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. (12)
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. (12)
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. (12)
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. (12)
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 in Rhode Island…
You may assume that Rhode Island would be relatively progressive in their sex education policies compared to the rest of the U.S. Snuggled on the coast of New England, a region that prides itself on its brand of moderate liberalism, Rhode Island even houses Brown University, one of the most liberal colleges in the country. But this is further complicated by the fact that 54% of its population identifies as Catholic, leaving Rhode Island as the most Catholic state in the U.S.
While this strong Catholic presence doesn’t guarantee state-wide abstinence-only sexual education, it does set up some cultural barriers that have slowed progress in comprehensive sexual health education. It did give the Rhode Island branch of the Heritage Foundation, a South Carolina-based abstinence-only-until-marriage industry, the power to run their curriculum known as “Right Time, Right Place” in three public and two private schools in Rhode Island from 2004-2007. The program received over $1 million in federal funding and reached about 1,700 students in these 5 schools during their existence.
In letters sent to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), Commissioner Peter McWalters, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued that the program, “promoted sexist stereotypes, ignored the state’s comprehensive sex education standards, invaded students’ privacy rights and endorsed particular religious views (1,2).”
After three years of their pushback, as well as the support of Planned Parenthood and a coalition of local educators, parents, and doctors, the RIDE released an advisory to public schools. RIDE instructed schools to stop using the federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum.
Rhode Island was one of a handful of states that rejected federal funding for Title V abstinence-only education in 2007. Unlike Title V funds, Heritage’s federal funds were allocated under “Community Based Abstinence Education” and therefore went directly to the supplier. But fortunately, in the fall of 2007, Heritage’s request for a new grant beginning in October 2007 was finally rejected.
As a locally controlled state, Rhode Island’s communities select their own curriculum approaches based on evidence-based/informed resources aligned with the Rhode Island Comprehensive Health Instructional Outcomes and the Rhode Island Health Education Framework. Last updated in 2015, these documents provide the foundation for all kindergarten through 12th-grade health education in the state’s schools and indicates what must be covered in regards to sexual health education: Family Life and Sexuality, HIV/AIDS, and Teen Dating Violence.
1994: The RIDE launched the Rhode Island Coordinated School Health Program, now known as “Thrive,” with funding from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
2006: The RIDE issued an advisory to all school districts, instructing them to stop using the federally funded abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum in the public schools.
2007: Rhode Island became one of the first states to reject Title V abstinence-only funding (3).
The Rhode Island branch of the Heritage Foundation, an abstinence-only-until-marriage education provider, shut its doors.
2016: RIDE develops and disseminates Guidance for Rhode Island Schools on Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Students (4).
2018: Rhode Island enacts HB 7044 to address consent in education, allowing that instruction “may incorporate age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate elements of effective and evidence-based programs on the law and meaning of consent (5).”
2019: In January, House Bill 5046 was introduced which requires the RIDE to develop a program of age-appropriate safe relationship behavior education and training, regarding the prevention of relationship abuse, and sexual violence and harassment. It is currently in review (6).
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
Sex ed is required in Rhode Island. State law mandates 100 minutes per week minimum instructional time for health and physical education. If your suspicious about how time is allotted to health versus physical instruction, we’re with you!
RIDE’s Comprehensive Health Instructional Outcomes actually have some pretty detailed standards on topics of sexual health categorized by age group. We’re talking a full-fleshed out chart that breaks down what knowledge students need to be able to demonstrate by which grade. Click above to see all the deets.
While schools in Rhode Island are required to discuss contraceptive options, abstinence from sexual intercourse must be emphasized as the preferred sexual behavior for adolescents.
Rhode Island state law requires HIV/AIDS education (8). Parents must be notified and given the opportunity to review the curriculum if they request this in writing. Parents can remove their child or children from sex ed classes (with written notice). This is called an “opt-out” policy.
Private schools are also required to abide by RI Rules and Regulations for School Health Programs (9).
What the kids are actually learning...
According to a 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 35% of high school students have not been taught, or were unsure or being taught about birth control methods. 1 in 3 high school students in Rhode Island report not using a condom during their last sexual encounter (10).
LGBTQ+ populations face an increased risk for negative health outcomes due to the impact of stigma and discrimination. Among high school students surveyed that identify as gay, lesbian and bisexual 49% claimed that they had not used a condom compared to 37% of heterosexual students (10).
According to the SIECUS profile of RI in 2018, 60.4% of Rhode Island secondary schools provided students with curricula or supplementary materials that included HIV, STD, or pregnancy prevention information relevant to LGBTQ youth (11).
Among girls ages 15-19, the teen birth rate in Rhode Island per 1000 girls was 11.4%. Rhode Island was ranked as the 6th lowest teen birth rate in the country (11).
Any interesting programs/initiatives/legislation in the works or currently running?
Due to the failure to enforce comprehensive sexual health education in Rhode Island, there are plenty of non-profit and advocacy groups that are stepping up to fill in the gaps in student knowledge:
More resources for ya...
Written by: Jennifer Katz
Edited by: Teri Bradford
Have info to add? Please get in touch!
(1) ACLU. “ACLU Hails Rhode Island Department of Education Efforts to Stop the Use of Harmful ‘Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage’ Curriculum in Public Schools.” American Civil Liberties Union. American Civil Liberties Union, March 22, 2006. https://www.aclu.org/press-releases/aclu-hails-rhode-island-department-education-efforts-stop-use-harmful-abstinence-only.
(2) The Advocate Mag. “Rhode Island Rejects Abstinence-Only Program.” ADVOCATE. PRIDE PUBLISHING INC., April 4, 2006. https://www.advocate.com/health/health-news/2006/04/04/rhode-island-rejects-abstinence-only-program.
(3) Advocates for Youth. “PDF.” Washington DC, July 2017. https://advocatesforyouth.org/wp-content/uploads/storage//advfy/documents/fshistoryabonly.pdf
(4) Rhode Island Department of Education. “PDF.” Providence, Rhode Island, June 2016. https://www.glad.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/ride-transgender-students-guidance-6-7-16.pdf
(5) Solomon, Blazejewski, McKiernan, Serpa, and Fella. “HB 7044.” Rhode Island House of Representatives (2018) – Open States. Rhode Island General Assembly, 2018. https://openstates.org/ri/bills/2018/HB7044/.
(6) Rep. Ranglin-Vassell, Rep. Donovan, Rep. Tanzi, Rep. Walsh, and Rep. Hull. Legiscan: Bringing People to the Process, Legiscan: Bringing People to the Process § (2019). https://legiscan.com/RI/text/H5046/id/1840932.
(7) Rep. Ranglin-Vassell, Rep. Donovan, Rep. Tanzi, Rep. Walsh, and Rep. Hull. Legiscan: Bringing People to the Process, Legiscan: Bringing People to the Process § (2019). https://legiscan.com/RI/text/H5046/id/1840932.
(8) “Webserver.” Rhode Island, 2019. https://webserver.rilin.state.ri.us/Statutes/TITLE16/16-22/16-22-17.HTM
(10) “PDF.” Providence, RI, 2015. https://health.ri.gov/materialbyothers/yrbs/2015HighSchoolDetailTables.pdf
(11) “PDF.” Washington, DC, 2018. https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Rhode-Island-FY18-Final.pdf
(12) Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, March 13, 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.