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. Andabstinence-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.
Alaska’s sexual education standards, or lack thereof, still prominently lean in this “sex talk is taboo” direction. A news report from KTVF 11 out of Fairbanks in 2009 states that Alaska high school student leaders said that they wanted to be provided with a more comprehensive, medically accurate, sexual education program (16). They specifically call out abstinence-only education as being ineffective, especially in terms of teen pregnancy, for which that year Alaska was first in the country. According to current legislation, this did not occur in schools. If we fast forward 10 years to 2019, unfortunately, we will see that not much has changed in those terms. However, there are public health initiatives being taken to further the sexual education of the youth in Alaska outside of schools (15).
In places where the dialogue about sex may be particularly conservative, people of all ages may feel the weight of stigma when wanting to ask questions or seek contraception. As of 2019, Alaska had the highest per capita rate of Chlamydia infections, and 2nd highest next to Mississippi for Gonorrhea, in the United States (14). According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), states that practice comprehensive sex-ed opposed to abstinence-only (or barely anything at all) show the lowest in teen pregnancy rates and are less likely to engage in risky behavior sexually (13). Go figure!
Currently enacted in Alaska is a bill passed in 2016, HB 156, which primarily covers parental rights, and poses more scrutiny over every teaching material and the additional instructor brought into the classroom. For example, the credentials of any outside instructor must be made available to parents and be approved by the school board. Supporters of this bill claimed that it’s main focus was to create transparency for the subject matter, however, the opposing side expressed major concerns about blocked access to sex ed. With every minute detail of the topic needing the school board’s approval, the fear is that a wall will be created separating students from the education on safe sex and healthy relationships they need in order to thrive.
Another concern of those who opposed this bill was that it would prevent medical professionals and other instructors from the classrooms of rural Alaska. In a state where teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease rates are high, some fear that even less access to a comprehensive education would be even more detrimental (3,4). Planned Parenthood Northwest Spokesperson, Jessica Cler, referred to this piece of the legislature as,
“a crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education,"
and the bill was also condemned by 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners. She tweeted, “This will cause such a burden on teachers (and) our partners in health education, including parents (and) health (professionals.)” (9).
There is also a bill that has been proposed as of early 2019, HB 7, which would actually constrict the curriculum even more. This bill would enforce it be taught that “the life of an unborn child begins at conception.”
Additionally, programs would have to enforce that (2,7):
- abstinence is the preferred choice for unmarried students
- a preadolescent or adolescent who engages in sexual activity may suffer emotional or psychological damage
- sexual activity out of wedlock is likely to have harmful psychological or physical effects
- abstinence from sexual activity as the expected standard for an unmarried student
- a mutually faithful and monogamous relationship within marriage is the expected standard for sexual activity, and,
- bearing a child out of wedlock is likely to have harmful consequences for the child, the child’s parents, and society.
The HB 7 bill would also prohibit a myriad of subjects relating to sexuality, such as the intricacies of sexual intercourse, sexual stimulation or erotic behavior; homosexuality, gender identity or expression, the use of contraceptive methods or devices, sexual activity out of wedlock, and means or methods that encourage the violation of criminal law (2,7).
How useful is this bill?! You can track its progress here.
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
According to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) report from 2018 and Guttmacher, Alaska does not currently have regulations that require sexuality or STD/STI education. However, there is legislation prompting that it be taught in schools, and that “each district in the state public school system shall be encouraged to initiate and conduct a program in health education for kindergarten through grade 12.” The legislation also states sex-ed and STD/STI ed should include instruction on “physical health and personal safety”, including sexual abuse, domestic violence, and appropriate use of health services (1,12).
The requirements of the state are left terrifyingly blank. Aside from a mere suggestion from the state, schools do not have to be inclusive to sexuality and it does not have to be medically accurate. Additionally, parents are given notice and have the option to opt-out of any Sex Ed classes or programs (10).
What the kids are actually learning...
If schools choose to participate in sexual education, they are recommended to follow the Alaska Department of Education curriculum “Skills for a Healthy Life,” which states that kids should “understand the physical and behavioral characteristics of human sexual development and maturity”; “develop an awareness of how personal life roles are affected by and contribute to the well-being of families, communities, and cultures”; “understand how respect for the rights of self and others contributes to relationships”; and “take responsible actions to create safe and healthy environments” (1,11).
Of course, if the proposed legislation referenced above is approved, a large amount of extremely useful information may very well be chipped away. Not having proper state standards could also lead to inconsistency across schools, which kids of Alaska are more than likely experiencing today.
Any interesting programs/initiatives/legislation in the works or currently running?
Though state regulations seem to be pushing the hope of comprehensive sex-ed away for students, there are some programs at local health centers that center their focus youth. One of these programs takes place at Kachemack Family Planning called the R.E.C Room, which is a peer-based program that offers youth in the community a safe space to learn and connect (8). They offer activities and education of all sorts, including workshops fostering healthy relationships. This is just one opportunity among others in the Alaska Department of Public Health’s initiative to fight against unintended pregnancy and STDs/STIs (15), which includes a recognition that education of adolescents is imperative when it comes to sex, intimacy and it’s intricacies.
Written by: Catherine Twomey
Edited by: Teri Bradford
Have info to add? Please get in touch!
(1) “Alaska FY18 State Profile.” SIECUS. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://siecus.org/state_profile/alaska-fy18-state-profile/.
(2) Alaska State Legislature. Accessed November 8, 2019. https://www.akleg.gov/basis/Bill/Text/31?Hsid=HB0007A.
(3) Alaska State Legislature. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://www.akleg.gov/basis/Bill/Text/29?Hsid=HB0156Z.
(4) Blackman, Kate, and Samantha Scotti. State Policies on Sex Education in Schools. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-policies-on-sex-education-in-schools.aspx.
(5) Hanlon, Tegan. “Bill That Would Tighten Restrictions on Sex Ed in Alaska Goes into Law Thursday Unless Governor Vetoes.” Anchorage Daily News. Anchorage Daily News, July 28, 2016. https://www.adn.com/politics/2016/07/27/bill-that-would-tighten-restrictions-on-sex-ed-in-alaska-goes-into-law-thursday-unless-governor-vetoes/.
(6) Hanlon, Tegan. “Bill Tightening Sex-Ed Restrictions in Alaska Schools Will Become Law without Governor’s Signature.” Anchorage Daily News. Anchorage Daily News, July 29, 2016. https://www.adn.com/alaska-news/education/2016/07/28/bill-tightening-sex-ed-restrictions-in-alaska-schools-will-become-law-without-governors-signature/.
(7) Pieklo, Jessica Mason, Mallory McMaster, Robyn Powell, Bailey Borchardt, and LySaundra Campbell. “Alaska Bill Relating to Sex Education, Human Reproduction Education, and Human Sexuality Education (HB 7).” Rewire.News. Accessed November 8, 2019. https://rewire.news/legislative-tracker/law/alaska-bill-relating-to-sex-education-human-reproduction-education-and-human-sexuality-education-hb-7/.
(8) “R.E.C. Room.” Kachemak Bay Family Planning Clinic, March 30, 2015. https://kbfpc.org/rec-room/
(9) “Repro Health Watch.” Alaska bill with sexuality education restrictions becomes law – National Partnership for Women & Families. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://go.nationalpartnership.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=50312.
(10) Saul, Rebekah. “Whatever Happened to the Adolescent Family Life Act?” Guttmacher Institute, December 6, 2016. https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/1998/04/whatever-happened-adolescent-family-life-act.
(11) “Search Results.” Search Results – Education and Early Development. Accessed November 9, 2019. https://education.alaska.gov/search?q=skills+for+a+healthy+life&submit=.
(12) “Sex and HIV Education.” Guttmacher Institute, November 1, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education.
(13) Stanger-Hall, Kathrin F, and David W. Hall. “Abstinence Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S.”PloS one. Public Library of Science, 2011. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3194801/.
(14) “STD Statistics 2019: States with the Highest Rates.” Sexually Transmitted Diseases by State – 2019 | National Council For Home Safety and Security. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://www.alarms.org/std-statistics/.
(15) Unintended Pregnancy & STI Prevention. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://dhss.alaska.gov/dph/wcfh/Pages/adolescent/sexual-activity.aspx.
(16) YouTube. YouTube. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hwSgWOliO0g.
(17) Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, March 13, 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.