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. (10)
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. (10)
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. (10)
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 in South Dakota…
Since 2010, the commitment to abstinence-only education in SD has been backed up by Federal Title V abstinence-only funding, flying under the name of Sexual Risk Avoidance Education (SRAE) (3). According to South Dakota’s Department of Health, SRAE “teaches youth to voluntarily refrain from non-marital sexual activity,” particularly youth ages 10-19 years old who are members of “vulnerable populations” (4). In 2017, this federal funding totaled $159, 943 (4).
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
In South Dakota, state legislators have taken an approach that can only be described as a “brief acknowledgment” of sex education.
According to codified South Dakota law, there is no requirement to teach sexual education at all—this decision is left to local school boards to interpret and implement as they wish (1). However, South Dakota state does require that, regardless of local board policy, all public and private schools teach “character development instruction,” a term stressing—among other notions such as citizenship, honesty, self-discipline, and self-respect—the importance of sexual abstinence (2).
Notably, as with required education on abstinence, South Dakota’s Health Education Standards address, albeit sparingly, issues of sexuality and sexual health. Among its common health education “content areas,” South Dakota lists “family life and sexuality (5).” Students are encouraged to meet eight standards, intended to teach skills of (5):
- Analyzing influences
- Accessing information
- Interpersonal communication
- Practice of health-enhancing behaviors, and
At the overlap of these junctures lies some required instruction on HIV/AIDS and STIs for all children in grades 7-12 (5). Yet, despite the initial indication of addressing sexuality, the Standards fail to mention in any level of detail notions of gender, gender identity, or sexual identity. Also quite absent from this document are the words “sex,” “sexual,” or any other version of what one might expect from a set of guidelines supposedly addressing family life and sexuality.
What the kids are actually learning
The language of laws and standards aside, what does this look like in practice for students grades k-12 in South Dakota? Given that each local school board takes its own approach, there is no “one” image of sexual education in a South Dakota public school, if sexual education is offered at all. However, a glance inside one teacher’s classroom can give us a clue.
Kayla Havrevold teaches science and health to sixth-graders at Lennox Intermediate Middle School in South Dakota. Working under Holt, Rinehart, & Winston Publishing’s textbook Decisions for Health (6), Kayla addresses a variety of topics related to health, of which, she described, “body systems, reproduction, and growth and development” are included.
In addition to sections of the text related to all of the body’s systems (circulatory, respiratory, etc), Havrevold spends time teaching her students about the reproductive system. Havrevold teaches her co-ed classes of about 21-24 students about reproduction using diagrams of male and female genitalia. This is used as an entry point to discuss good hygiene.
When asked about whether the lessons on reproduction also include sexuality, sexual attraction, or sexual orientation, Havrevold explained that since the book (which was published in 2007) does not include these topics, she typically will not bring them up. However, she will lead discussion on sexuality and sex if a student asks questions.
In Havrevold’s school district, girls are taught about periods in the fifth grade; this is elaborated on more in-depth in her sixth-grade health class, supported by the textbook. As for students who may have their periods in school, Havrevold indicated that period care is generally the purview of the school nurse, who has supplies for students.
She does not believe that her school has period product dispensers in girls’ restrooms, and if they did, she doubts that they are maintained, as
“we don’t know of too many girls in fifth or sixth grade with their period.”
However, Havrevold noted that she thinks it would be beneficial for her to
“have a better idea of if [her school has] these things or not. And if [they] don’t [they] should supply them to the girls’ bathrooms.”
As one health teacher of one grade in one school district among many in an un-standardized state system, it is difficult to extrapolate a crystal clear image of sexual education in all of South Dakota. That being said, Havrevold’s teaching experience lines up with the lax approach that South Dakota takes to sex-ed: not required but marginally mentioned, optional but unregulated, intending to reduce health risk yet insistently abstinence-only. “Sex” is the three-letter-word-that-shouldn’t-be-spoken. The scarlet S on the back of educators.
Notable legislation, sexual orientation, and gender identity
Let alone the “S” word, affirmative lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation, including LGBTQ+ identity, are hugely silent from South Dakota’s sexual education platform. In fact, on the opposite end of the spectrum, SD is openly and vehemently against queer education for its students.
House Bill 1108, passed in February 2019, banned any and all mentions of “gender dysphoria” from sex education of SD students in grades k-12 (7). Legislators argued that “gender belongs in the home,” indicating quite clearly the desire to render invisible transgender students in South Dakota (8).
Notions of gender identity and sexual orientation are especially salient in South Dakota given its large population of Native American youth. Indigenous North American culture does not traditionally adhere to the gender binary of the colonized, Western world. Gender fluidity and LGBTQ+ identity, including two-spirit identity (9), were not pathologized, but rather accepted and embraced. For those indigenous youth, education about sexuality that embodies this ethic is vital for the preservation and reclamation of indigenous LGBTQ+ identity.
As it stands today, sex ed in South Dakota is focused on the “shoulds.” Youth should not have sex at all, let alone pre-maritally. They should not be transgender. They should not think too deeply about sexual orientation and gender identity. Students who menstruate should hide their period care under the domain of the school nurse. The male and female body should only be referred to in the context of a reproductive bodily system.
A future for South Dakota exists in the ability to change the grammar of sex ed from an imperative to an opportunity. Students can explore their sexuality. Periods can be normalized. Sex and pleasure can coexist, and do so safely. Students can take charge of their sexual health and freedom. Lessons can be culturally sensitive. With opportunity comes discussion, and with discussion, understanding. It is this understanding that South Dakota school children deserve as they navigate the complex field of growing up in their bodies and sexualities. There is a place for state policy to support students as they tackle this challenging, multi-faceted process of self-discovery.
Written by: Rowena Kosher.
Edited by: Teri Bradford
Have info to add? Please get in touch!
(1) “Sex Education.” NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota. NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota, 2019. https://www.prochoicesd.org/in-our-state/sex-ed-.shtml.
(2) Legislative Research Council. “Codified Laws.” SDLRC – Codified Law 13-33-6.1. SD Legislative Research Council, 2019. https://sdlegislature.gov/Statutes/Codified_Laws/DisplayStatute.aspx?Type=Statute&Statute=13-33-6.1.
(3) “Title V Competitive Sexual Risk Avoidance Education: Fact Sheet.” Family & Youth Services Bureau. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, December 6, 2018. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/fysb/resource/title-v-competitive-sexual-risk-avoidance-education-fact-sheet-0.
(4) SIECUS. “PDF.” Washington, DC, 2017. https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/SOUTHDAKOTA-FY17-FINAL.pdf
(5) South Dakota Department of Education.“PDF.” Pierre, SD, 2018. https://doe.sd.gov/board/packets/documents/012618/item6doc2.pdf
(6) Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. “PDF.” Austin, TX, 2004. https://v2.toolboxpro.org/secure/teachers/3524/120918032027_Decisions_for_Health_Txtbk.pdf
(7) “House Bill 1108.” SDLRC – 2019 House Bill 1108. SD Legislative Research Council, 2019. https://sdlegislature.gov/Legislative_Session/Bills/Bill.aspx?Bill=1108&Session=2019.
(8) Czajka, Kelley. “South Dakota Banned the Teaching of Gender Dysphoria in Public Schools.” Pacific Standard. The Social Justice Foundation, February 15, 2019. https://psmag.com/news/south-dakota-banned-the-teaching-of-gender-dysphoria-in-public-schools.
(9) Indian Health Service. “Two Spirit: Health Resources.” Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Health. IHS Headquarters, Indian Health Service, 2015. https://www.ihs.gov/lgbt/health/twospirit/.
(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.