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. (5)
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. (5)
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. (5)
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. (5)
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 Tennessee…
2012: House Bill 3621 passes, allowing parents to sue school teachers/organizations that promote “gateway sexual activity” (2).
2018: Under the Trump administration, Abstinence-only until marriage (AOUM) is rebranded to be Sexual Risk Avoidance Education (SRAE). In FY 2018, the State of Tennessee did not receive any SRAE grants.
HB 3621: Introduced in 2012. Permits parents to sue any school teachers or organizations that promote “gateway sexual activity” (2).
Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-1301 et seq.: This bill was introduced in 2019. It requires local education agencies to provide family life education to counties that exceed 19.5 pregnancies per 1000 adolescent females (ages 11 through 18). The content would be age-appropriate and medically accurate. Prohibits any material that promotes “gateway sexual activity.”
What can we say? Tennessee is an interesting place.
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
Tennesse may be the Volunteer State, but it certainly doesn’t voluntarily provide comprehensive sex education in its schools.
To start, Tennessee has an abstinence-only sex education curriculum. But on top of that, a 2012 bill passed by the Tennessee House of Representatives, HB 3621, makes it even more constricting. The sex education curriculum allows parents to sue school teachers or organizations that promote “gateway sexual activity” (2). Um, what does that mean, you might be wondering? Us too. Well, it specifically defines gateway sexual activity as “sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in non-abstinent behavior” (2). But this type of behavior is nuanced and vague. So much so that supposedly, holding hands or hugging could constitute an actionable offense (2). 😬
Okay, let’s hit the brakes here and break down Tennessee’s sex-ed laws to (hopefully) make this all digestible (1).
So Tennessee ticks the basics: both sex and HIV education are mandated by the state. Great! BUT there’s a weird stipulation- sex education is only required in counties that have a pregnancy rate of at least 19.5 or higher per 1,000 women ages 15-18 (1). Hmm…
Sex education, when provided, is not required to be medically accurate, age-appropriate, and culturally appropriate and unbiased (1). Sex education can promote religion, though, so that’s where its abstinence-only curriculum comes in. Parents must be notified that their child is receiving sex education, AND they need to provide consent for their child to partake (1). An opt-in policy can add a barrier of access for students who feel uncomfortable asking their parents about sex-ed. Even on a more practical level, many parents get a case of the Mondays and forget to fill out yet another school form.
Again, abstinence must be stressed (for both sex and HIV education), as well as the importance of sex only-within-marriage. On top of that, sex ed needs to talk about the adverse outcomes of teen sex (1). No condoms are provided. But no surprise there. Sex ed also needs to include information on sexual decision-making and self-discipline. Also, students are taught refusal skills and personal boundaries and how to prevent dating and sexual violence (1).
What the kids are actually learning
Though it’s hard to say what counties that don’t exceed that 19.5 per 1000 adolescent pregnancies are learning, we can check out what the ones that do may learn.
Family life education programs must include (4):
- “Emphatically” promote sexual risk avoidance through abstinence, regardless of a student’s current or prior sexual experience;
- Helping students understand the complexities of how premarital sexual activity affects the whole person (physically, socially, emotionally, psychologically, economically, and educationally);
- Teach the positives of avoiding sexual activity, skills needed to make healthy decisions and goals. Also, what makes a healthy relationship and, mainly, why that relationship should be with your spouse;
- Provide factually and medically accurate information;
- Teach students how to form pro-social habits that enable students to develop healthy relationships, create strong marriages, and build safe and stable future families;
- Encourage students to communicate with a parent, guardian, or other trusted adult about sex or other risk behaviors;
- Assist students in learning and practicing refusal skills that will help them resist sexual activity;
- Address the benefits of raising children within the context of a marital relationship and the unique challenges that single teen parents encounter concerning educational, psychological, physical, social, legal, and financial factors;
- Discuss the interrelationship between teen sexual activity and exposure to other risk behaviors such as smoking, underage drinking, drug use, criminal activity, dating violence, and sexual aggression;
- Educate students on the age of consent, puberty, pregnancy, childbirth, sexually transmitted diseases [STDs], including but not limited to human immunodeficiency virus [HIV]/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome [AIDS], and the financial and emotional responsibility of raising a child;
- Teach students how to identify and form healthy relationships, and how to identify and avoid unhealthy relationships;
- Inform students, in all [schools], concerning the process of adoption and its benefits; and
- Provide instruction on the detection, intervention, prevention, and treatment of child sexual abuse, including issues that may occur in the home.
According to the Tennessee Health Education Standards, while reaching these learning outcomes, students should learn STI and HIV/AIDS prevention. HIV/AIDS education should start in grade 3 (4). By grade 6, students should be learning that abstinence is the way to go. However, in high school, students will learn about other forms of contraception and even abortion, along with other alternatives to an unintended pregnancy (4).
Any interesting programs/initiatives/legislation in the works or currently running?
Healthy and Free TN is an organization that is working towards sexual and reproductive freedom by getting youth and their parents the tools that they need. This organization supports local and federal progress towards comprehensive education in the name of kids having healthier, happier lives.
(1)“Sex and HIV Education.” Guttmacher Institute, December 3, 2019. https://www.guttmacher.org/state-policy/explore/sex-and-hiv-education?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIxdvtqoGz5gIVFmKGCh2iLAU2EAAYASAAEgL4-PD_BwE.
(2) Haggerson, Michael. “Tennessee Legislature Passes Abstinence-Only Sex Education Bill.” Jurist, May 2, 2012. https://www.jurist.org/news/2012/05/tennessee-legislature-passes-abstinence-only-sex-education-bill.
(3) Blackman, Kate, and Samantha Scotti. “Why Is Sexual Education Taught in Schools?” State Policies on Sex Education in Schools. National Conference of State Legislators, March 21, 2019. https://www.ncsl.org/research/health/state-policies-on-sex-education-in-schools.aspx.
(4) SIECUS. “PDF.” Washington, DC, 2018. https://siecus.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Tennessee-FY18-Final.pdf
(5) Cornblatt, Johannah. “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America.” Newsweek, March 13, 2010. https://www.newsweek.com/brief-history-sex-ed-america-81001.