Abstinence-only education has been a major part of public school pedagogy since 1981 when the passing of the “Adolescent Family Life Act” ensured that American teens attending public schools understood that abstinence, “chastity” and “self-discipline,” were some of the best ways to prevent pregnancy (1). Of course the undertones of “chastity” and “self-discipline,” suggest that there is a moral and political underpinning that sex= bad.
The state of Georgia has a long entangled history with teaching abstinence-only education. In fact, one of the largest curriculums used in abstinence-only education, called “Choosing the Best,” which was founded in 1993, is based in Atlanta, Georgia (2). Some of the largest school districts in Georgia (such as Gwinnett County Public Schools) implement abstinence-only education (3). As of 2018, more than one-third of Georgia’s high schools used “Choosing the Best,” (4).
Currently, in Georgia, sex and HIV education are mandated by the state. Parent(s) and guardian(s) must be given notice and they are allowed to have their children opt-out of taking sex-ed (5).
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. (14)
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. (14)
1920s– resurgence of interest in getting sex-ed into schools.
Between 20-40% of U.S. school systems had programs in social hygiene and sexuality. (14)
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. (14)
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 Georgia…
Whelp, not much to add here. Why? Because since the 1980s, the state has been abstinence-heavy, and while there has been pushback, abstinence-only education continues to reign.
Georgia Code Annotated §§ 20-2-143 requires that all schools in Georiga receive a form of sex education and HIV/AIDS prevention (7). The first iteration of this law was passed in 1988 (8) However, the form of education is typically up to some interpretation for different districts (9). In fact, the state does not require sex/HIV education to be medically accurate, age-appropriate, culturally appropriate/unbiased, and educators are allowed to promote religion (so much for separation of church and state!) (5).
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
So in Georgia, sex-ed is required to be taught. But the way sex-ed is being taught in Georiga relies heavily on the notion that sex=bad. Because educators do not have to teach medically accurate, age-appropriate or culturally appropriate content, educators have the option of essentially bringing in all sorts of harmful lessons (5). Although a cliché, the image of Coach Carr in “Mean Girls” telling the kids “don’t have sex ‘cause you will get pregnant…and die,” comes to mind.
All parents are given notice that the schools will be getting sex-ed, and parents are allowed to pull their kids out of class during the sex-ed portion of health (5). What should be noted is the lack of information around LGBTQ+ education in sex-ed legislation. Given that Georgia educators are allowed to use religion in sex education, it is safe to assume that when LGBTQ sexual education is mentioned, it’s likely not making those who identify feel safe or understood.
What the kids are actually learning...
When asked by VOX ATL what one student learned during her sex-ed class, she reported that she had learned “basically nothing” (6). The gist of what many students learn is, “no sex until marriage” (11).
Another young adult, Billaé Blanding told VOX ATL that the only word she learned was “A-B-S-T-I-N-E-N-C-E,” and by the time she had sex-ed, most people had already had a sexual experience and the lesson “fell on deaf ears” (7). Another young adult, Tara, expressed to the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Potential that she felt helpless after learning a classmate was pregnant (12).
The biggest theme for teens in Georgia and their sex education is that young adults are not actually getting comprehensive information- and for LGBTQ+ folks the lessons are even more sparse. In an interview with VOX ATL, a then-recent grad, Carolyn Friedman, called the [lack] of LGBTQ sex education “problematic” (6). There was an initiative called “PRIDE school” that sought to bring inclusive queer education to students, but the program, unfortunately, closed in October 2018 (13). Carolyn also noted the lack of conversation around the emotional aspects of sex— like pleasure, consent, and communication.
Any interesting programs/initiatives/legislation in the works or currently running?
While presently there seems to be a big push to maintain abstinence-only education in favor of comprehensive sexual health education, there are a ton of organizations in Georgia that are working to provide comprehensive health education and empower folks. Some of them are even being propelled by Georgian teens themselves (go teens!!) like at VOX ATL, an organization that aims to connect teens to resources and publishes teen content— including some awesome interviews and research conducted by a group of teens themselves (7).
Additionally, the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Potential (GCAPP) is pushing for comprehensive sexual health education to be part of the state’s curriculum (10). GCAPP seeks to teach parents about the advantages of comprehensive sex-ed and encourages parents to speak out against abstinence-only education.
Jaime Winfree MEd, a parent and former educator, co-founded an organization called “Gwinnett Citizens for Comprehensive Sex Education” now known as the “Georgia Coalition for Advancing Sex Education.” This coalition seeks to bring comprehensive sex education to public schools in Georgia.
Some schools in Georgia are now using a sex-ed program called FLASH (Family Life and Sexual Health) that is much more comprehensive. In fact, King County, which has used FLASH instead of Choosing the Best for over two decades has seen the rate of teen pregnancy fall 62% over the last decade (11). Go figure!
Written by: Moriah Engelberg
Edited by: Teri Bradford
Have info to add? Please get in touch!
(1) “Timeline of Abstinence-Only Education in U.S. Classrooms.” National Coalition Against Censorship. National Coalition Against Censorship, March 20, 2019. https://ncac.org/resource/timeline-of-abstinence-only-education-in-u-s-classrooms.
(2) “The Leader in Abstinence-Centered SRA Education.” Home. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://www.choosingthebest.com/
(3) “GCPS.” Health and Physical Education | GCPS. Gwinnett County Public Schools. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://publish.gwinnett.k12.ga.us/gcps/home/public/about/curr-inst/content/health-and-physical-educatin.
(4) Peel, Sophie. “Many Georgia School Districts Tell Students: No Sex until Marriage.” macon. Macon Telegraph, August 2, 2018. https://www.macon.com/news/local/education/article215972505.html.
(5) “Sex and HIV Education.” Guttmacher Institute, November 1, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education.
(6) Blanding, Billaé. “Requirements and Limitations of Sex Education in Georgia.” VOX ATL. VOX ATL, August 8, 2019. https://voxatl.org/sex-education-georgia/.
(7) “Teens Call for Better Sex Ed in Georgia and Fulton County.” VOX ATL, December 7, 2018. https://voxatl.org/better-sex-ed-georgia/.
(8) The House Committee on Education.Quality Basic Education Act; sexual abuse and assault awareness and education in kindergarten through grade 9; provide. HB 762. Introduced January 29, 2018. https://www.legis.ga.gov/Legislation/en-US/display/20172018/HB/762
(9) Sex Information and Education Council of the U.S. “SIECUS Report: State Profiles Fiscal Year 2018 Georgia” [New York, N.Y.] https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Georgia-FY18-Final-1.pdf
(10) Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power & Potential.” Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Potential. GCAPP. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://www.gcapp.org/home.
(11) “Working to Institutionalize Sex Education…A WISE Choice.” Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Power and Potential. GCAAPP. https://www.gcapp.org/wise
(12) Peel, Sophie. “Sex Ed In Georgia Schools Still Abstinence-Heavy.” Georgia Public Broadcasting, July 30, 2018. https://www.gpbnews.org/post/sex-ed-georgia-schools-still-abstinence-heavy.
(13) Burkholder, Katie. “Pride School Atlanta Closes Its Doors.” Georgia Voice. Georgia Voice, October 10, 2018. https://thegavoice.com/news/pride-school-atlanta-closes-their-doors/
(14) Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, March 13, 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.