As most are probably aware, the U.S has always had a rocky relationship with sex and sexuality. Probably because we refuse to talk about it. However, the issues that the U.S face regarding increasing teen pregnancy and STD/STI rates, are not uniform across the board. This is due to the federal governments’ decision to leave curriculum requirements up to the individual states. To further this conversation, let’s take a trip out to big sky country; good, ol’ Montana.
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. (9)
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. (9)
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. (9)
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. (9)
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 Montana…
Since 198, many states have kept with its abstinence forward teachings. Montana is one of them (6).
In 2015, Montana’s health education standards did get a bit (as in, a vague little bit) of a facelift. An increase in STDs and STIs in youths across the nation prompted the CDC to encourage states to move towards comprehensive sex-ed in (5).
Before, sex-ed was left to those health classes where your gym teacher who is also your science teacher (?) wears a polo and tells you about your body. However, the school board in Montana, made up of community members and school leaders, decided to charge schools with adding a “human sexuality” component to the existing Health Enhancement program (5). Unfortunately, because the curriculum was left up to each school district, the level of comprehensiveness remains unknown.
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
In Montana, sex and HIV education are both mandated and the content must be age-appropriate (7). However, similar to the federal government’s laissez-faire attitude toward sexual education, Montana leaves curriculum requirements up to the local school boards, advising they take input from the community when writing its content (2). According to SIECUS, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, Montana state law reads;
“Montana Code Annotated § 20-2-121 requires the board of public education to adopt content standards for school districts to follow in their curriculum development and Administrative Rule 10.55.905 states that ‘health enhancement’ is a required subject for graduation. Montana Administrative Rule §§ 10.54.2501 requires schools to use the content standards for the health enhancement graduation requirement. Administrative Rules §§ 10.54.7010, 7011, 7012, and 7013 codify the health content standards into law.”(2)
The state requirements for the ‘health enhancement program’s content standards’ are broken down into what students should have knowledge of by various grade completions. For instance, by the end of fourth grade, “students should be able to ‘identify personal health-enhancing strategies that encompass… injury/disease prevention, including HIV/AIDS prevention (2).” And by the time they graduate, students should be able to understand “the impact of personal behaviors on the body, including the reproductive system, and have personal, health-enhancing strategies about sexual activity and HIV/AIDS prevention” (2).
If these ‘standards’ and ‘health enhancement programs’ sound pretty vague and noncommittal, well, that’s because they are. The ambiguity here allows school board members and teachers to tailor the sexual education content to their own personal beliefs; which may, or may not be aligned with comprehensive, inclusive and medically accurate information.
Many educators rely on teaching abstinence-only methods of sexual safety, which is technically allowed by state “standards.” In an issue brief titled, Sex Education Standards Across the States, written by Sarah Shapiro and Catherine Brown for the Center for American Progress, data was organized to show which states’ content covered subjects including “healthy relationships” and “consent or sexual assault.” Unsurprisingly, Montana’s ‘health enhancement’ class covers neither (3).
What the kids are actually learning
As mentioned above, Montana leaves the sex-ed up to the school districts and ultimately the schools. In reality, most schools end up leaving the job up to the teachers, so students are getting differing levels of education even if they are in the same school but different grade/class (8). We can’t capture every account for you, but we can share what Kate Whittle, a former Montana public school student, shared about her experiences.
In 2010 for an issue of Ms. Magazine, a personal testimonial titled, Why Kids In Montana (And Everywhere Else) Need Decent Sex Ed, was written by Kate Whittle. Her piece recounted her less than ideal experience as a student in the Montana public school system learning about sexual education for the first time. The piece was written as a response to the immense backlash Helena, (the capital of Montana) was facing for trying to implement a more comprehensive and age-appropriate sexual education curriculum beginning in kindergarten.
Whittle tells readers that her very first experience with sex-ed wasn’t until her sophomore year of high school. She states,
“you can bet plenty of [her] classmates were already sexually active (4)...Our conservative Christian gym teacher told us that we should not have premarital sex, that gay sex was unnatural and physically harmful, and that if we girls got raped we should sit in a bathtub of cold water to prevent pregnancy. This was in 2004. I have no doubt that kids are still getting taught such outright lies somewhere today (4).”
In 2014, the state public health department reported a 60 percent increase in cases of chlamydia in age groups between 15 and 24 and a 100 percent increase in gonorrhea cases between 2013 and 2014 (5). Safe to say that Whittle is likely right when she says she is sure that students are still being taught such outright lies somewhere, and that ‘somewhere’ may still be her rural, hometown.
Any interesting programs/initiatives/legislation in the works or currently running?
Montana does not currently have legislation in the works for 2019, and since their legislature sessions only convene in odd years, we may have to wait until 2021 for something new to pop up.
More resources for ya...
Between statistics and personal experiences, it is pretty safe to say that providing students with comprehensive, inclusive, and medically accurate information is the best way to ensure sexual and emotional safety. As the old saying goes, knowledge really is power. Below are some resources available to anyone in Montana seeking sexual guidance:
Written by: Lauren Moser
Edited by: Teri Bradford
Have info to add? Please get in touch!
(1) US Census Bureau. “Census.gov.” Census.gov. Accessed November 11, 2019. https://www.census.gov/.
(2) “SIECUS Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.” SIECUS, October 1, 2019. https://siecus.org/.
(3) Shapiro, Sarah, and Catherine Brown. “Sex Education Standards Across the States.” Center for American Progress, May 9, 2018. https://www.americanprogress.org/.
(4) Whittle, Kate. “Why Kids In Montana (And Everywhere Else) Need Decent Sex Ed.” Ms. Magazine.com, July 22, 2010. https://msmagazine.com/.
(5) Redinger, Elizabeth A, and Annie Sondag. “Sex Education in Montana Schools: An Assessment of the Needs of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth.” ScholarWorks at University of Montana, 2017. https://scholarworks.umt.edu/.
(6) Saul, Rebekah. “Whatever Happened to the Adolescent Family Life Act?” Guttmacher Institute. The Guttmacher Institute , April 1, 1998. https://www.guttmacher.org/gpr/1998/04/whatever-happened-adolescent-family-life-act.
(7) “Sex and HIV Education.” Guttmacher Institute. The Guttmacher Institute, December 3, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education.
(8) Bridgercare. “What Parents Need to Know About Sex Ed in MT!” Bridgercare. Bridgercare, September 18, 2018. https://bridgercare.org/lets-talk-about-sex-education/.
(9) Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, March 13, 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.