The history of sex-ed in Kentucky is, perhaps not surprisingly, a contentious one. At various points in time, sex-ed has been mandated, then not mandated (see the quick change that occurred between 1988 and 1990), then positioned in sort of murky legal territory (in which sex-ed is technically not required, but abstinence is).
When we study sex ed’s history in the Bluegrass State, certain patterns emerge. For one, when sex-ed is on the table, there’s no shortage of controversy. In combing through Kentucky news archives, we found protests, lawsuits, and one prominent Kentuckian who claimed that in-school sex-ed would pave the way for a “Communist take-over from within” (1). Also, the focus of most sex-ed programs (both current and former) has been abstinence.
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. (27)
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. (27)
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. (27)
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. (27)
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 Kentucky…
1950s and ‘60s: Various groups across Kentucky hold meetings, debates, and presentations on the topic of sex ed in schools (e.g. Owensboro, KY: 1950, Louisville: 1950 and 1956; Danville: 1956) (1,2,3)
1968: The Louisville school system creates and gives “Family Life and Sex Education” teaching guides for K-6 and high-school students. A guide for junior-high students is in the works (3).
1969: On March 24, 1969, The Louisville Courier-Journal reports on the public outcry that erupts over the “family life education guides.” The guides have yet to be used in schools, but that does not stop protesters (bearing signs that read “Prayer In, Sex Out”) from picketing outside school board headquarters. The Courier-Journal reports that moves to “improve the city school curriculum” included seminars on sex education that took place in spring 1968 (1).
And what did those circa-1969 guides look like? The city schools’ curriculum director said that “the emphasis in the guides is on family life rather than sex education” and that “only 19 pages of the 184-page guide concerns reproduction as such” (1). A slideshow curriculum depicts animals mating (such as dogs and chickens), but humans are not shown. An opponent of the curriculum believes that “the city’s sex education program is degrading and would contribute to a moral degeneracy that would permit a Communist take-over of the United States from within” (1).
1970: House Bill 57 was introduced, which would prohibit sex education in public K-8 schools and ban “sensitivity training” in high schools (4). Up to this point, sex-ed has been adopted in a number of school districts including Louisville, Jefferson, and Fayette, but there is no universal sex-ed program or mandate in place. When there’s a sex-ed program in a particular county, it’s usually because parents, teachers, students, and community members have advocated for such a program to be in place (5). The bill is ultimately killed (6).
1970s: Various school boards in Kentucky vote to adopt sex ed as part of their curricula (6).
1979: A University of Kentucky poll shows that 69% of Kentuckians support mandatory sex ed in public schools (7).
1980: Parents file suit against a Jefferson public school for requiring their children to attend sex-ed classes. This marks the first sex-education suit in Kentucky (8).
1981: Contraception comes to the sex-ed table. The Sex Education Advisory Committee in Fayette County schools recommends the inclusion of birth control and contraception in the health-class curriculum (9).
1988: Big year for sex ed in Kentucky. The Kentucky General Assembly puts the Parenting and Family Life Skills Act (KRS 158.797) in place, which mandates “the teaching of parenting and family life skills” to public-school students. The Department of Ed creates its own curriculum (Parenting and Family Life Skills Education: A Model Curriculum) that schools can adapt. The goal of the abstinence-based curriculum is to “provide learning experiences and guidance relevant to the needs, concerns, interests, and aspirations that arise out of human psychosexual development (10). The new law also mandates that schools collect survey data on sexual activity, STIs, and pregnancy (11).
In 1988, contraception is still a hot-button issue. John Brock, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, says he opposes teaching about contraception in now-required sex ed classes (12).
1990: Parenting and Family Life Skills Act is repealed (as per the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990), meaning sex ed is no longer required in Kentucky schools (but some schools continue to offer courses) (13,14,15).
1996: House Bill 493 proposes that “at least one employee of each school district would have to be trained to teach prevention of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases” (16). Bill is ultimately killed (17).
2000: Kentucky’s House Education Committee passes HB 440, which “would prohibit public schools from distributing contraceptives and would require all sex education courses to be based on the idea of abstinence” (18).
2005: What’s the state of Kentucky’s sex ed in the mid-aughts? The Courier-Journal reports that curricula vary from school to school (and by grade). Abstinence is the focus (abstinence-based curriculum Reducing the Risk is mentioned), contraception isn’t talked about, and in some classes, students are required to take home “Baby Think It Over” dolls, which mimic (you guessed it) “real-life” babies (19). That same year, Kentucky receives $3,433,812 in federal funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs (20).
2009: As part of the development of its Teen Pregnancy Prevention Strategic Plan, Kentucky’s Dept. of Public Health conducts a sex-ed survey in middle and high schools. Here’s what the data says: (56% of ~530 schools contacted responded)
- 33% had comprehensive sex ed
- 54% had abstinence-based sex ed
- 6% only taught about STDs
- 7% had no sex-ed program at all (21).
2018: Abstinence becomes the law of the land. Senate Bill 71: Abstinence Inclusion in Public School Sex Education passes, which mandates that abstinence and monogamy must be the focus of any in-school sex-ed program. This doesn’t mean that sex ed is required—just that schools that choose to have sex ed as part of the health curriculum need to emphasize abstinence (22, 23).
There are two key pieces of legislation in Kentucky governing sex ed. One comes from Section 704 of the Kentucky Administrative Regulations (or “KAR”) and the other is Senate Bill 71, which eventually became Kentucky Statutes 158.1415
704 KAR 8:030 Health Education (2015)
This measure “[a]dopts into law the Kentucky Academic Standards for Health Education. All elementary and secondary school pupils shall receive organized health education instruction as recorded in the Kentucky Academic Standards” (24). In order to graduate from a Kentucky high school, students must complete this health education instruction.
SB 71 (2018) – Inclusion of Abstinence Education in Any Human Sexuality or Sexually Transmitted Diseases Curriculum
This recent Senate Bill requires that abstinence be the focus of any public-school sex. It reads:
“If a school council or, if none exists, the principal adopts a curriculum for human sexuality or sexually transmitted diseases, instruction shall include but not be limited to the following content:
(1) Abstinence from sexual activity is the desirable goal for all school-age children;
(2) Abstinence from sexual activity is the only certain way to avoid unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and other associated health problems; and
(3) The best way to avoid sexually transmitted diseases and other associated health problems is to establish a permanent mutually faithful monogamous relationship” (23,24)”.
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
While sex ed is not technically required in Kentucky, health education is. As per SB 71, any Kentucky school that adopts a sex ed curriculum is required by law to make abstinence the focus of that curriculum (20). Parents do not need to consent for students to undergo sex and HIV/STD education.
Kentucky public schools must follow the Board of Ed’s Program of Studies. All public-school students in Kentucky receive health education according to the standards set in Kentucky Academic Standards for Health Education (24). These “standards” are guidelines, and they do not require a specific health curriculum or set of materials to be used (24).
In order to get a feel for what the kids are learning, let’s take a look at some of those curricular standards.
Kentucky has eight content standards for health education:
“Standard 1: Students will comprehend content related to health promotion and disease prevention to enhance health.
Standard 2: Analyze the influence of family, peers, culture, media, technology and other factors on health behaviors.
Standard 3: Access valid information, products and services to enhance health.
Standard 4: Use interpersonal communication skills to enhance health and avoid or reduce health risks.
Standard 5: Use decision-making skills to enhance health
Standard 6: Use goal-setting skills to enhance health.
Standard 7: Practice health-enhancing behaviors and avoid or reduce health risks.
Standard 8: Advocate for personal, family and community health” (24)
Health education in Kentucky spans kindergarten through 12th grade, and the same content standards are used across all grade levels. The Academic Standards for Health Education also contains “performance indicators” (a.k.a. learning outcomes) for each grade.
Based on my understanding of the Academic Standards for Health Education it does not seem like sex-ed curricular materials are required to be science- or evidence-based, though the content standards themselves do need to be reviewed every six years by the Kentucky Dept. of Ed in order to determine if revisions need to be made. Potential revisions should be “based on evidence-based research” (24),
According to the Academic Standards for Health Education, the first time students receive sex ed is in sixth grade. Grades 7-12 include additional information about sexual and reproductive health. By law, the focus is required to be on abstinence.
In order to understand the kind of sex ed students are getting, let’s look at the performance indicators for a few different grade levels:
– “Explain the importance of talking with parents and other trusted adults about issues related to relationships, growth and development and sexual health.”
– “Describe conception and its relationship to the menstrual cycle and describe why sexual abstinence is the most effective risk avoidance method of protection from HIV, other STDs and pregnancy.”
– “Determine the benefits of being sexually abstinent and summarize ways to prevent pregnancy.”
– “Explain why individuals have the right to refuse sexual contact.”
– “Explain signs, symptoms, transmission and prevention of the most common STDs.”
– “Describe the factors that contribute to and that protect against engaging in sexual behavior and explain the importance of setting personal limits to avoid sexual risk behaviors.”
– “Describe usual signs and symptoms of common STDs”
– “Explain that rape and sexual assault should be reported to a trusted adult.”
High School (9th-12th)
– “Evaluate the negative consequences of sending sexually explicit pictures or messages electronically.”
– “Summarize the importance of talking with parents and other trusted adults about issues related to relationships, growth and development and sexual health.”
– “Justify why abstinence from sex and drugs are the safest, most effective risk avoidance methods of protection from HIV, other STDs and pregnancy and summarize ways to prevent pregnancy and the sexual transmission of HIV and other STDs.”
– “Describe the importance of shared responsibilities for avoiding sexual activity and preventing sexual risk behaviors and analyze the relationship between using alcohol and other drugs with sexual risk behaviors.”
– “Summarize the relationship between the menstrual cycle and conception.”
– “Summarize the signs and symptoms of symptomatic and asymptomatic STDs and the importance of proper adherence to contraceptive methods to reduce the risk of pregnancy and STDs.”
– “Describe the increased risks associated with having multiple sexual partners including serial monogamy” (24)
What the kids are actually learning
In order to gain further insight into what Kentucky students are actually learning in sex-ed classrooms (and the strides that are being made towards bring comprehensive sex ed to the Bluegrass State), I turned to Dr. Kristen Mark, Associate Professor and Director of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab (SHP) at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.
In her work with the SHP Lab, Mark brings comprehensive, inclusive sexual health education to students, schools, and community members; creates connections between researchers, educators and practitioners in the field of sexual health; and promotes sexual health as an integral part of overall health. Mark is also one of the founders of Lex Ed, a coalition of individuals and organizations working to bring comprehensive sexuality education to Fayette County Public Schools (Lexington is located in Fayette County).
Each week, Mark and other members of the SHP Lab visit the Family Care Center, a state-funded organization that provides support, health care, and an alternative high-school program for young parents and pregnant people ages 13-20 (25). Mark and her colleagues don’t do research at the Family Care Center: they’re there talk to students and provide information.
“We are allowed to talk with them about everything,” says Mark. “[it’s] very comprehensive, inclusive, [and] student-driven. They ask questions, we answer them. It’s a really wonderful opportunity for us and these young girls to get some of this education that they have been totally deprived of.”
Inevitably, the topic of sex ed—or lack of sex ed that students received before coming to the Family Care Center—comes up during these discussions. Dr Mark says,
“One of the things that they [the students at the Family Care Center] often say is, ‘I really feel like my education failed me...Many of them said they didn’t even know what an IUD was [or] that that was even an option. They just feel cheated. It’s a pretty substantial consequence to now be sentenced to motherhood for the rest of their lives because their education did not prepare them adequately.”
Lex Ed has had some success in reaching its goal of bringing comprehensive sex ed to Fayette County: the coalition was instrumental in getting comprehensive sex-ed curriculum HealthSmart (ETR) approved for use in Fayette County Public Schools. HealthSmart is a full-scale health curriculum that covers range of topics—including sex ed and HIV/STD prevention. Based on my analysis of the curriculum, I would label HealthSmart an “abstinence-plus” program: abstinence is presented alongside condom usage, birth control, and other contraceptive and HIV/STD prevention methods (a full overview of the high-school curriculum is available here).(26).
Although bringing HealthSmart to Fayette County Public Schools represents a major win, Mark says there are still major hurdles when it comes to actually implementing that curriculum—especially its more comprehensive aspects.
“What we’re finding is that often the teachers are so used to teaching abstinence-only that even though this curriculum is approved, the teachers still just rely on just teaching abstinence-only.”
Why is this the case? Mark says a variety of factors can come into play, including not feeling equipped to teach a more comprehensive curriculum, or fear over potential backlash from school administrators and/or parents.
In order to remedy this problem, Mark and her colleagues at Lex Ed have been working on bringing sex-ed teacher trainings to Fayette County Public Schools.
Despite these challenges, Mark remains optimistic.
“There are a lot of great youth-led movements happening right now that are gaining traction and that are happening in Kentucky,” she says.” Students are speaking up and feeling like they are empowered to make some changes. In that way, I’m really hopeful.”
With these youth-led movements in mind, Mark has a number of peer-to-peer programs in development.
“We’re working on involving peers more in sex education,” she says, “and especially in harassment and sexual violence prevention-related work. Peers are really well positioned, enthusiastic, and totally driven right now. I think that is in part due to social media movements like #MeTooK12. We’ve got a few things in the works to work with those populations and create peer-to-peer harassment education.”
– Bluegrass Health Center (Lexington)
Written by: Lizzy Steiner
Edited by: Teri Bradford
Have info to add? Please get in touch!
(1) Griffith, Gayle. “Sex Education: A Look at Curriculum and Controversy.” The Courier-Journal. March 24, 1969. https://www.newspapers.com/image/109503472/.
(2) “Parent-Education Class Will Hear Dr. Giesel.” The Courier-Journal. November 18, 1956. https://www.newspapers.com/image/108498194.
(3) Griffith, Gayle. “3 School Systems Increasing Role In Sex Education.” The Courier-Journal. December 26, 1968. https://www.newspapers.com/image/109480218.
(4) “Mr. Isler Has One of the Worst Bills of the Lot.” The Courier-Journal. February 7, 1970. https://www.newspapers.com/image/109497176.
(5) McKinney, Mike. “Sex Education on Trial: But What Are Kentucky’s Biggest School Systems Really Teaching.” The Courier-Journal. February 6, 1970. https://www.newspapers.com/image/109497139/.
(6) Wilson, Richard. “Sex Education Bill Killed.” The Courier-Journal. March 13, 1970. https://www.newspapers.com/image/110812666/.
(7) “University of Kentucky Poll: Quality of State Services Dissatisfies Most Citizens.” The Courier-Journal. May 24, 1979. https://www.newspapers.com/image/109437950/.
(8) “Parents Object to Sex Education Class: Course Requirement Contested.” The Messenger. May 14, 1980. https://www.newspapers.com/image/530866580/.
(9) “Fayette Panel Wants Birth Control to Be Taught as Part of Sex Education.” The Courier-Journal. May 31, 1981. https://www.newspapers.com/image/109489113/.
(10) “Parenting and Family Life Skills Education.” Resources in Education 25, no. 9 (September 1990). https://books.google.com/books?id=RxUpSy8W5JgC.
(11) Jennings, Michael. “Sex-Activity Survey Spurs Concerns in Kentucky.” The Courier-Journal. February 10, 1990. https://www.newspapers.com/image/110688528/.
(12) Cropper, Carol Marie. “Brock Opposes Teaching about Contraception in Sex-Education Classes .” The Courier-Journal. December 28, 1988. https://www.newspapers.com/image/111009051.
(13) Stevens, Vicky Story. “Fieldhouse Proposal Not Priority Now, Garrard School Board Determines.” Advocate Messenger. November 15, 1990. https://www.newspapers.com/image/137913044.
(14) Jennings, Michael. “School Bill Battle Leaves No Clear Winners, Losers.” The Courier-Journal. March 18, 1990. https://www.newspapers.com/image/110785920.
(15) “Statistics Show Teen Pregnancy a Problem Here.” The Franklin Favorite, July 30, 1992. https://www.newspapers.com/image/486905192/.
(16) Wolfe, Charles. “School Workers May Get Training in Sex Issues.” The Courier-Journal. March 7, 1996. https://www.newspapers.com/image/110278549.
(17) “Legislative Briefs: Sex Education.” The Courier-Journal. March 26, 1996. https://www.newspapers.com/image/110198642.
(18) Lindenberger, Michael A. “Education Committee Passes Sex-Education Bill.” The Messenger-Inquirer. March 2, 2000. https://www.newspapers.com/image/375137263.
(19) Kenning, Chris. “Sex-Education Lessons Vary by School, Grade.” The Courier-Journal. July 31, 2005. https://www.newspapers.com/image/180257550/.
(20) “Kentucky Sexuality Education Law: State Profile.” Kentucky Sexuality Education Law: State Profile. SIECUS, March 2015. https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Kentucky05.pdf.
(21) “Parents Need Schools’ Help on Sex Education.” Lexington Herald-Ledger, January 6, 2013. https://www.kentucky.com/opinion/editorials/article44395821.html.
(22) McKenney, Elizabeth. “Kentucky Sex-Ed Bill Flawed.” The Courier-Journal. 2018. https://www.kentucky.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/article211615334.html.
(23) Curriculum for instruction on human sexuality or sexually transmitted diseases, Ky. Rev. Stat. § 158.1415 (Kentucky Revised Statutes 2018) (Passed July 1, 2018).
(24) Kentucky Department of Education, Kentucky Academic Standards for Health Education. Frankfort, KY: Kentucky Department of Education, 2018. https://education.ky.gov/curriculum/standards/kyacadstand/Documents/Kentucky_Academic_Standards_for_Health%20Education.pdf
(25) “Parent Education Program.” Family Care Center. City of Lexington. Accessed December 9, 2019. https://www.lexingtonky.gov/family-care-center.
(26) Kane, William M, and Susan K Telljohann. HealthSmart® High School Program Foundation. Santa Cruz, CA: ETR, 2012.
(27) Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, March 13, 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.