1800s– Pamphlets about venereal diseases, overall good hygiene, and the evils of prostitution and masturbation were widely distributed outside of schools.
1913- Chicago attempts to formally introduce sex-ed into their school systems. The Catholic Church helps shut it down.
1914- The American Hygiene Association was founded to teach soldiers about sexual hygiene throughout the war. They would later be involved in creating school curriculums.
1916– Planned Parenthood is founded in New York.
1919- A report from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Children’s Bureau was released that suggested soldiers would have been better off if they had received sex instruction in school.
1920s– There is a resurgence of interest in getting sex-ed into schools.
Between 20-40% of U.S. school systems had programs in social hygiene and sexuality.
1930s- the U.S. Office of Education began to publish materials and train teachers.
1964- The medical director at Planned Parenthood, Mary Calderone, founded the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) in part to challenge the American Social Hygiene Association.
1968– A pamphlet called “Is the School House the Proper Place to Teach Raw Sex?” is widely distributed by Gordon Drake and James Hargis framing sex ed as a way to indoctrinate children into communism. Thus began the scary rhetoric that sex-ed was teaching students to be homosexuals and that teachers were having sex in front of students.
1980s- The AIDS epidemic takes hold. Religious groups use this public health crisis to push their own agenda and convince school board members and legislative officials that abstinence-only sex education was the only way to keep kids “safe.”
1981– President Regan signed the Adolescent Family Life Act (aka the “Chastity Law” –yikes!). This law allowed federal funding to go to abstinence-only programming. And abstinence-only sexuality education (AOSE) and abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) programming became the norm in the US.
2004: Study is published showing the harms of abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs and the importance of investing in comprehensive sexuality education. There are plenty more studies that have been published since reaffirming the same results. (It’s possible there were studies earlier than this, but this was the earliest one we could find. Know of an earlier one? Please get in touch!)
2018: Under the Trump administration, Abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) is rebranded to be Sexual Risk Avoidance Education (SRAE) (1). More federal funding goes towards pushing these programs.
Alabama hasn’t given their sex-ed much-needed facelift since that 1981 bill passed.
We tend to expect politically and culturally conservative states to have sex-ed laws that follow the same tone, and this is true in Alabama. A big emphasis is placed on the immorality of sex before marriage. Abstinence is stressed to keep those high school heathens pure and chaste. The following line is in the current sex-ed law:
“Abstinence from sexual activity outside of lawful marriage is the expected social standard for unmarried school-age persons (2).”
And, while same-sex sexual activity has technically been legal in Alabama since the Lawrence v. Texas decision struck down all state sodomy laws in 2003 (But it took until 2014 to actually change the law in Alabama. Correct; it was ILLEGAL prior to that!), this is what the current Alabama sex education law has to say about LGBTQ+ sexual health:
“An emphasis, in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state (2).”
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
As previously discussed, sex-ed is not legally required in Alabama. If a school decides to provide this service, it must state that the only 100% effective way to stay STD and baby-free is by staying abstinent until marriage (2). While this is true, teaching that abstinence is the only safety measure that matters can lead people not knowing how to use contraception, or even having a defeatist attitude towards it (Why try contraception when you’re already breaking the abstinence rule?).
Since this course is not required by the state, it is optional for the students to attend and may require parental permission. What’s the big whoop? Opt-in courses that require parents to fill out additional paperwork and for the students to make sure their permission slip is returned to school provides an extra barrier between the student and this much-needed education. There are no specific requirements regarding the use of contraceptive simulations, but all content must be “age-appropriate” and include information on the responsibilities of children (hmmmm?) and the effects of STDs.
What the kids are actually learning...
Here’s where I share some of my story as someone who grew up in Alabama!
My only experience with sexual education within my school system was from middle school. My three day, 55-minute sex-ed class resulted in little more than a blue “I will wait” bracelet, and a confused view of what sex was and how it happened. Overall, in the brief course provided by my public school in Alabama, I learned mostly about STDs. The session concluded with a little business-sized card with a signature line promising my abstinence until marriage and a new accessory.
When talking with a friend afterward, I realized neither of us knew exactly how a penis ended up comfortably in a vagina, and we certainly did not understand any other form of sex. Luckily, my confusion about sex and contraception led me to find sexual health information on my own with the help of the many resources that modern-day internet provides.
I also talked to some teenagers to get a sense of what is going on today. While these are only two responses highlighting what sex-ed they experienced and how they wished it were different, they show a lack of sexual education in Alabama.
Lindsey Haas, a 17-year-old junior from Spanish-Fort, AL recalls her sex-ed experience saying,
“All of my sex-ed was given within one class period in 7th grade. The most prominent memory I have was the boys were told that in the army if they got an STD they’d get their penises cut off. I wish I was taught more about how to use protection and about sex in a healthy relationship.”
Michael McCaulley, a 17-year-old, senior from Deatsville, AL said,
“... all I can remember is a brief class period in 5th grade with the ‘hair in weird places’ talk. Other than that, there hasn’t been much. We had an unofficial week in our Biology class in 9th grade about the actual anatomy of the genitals that was just because our teacher wanted to teach it. Mostly, we just figured out what part did what and how it was supposed to work through our friends and the internet.”
For a broader look at sex-ed in Alabama, we reached out to Planned Parenthood for answers. Alabama Planned Parenthood Health Educator, Coi Jones, told us how she sees adolescents in the state looking for more information.
“Studies have shown that adolescents want sex education in schools...In a lot of cases, teens feel uncomfortable talking to their parents about any questions regarding sex. Teens enjoy talking and learning about sex because it’s a fun topic.”
At one of the high schools she goes to regularly, Jones says the students are excited to see her because they know they can have open, honest, and nonjudgmental conversations about sexual health.
“Sex talk is fun and driven by curiosity. When teens don’t get any sex education, they seek out not so good resources such as Google, porn, etc,”
So we know that talking about sex with adolescents is a good thing, but where exactly does Alabama stand on the matter? We asked Chistina Okarmus, the Executive Director of Alabama Campaign for Adolescent Sexual Health her thoughts on the current sex-ed laws. One of the changes she hopes to see in the law is a discussion about bodily autonomy and personal decision making. Okarmus says that when young people are “given the knowledge, skills, and access to services” they are able to make the best decisions for themselves.
On a different note, she also talked about the LGBT+ angle and the Alabama Campaign has been invested in the removal of homophobic language from the law for many years.
“Not only is [the homophobic language] incredibly hurtful and harmful to young LGBTQ people, [but] it’s also factually inaccurate...The sodomy law that is referenced in the sex-ed law was reversed by the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals in 2014 after similar sodomy laws were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Lawrence v Texas in 2003. It also has no basis in medical accuracy.”
Okarmus wants people to know, however, that even in their current state, laws are just the beginning.
“When I talk about the law, though, I make sure that folks know the law is the minimum, the floor...While the law states there must be an emphasis on abstinence, educators must also talk about contraception in a medically-accurate way, meaning condom demonstrations and resource recommendations are fair game...I make sure the folks I speak with realize that the law is actually very permissive. It’s up to advocates in schools and communities to use the law in a way that is beneficial, and not harmful to young people”
Any interesting programs/initiatives/legislation in the works or currently running?
Recently (in March/April of 2019) Alabama Senator Tom Whatley attempted to modernize the sex-ed law with bill SB140. Whatley’s bill included an emphasis on being more “culturally appropriate” and less stigmatizing towards sexual health (3). It is yet to get anywhere. You can track it here.
Written by: Anna Peeples
Edited by: Teri Bradford
Have info to add? Please get in touch!
(1) Planned Parenthood. (2016). History of sex education in the U.S. . Retrieved from https://https://www.plannedparenthood.org/uploads/filer_public/da/67/da67fd5d-631d-438a-85e8-a446d90fd1e3/20170209_sexed_d04_1.pdf.
(2) Code of Alabama, §16-40A-2*,1975 https://www.alsde.edu/sec/isvcs/hpe/Health%20Education/Laws%20Pertaining%20to%20Health%20Education.pdf
(3) Dunigan, J.S. .(2019). Alabama senate bill modernizes state’s sex education law. AL.com. Retrieved from https://https://www.al.com/news/2019/04/alabama-senate-bill-modernizes-states-sex-education-law.html.
(4) Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, March 13, 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.