When most of us think back to our sex education, experiences range from nonexistent to as good as it gets in a US public or private school. Because the US takes a “let the states decide” approach to sex-ed, we’re going to uncover just what that means in the state of Virginia.
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 Virginia…
2002: The benefits of adoption was added to the curriculum as a positive choice for those who were experiencing unwanted pregnancies
2004: Family Life curriculum was required to include steps to take to avoid sexual assault, and the availability of counseling and legal resources, the importance of medical attention and advice and the requirements of the law
2007: Dating violence and the characteristics of an abusive relationship must be included in the curriculum
2009: School systems must provide a summary of the Family Life education program and the materials used so that parents/guardians may better understand the curriculum being taught to their children
2010: Information in regards to the appropriate use of electronics was added to Family Life education
2011: Family Life education must include SOL objectives related to dating violence and the characteristics of abusive relationships to be taught at least once in middle school and least twice in high school
2016: Family Life required to include objectives related to dating violence and the characteristics of abusive relationships at least once in middle school and twice in high school.
Family Life required effective and evidence-based programs on prevention of dating violence, domestic abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual violence
2017: VA Family Life began to emphasize the meaning of abstinence education and how to deter sexual assault
An adjustment was made to include instruction that would increase student awareness that consent is required prior to sexual activity
As Virginia just completed its general election, the state was “flipped blue” after over two decades. This will have a large impact on future programs, initiatives, and legislation over the coming years.
In the past year, 5 bills were created in efforts of having an impact on Family Life education curriculum and classes (4):
- HB 2570 prohibited public school students from participating in Family Life education without written consent from a parent or guardian (1).
- HB 1693 required high schools to provide Family Life education topics (including sexuality) to students with intellectual and developmental disabilities at least 4 times during grades 11 and 12.
- HB 2205 required all Family Life education classes to incorporate age-appropriate elements of effective and evidence-based programs on the law and meaning of consent.
- SB 1141 required all Family Life education classes to include evidence-based elements and programs on the prevention of human trafficking.
- SB 1159 required all Family Life education classes to include evidence-based programs on the harmful physical and emotional effects of female genital mutilation, associated criminal penalties, and the rights of the victim including any civil action.
The only bills that were passed were HB 2205, SB 1141, and SB 1159.
Tell us more about the sex-ed requirements (or lack there of)
While Virginia doesn’t require specific sex education, it does require health education in general. Sex education is a small piece of that, but certain standards of learning are required by the state for schools to reach or exceed your basic health-ed. The bit of sex-ed that is in the health curriculum is expected to be introduced once in middle school and twice in high school (2).
The state has control over what education is provided in their public schools, but they don’t control what education is expected and provided from the home. Virginia allows parents and guardians to “opt-out” of the sex education part of Family Life.
By the way, at some point between K-12, the law requires that Family Life include the following (3):
- The benefits, challenges, responsibilities, and value of marriage for men, women, children, and communities;
- The value of family relationships; abstinence education; the value of postponing sexual activity;
- The benefits of adoption as a positive choice in the event of an unwanted pregnancy;
- Human sexuality;
- Human reproduction;
- The prevention of human trafficking;
- Dating violence;
- The characteristics of abusive relationships;
- Steps to take to deter sexual assault;
- The availability of counseling and legal resources; and,
- In the event of such sexual assault, the importance of immediate medical attention and advice, as well as the requirements of the law;
- The etiology, prevention, and effects of sexually transmitted diseases;
- Mental health education and awareness
That’s a pretty tall order that only comprehensive sex-ed could properly chip away at. Now, while the law has general requirements, the local school systems have the ability to create their own curriculums to the extent they feel that may include the topics mentioned previously.
The Standards of Learning (SOLs) related to dating violence and the characteristics of abusive relationships must also be taught at least once in middle school and twice in high school (3). Also, there must be age-appropriate elements of effective and evidence-based programs on the prevention of dating violence, domestic abuse, sexual harassment, sexual violence, the law and meaning of consent, human trafficking, sexual abuse, and female genital mutilation (3).
It is important to note that, within these topics, “abstinence” is the only thing that is specifically defined, “an educational or motivational component that has as its exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health gains to be realized by teenagers’ abstaining from sexual activity before marriage (3).”
The phrase “law and meaning of consent” is used in the law, but consent is not specifically defined for education purposes.
What the kids are actually learning
The CDC (Center for Disease Control) has 19 critical sex education topics (14):
- Communication and negotiation skills
- Goal-setting and decision-making skills
- How to create and sustain healthy and respectful relationships
- Influences of family, peers, media, technology, and other factors on sexual risk behavior
- Preventative care that is necessary to maintain reproductive and sexual health
- Influencing and supporting others to avoid or reduce sexual risk behaviors
- Benefits of being sexually abstinent
- Efficacy of condoms
- Importance of using condoms consistently and correctly
- Importance of using condoms at the same time as another form of contraception to prevent both STDs and pregnancy
- How to obtain condoms
- How to correctly use a condom
- Methods of contraception other than condoms
- How to access valid and reliable information, products, and services related to HIV, STDs, and pregnancy
- How HIV and other STDs are transmitted
- Health consequences of HIV, other STDs, and pregnancy
- Importance of limiting the number of sexual partners
- Sexual Orientation
- Gender roles, gender identity, or gender expression
SIECUS reported in their 2018 Fiscal Year Virginia State Profile that only 13% of Virginia schools taught all 19 of these topics in middle school (grades 6-8) and only 26.8% for the high school level (grades 9-12) (4). 84.8% taught the benefits of being sexually abstinent at the middle school level and 93.2% at the high school level (4). 72.2% of Virginia middle schools teach how to access valid and reliable information, products, and services related to HIV, STDs, and pregnancy, and 87.6% taught these in high school (4).
81.6% of Virginia middle schools taught their students how to create and sustain healthy and respectful relationships and 93% in high schools (4). 66.1% taught middle school students about preventative care that is necessary to maintain reproductive and sexual health, while 88.2% taught high school students this. 23% of schools taught their students how to use a condom correctly in middle school and 49.9% in high school (4). 45.7% of Virginia schools taught about different methods of contraception other than condoms in middle school and 75.4% in high schools.
32.4% of Virginia middle schools taught about sexual orientation and 46.5% did in high schools. 39.9% of Virginia middle schools taught about gender roles, gender identity, or gender expression, while 45.4% taught one of the topics in high school (4). 27.9% of middle schools and high schools Virginia provided curricula or supplementary materials about HIV, STDs, or pregnancy prevention information that was relevant to LGBTQ+ youth (4).
(1) Legislative Information System. Accessed November 13, 2019. https://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?191+sum+HB2570.
(2) “Title 22.1. Education.” § 22.1-207.1. Family life education. Accessed November 13, 2019. https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title22.1/chapter13/section22.1-207.1/.
(3) Virginia Department of Education. “Family Life.” VDOE:: Family Life Standards of Learning Resources. Accessed November 13, 2019. https://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/sol/standards_docs/family_life/index.shtml.
(4) “Virginia FY18 State Profile.” SIECUS, 2018. https://siecus.org/state_profile/virginia-fy18-state-profile/.
(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.