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. (10)
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.
And now on to Arkansas…
Public health has been an important part of Arkansas’s history; according to the Arkansas Department of Health, Little Rock’s town council created a board of health in 1832 (1). Initially, the health board was focused on yellow fever, hookworm, malaria– infections that are not-so-common today. In 1918 Arkansas was actually the first state to mandate smallpox-vaccines for school children (1).
However, these mandates do not exist in the same fervor for sexual health education in public schools. In fact, sex education is not mandated in Arkansas public schools at all (2)! What exactly does that mean? Well, simply put, children and young adults are not required to receive sexual health education in schools, which means many never receive this vital information. And, if their distict does happen to teach sex education, there are no rules saying it must be medically inaccurate. This leaves much room for religion to reign the curriculum, oftentimes resulting in shame-inducing, anti-abortion, abstinance-only-until-marriage and factually incorrect information. Does this improve outcomes? Heck no! The state ranks high in terms of teen pregnancy and STI rates (3).
The American government has been funding abstinence-only education since 1981 (4). Many states including Arkansas have not updated their sex-ed since that era (yep, that’s about 40 years of abstinence-only education).
More recently, in February 2019, Arkansas State Senators Will Bond and LeAnne Burch proposed a bill that would require comprehensive and science-based sexual health education. This bill, SB304, “to create the Arkansas Healthy Lifestyle Education Act of 2019; And to Ensure that Health Curriculum Arkansas Public Schools Addresses Certain Health Issues Facing Students,” failed. As of April 24, 2019, there were no plans to resume the bill.
While sexual education– pregnancy prevention, safe sex practices, conversations around consent and pleasure– is not mandated or required for public schools in Arkansas, there are rules on what is taught if folks are getting sex-ed.
In section three of Arkansas Code Title 6. Education § 6-18-703, abstinence is required to be part of the conversation. This particular code also out-right states in d1:
“It is hereby recognized that sexual activity by students places our youths at increased risk of pregnancy and the contraction of acquired immune deficiency syndrome and other sexually transmitted diseases, and it is the policy of the State of Arkansas to discourage such sexual activity” (d1) (8).
In February 2019, bill SB304 entitled “AN ACT TO CREATE THE ARKANSAS HEALTHY LIFESTYLE 10 EDUCATION ACT OF 2019; AND FOR OTHER PURPOSES” (9) was introduced to the Arkansas State Legislature’s Education Committee. However, this bill was rejected, with groups like Family Council– a conservative pro-life, “pro-family,” and pro-marriage organization– strongly opposing the bill.
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
Sexual health education is not required in Arkansas public schools (2). This means young adults may go through their entire education system without ever learning about some of the more commonly talked about aspects of sexual health like how people get pregnant, pregnancy prevention, sexually transmitted infections and what to do if you are infected. Beyond that, things like sexual identity, gender preference, what consensual sex looks like and pleasure are not discussed either.
Now, this does not mean that students will never hear about sex education. Teachers and educators may use abortion scare tactics, medically inaccurate information, religious biases and moral judgment to teach. In fact, when sex education is provided, contraception is not part of the conversation; meaning that students may not learn about different forms of birth control and its efficacy (2). In addition, abstinence, and the importance of sex only within marriage must be “stressed” topics of conversation– meaning those teaching will emphasize abstinence as a method to avoid sexually transmitted infection and pregnancy.
Not only is abstinence stressed as a method of pregnancy prevention, but abstinence is presented as the best method to protect yourself against HIV infection– even though condoms are highly effective in preventing the transmission of the virus (6). You can also get HIV from non-sexual interactions, so this isn’t the be-all-end-all way to talk about HIV by any means.
Some states will allow parents or guardians to opt their children out of sex-ed, or have sex-ed be optional for students. The legislation surrounding sex-ed in Arkansas does not require students to have permission and there is no mention of parental removal for students (7).
What the kids are actually learning
According to the Arkansas Department of Education, the most recent up to date “Health & Safety and Physical Education Standards,” there are several learning objectives for grades 9-12:
“I can analyze behaviors and attitudes that contribute to healthy relationships,”
“I can identify health sexual behavior,”
“I can describe the signs of dating violence and abuse,”
“I can compare and contrast the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy behaviors and relationships,”
“I can communicate with peers about dating violence.”
However, noted in the teacher guidance section is that educators also strive and encourage students to “analyze the importance of sexual abstinence in teen relationships” (10). In the same vein, teachers are encouraged to “compare and contrast” abstinence vs. “other forms of safety measures intended to reduce the risk of unintended pregnancies and STIs” (10).
The Arkansas standards also strive to teach students about “health promotion” (i.e.: “disease prevention, safety and advocating for the health and well-being of self and others”) (10).
In Senators Will Bond and LeAnne Burch bill (mentioned in our timeline above), they emphasized the CDC’s ranking of Arkansas as number 46 in the country when it comes to overall health, and, in 2017, the finding that Arkansas had the highest percentage of students who have considered suicide, are considered obese, have been sexually assaulted, and use smokeless tobacco products (like vapes) (9).
With facts like these, the “health promotion” initiative including dating violence is at least perhaps a tiny step forward.
Written by: Moriah Engelberg
Edited by: Teri Bradford
Have info to add? Please get in touch!
(1) “Public Health In Arkansas .” Arkansas Department of Health. Arkansas Department of Health. https://www.healthy.arkansas.gov/programs-services/topics/public-health-in-arkansas.
(2) “Sex and HIV Education.” Guttmacher Institute. Guttmacher Center for Population Research and Dissemination, https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education.
(3) Briggs, Zack. “STD Surge in Arkansas Prompts Questions about Sex Education in Schools.” KATV. KATV, October 11, 2019. https://katv.com/news/local/std-surge-in-arkansas-prompts-questions-about-sex-education-in-schools.
(4) “A History of Federal Funding for Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Funding.” Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S. May 2019. https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/AOUM-Funding-History-Report-5.2019.pdf
(5) Monk, Ginny. “85% Of Schools in Arkansas Tell Kids to Say No to Sex.” Arkansas Online. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 24, 2017. https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2017/sep/24/85-of-schools-in-state-tell-kids-to-say/.
(6) “HIV.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/risk/condoms.html.
(7) Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S. “SIECUS Report: State Profiles Fiscal Year 2018 Arkansas” [New York, N.Y.]: The Council, 2019 https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Arkansas-FY18-Final-1.pdf
(7) Arkansas Code Title 6. Education § 6-18-701. Physical exams of pupils. Universal citation: AR Code § 6-16-1004 (2015) https://dese.ade.arkansas.gov/public/userfiles/Communications/Safe%20Schools%20Committee/6-18-710_through_6-18-710.pdf
(8) General Assembly. An Act to Create the Arkansas Healthy Lifestyle Education Act of 2019; And to Ensure The Health Curriculum in Arkansas Public Schools Addresses Certain Health Issues Facing Students. SB 304. As Engrossed: S2/26/19 H4/1/19 https://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/assembly/2019/2019R/Bills/SB304.pdf
(9) Arkansas Department of Education. Health & Safety and Physical Education Standards. Arkansas Department of Education. https://dese.ade.arkansas.gov/public/userfiles/Learning_Services/Curriculum%20Support/Standards%20and%20Courses/Health_and_Physical_Education/ADE_0119-001.HealthDocument.J.pdf
(10) Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, March 13, 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.