you need to know how to use it. As well, discussions of human sexuality and sexual safety should provide equity for differing sexualities and issues that do not fit any religious narrative.
Sexual education that focuses solely on teaching with a dogmatic component alienates and misinforms students who do not fit in that bubble. There are many young people and adults who will never be interested in marriage, or making a family in the way that the conservative supporters of the SRA programs suggest. This doesn’t mean SRA is completely ineffective, just inappropriate to be taught in a publicly-supported setting.
Studies by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and National Institutes of Health show that students receiving good information regarding sexuality, contraception and delaying sex have less sex at a young age, safer sex when they do engage and have continued drops in pregnancy rates.
According to Williams, the approach proposed by LSEN is unpopular with parents. “When these programs and the extent of their content and their programs are laid out before parents and students, parents overwhelmingly, I think its 85 percent and students at 75 percent do not like the program.”
He cited studies by Mathematica, a non-partisan research policy group, and Health and Human Services. But I found none of these numbers in research from either organization. I did find these claims on the Heritage Foundation website. It is important to note that the Heritage Foundation is a Christian, conservative think tank.
Numerous other studies show parents do support comprehensive sexual education. According to the Sexuality Information Education Council, surveys of parents and registered voters show overwhelming support for comprehensive sexual education that includes discussions of delaying sex and use of contraception. For instance, 90 percent of parents surveyed in the conservative state of Texas support comprehensive sexual education with information about contraception. Eighty one percent of registered voters in South Carolina, also a conservative state, supported teaching both abstinence and contraception.
Like the majority of the country, I also support comprehensive sexual education for all children in public schools, as long as someone who understands health and psychology teaches it. This information needs to come unfiltered and unbiased from a qualified person.
I understand the desire of parents to have input into what their children are being taught, and for each child to have their beliefs respected. But I also believe the need for safety and knowledge is greater.
What LSEN is attempting to add to local schools are programs that teach children about human sexuality, contraception and the benefits of waiting. It is unclear to me why the two sides can’t reach out to each other to make this happen and to be effective.
The gap is one of religious dogma, and it is in that gap that kids are falling.