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Oversexed ed

American sex ed is scattershot, but groups aligned with Planned Parenthood are pushing highly explicit curricula

Oversexed ed

(Krieg Barrie)

When Ashley Bever learned from family friends that her 11-year-old daughter would receive sexual education at her San Diego public school, she asked the program coordinator for the district to let her see the curriculum. The coordinator was “reluctant,” said Bever, a substitute teacher in the local school district, but Bever was eventually able to see the material—called “Rights, Respect, Responsibility.”

What Bever read shocked her. The sixth-grade curriculum said children could be attracted to any gender. “We don’t choose our feelings just like we don’t choose who we find attractive,” the curriculum reads. The curriculum gives detailed information about anal sex and oral sex, as well as talking about mutual masturbation as a way to avoid sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

“We’re so far past the condom or not condom debate,” said Bever. “It’s like, are you going to send my kid home with lubrication?”

Several times the curriculum tells middle schoolers that they can self-refer to a clinic “like Planned Parenthood” without informing their parents or teachers. The curriculum mentions Planned Parenthood as a resource several times. (“You’re taking this huge corporation with this huge policy agenda and giving them direct access to our children,” Bever responded.)

The curriculum uses “they” as a pronoun instead of “him” and “her” and says “someone with a vulva” or “someone with a penis” instead of saying girl or boy. The curriculum defines abstinence as “a penis not going inside another person’s vagina.” The lessons use scare quotes around the word abortion, saying “end a pregnancy” instead, and the eighth-grade curriculum explains that minors can have abortions without notifying their parents.

What really annoyed Bever was that the final lesson in the curriculum told kids which websites were reliable for sex ed questions, lecturing that abstinence sites were lying to them.

San Diego is one of the more extreme examples in a nation where sex ed is patchy, or an afterthought. But Advocates for Youth, an organization that regularly partners with Planned Parenthood, developed the curriculum and successfully placed it in San Diego public schools. Some other liberal school districts accept curricula from Advocates for Youth and other groups affiliated with Planned Parenthood; the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Network (GLSEN); and the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS).

Such groups argue in their curricula that gender is on a spectrum and that teens should follow wherever their feelings and attractions lead, while downplaying the risks of casual sexual encounters. They call programs based on such values “comprehensive sexuality education” (CSE).

“It’s a different philosophy about life,” said Joe McIlhaney, an OB-GYN and the head of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health, an organization that researches teen sexual health and emphasizes the health risks of casual sex. “There’s nothing above what you can see, eat, or touch.”

Sex ed is scattershot throughout the country, with some conservative school districts skittish about the subject altogether. Twenty-four states mandate sex education, and 21 of those require HIV education alongside sex education, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Sex ed curriculum is often determined through a battle of PowerPoint presentations at the school board meeting. Conservative districts have rejected CSE curricula, and CSE groups have in certain areas ousted abstinence-based education groups.

Has the nature of these battles changed over the last few decades? “Honestly, no,” said McIlhaney, 82.

In this environment, abstinence groups have rebranded. The new in-vogue term, “sexual risk avoidance,” means classes teach that abstinence is the best way to avoid health risks associated with sex. Last year the National Abstinence Education Association, the main advocate for abstinence education, changed its name to “Ascend.” Mary Anne Mosack, the head of Ascend, said the term sexual risk avoidance “changes the conversation—it takes it out of that realm that this is just a moral message. It’s a health message.”

The shift to “sexual risk avoidance” is partly a political calculation, but it is also a reflection of how abstinence educators offer a more holistic approach to sex education now that includes discussions about conflict resolution, pornography, dating violence, and sexual abuse (see sidebar).

“Healthy relationships—that’s the direction [sex education] is heading now,” said Kimberly Danon, who manages high-school curriculum for a federally funded sex education program affiliated with Elizabeth's New Life Center in Ohio, a network of pregnancy resource centers. Danon’s program is in both public and private schools in 11 counties as part of a larger course on healthy relationships. In student surveys that the program has received, students said the most useful class was the one about conflict resolution in relationships.

ONE BIG CHANGE is evident over the last 30 years: Teenagers are having much less sex, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The number has shown a steady and marked decline, along with the teen pregnancy and abortion rate. In 1988, 60 percent of male teenagers and 51 percent of female teenagers reported having had sex in the CDC survey. In the 2016 survey, only 41 percent of teenagers had ever had sex.

At the same time that teenagers are having less sex, the number of teenagers who reported receiving sex education to the CDC hasn’t changed very much—which calls into question the influence of sex ed (whether abstinence-based or CSE). Cultural voices likely influence teens more than a health class.

Fifty-nine percent of 12- to 17-year-olds use Snapchat regularly, according to research firm eMarketer. Snapchat often features articles on sex ed topics. One recent example: “Why This Form of Birth Control Is RISKY.” (The story was about the withdrawal method, the second-most-common form of birth control teenagers report using after condoms.) Trends that push teens away from spending social time together in person, like sexting and the increase in pornography usage, might also help explain the decline in sex.

Meanwhile, SIECUS—founded by Planned Parenthood medical director Mary Calderone in 1964—has been promoting “National Sexuality Education Standards” (NSES) the last few years from “leading health organizations” that include lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation. The name cleverly parallels the official “National Health Education Standards” (NHES), standards for health classes from the CDC. The NSES committee includes representatives from Planned Parenthood and GLSEN.

Red states have fiercely opposed NSES curricula like the Advocates for Youth material in San Diego, successfully tying NSES to the dreaded Common Core standards—even though the NSES isn’t a government initiative and has not been widely adopted.

Scott G Winterton/The Deseret News/AP

An instructor from the Salt Lake City Pregnancy Resource Center talks to students at Cottonwood High School in Murray, Utah. (Scott G Winterton/The Deseret News/AP)

The Mississippi Legislature this year introduced a bill specifically blocking the SIECUS standards unless local districts held hearings about SIECUS first. The measure died in committee, but a number of other states (Arkansas, Georgia, West Virginia, Maryland, and others) have taken similar legislative stances against the group’s standards.

Few states appear to have adopted the NSES. In a 2014 memo SIECUS said “dozens of school districts and/or states” have used its standards, an underwhelming and slippery estimate. SIECUS did not respond to an inquiry for clarification.

The New York City Department of Education recommends curriculum aligned with NSES—the city began requiring CSE in 2011 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but like most states it has no reporting mechanism and little means of enforcement of that mandate. Though the city’s mandate applies to sixth- and seventh-graders, the city’s Department of Education reported that as of 2016, 43 percent of eighth-graders had never had a health class. (The department does not track sex ed specifically.)

In Texas, one school district recently made the big switch from offering sexual risk avoidance programs to CSE. Every school district in the state has a school health advisory council (SHAC) that makes recommendations to the local school board about sex ed curriculum. In 2011, the Austin SHAC ousted Austin LifeGuard, a sexual risk avoidance program. The Texas Freedom Network (a CSE group) had done a presentation to the SHAC claiming abstinence programs were phony and insufficient. The SHAC decided it would only allow CSE programs.

“It all depends on who’s on the SHAC,” said Corey Tabor, the head of Austin LifeGuard.

A review of Austin LifeGuard’s curriculum showed that the course emphasizes abstinence as the only way to completely avoid sexual risks but it also teaches about all types of contraception (complete with citations of reputable studies throughout).

“The one thing a person can wear ... to eliminate the risk of STIs and pregnancy is YOUR PANTS,” reads part of one cheerful high-school lesson. “At Austin LifeGuard, we love pants.”

The organization teaches in another Texas district, Lake Travis, where the school gives parents an option: send their kids to Austin LifeGuard’s class or the Planned Parenthood–led class “Big Decisions.” Tabor is frustrated that the district depicts his program as “abstinence-only,” which it isn’t.

“A parent says, ‘I want my kid to know more than abstinence,’ so they sign them up for the other program, which is described as a comprehensive program,” said Tabor.

BACK IN SAN DIEGO, Ashley Bever confronted the school about its Advocates for Youth program, arguing it was a values-laden curriculum that promoted promiscuity.

She, along with some other parents, had influence. This year the school removed the part about lying abstinence websites and introduced the concept of abstinence at a younger age. The district posted the curriculum on its website, which Bever appreciated. The school also removed a reference link from the curriculum that led to graphic videos about sex, but Bever says other links remain.

Bever opted her child out of the class this past school year—other sex ed researchers noted that the beginning of the school year was an important time for parents to be paying attention to forms about such opt-outs that might be coming home with everything else. A few other classmates opted out alongside Bever’s daughter, and they spent two weeks sitting in the library while their science teacher taught sex education to the rest of the sixth-graders.

“She felt totally ostracized, totally a weirdo,” said Bever. She and her daughter have open communication, and they had already talked about sex. Bever’s children have transgender and gay relatives, so they’ve talked about gender issues too.

“In San Diego we’re not fighting to bring abstinence-only back,” said Bever. “It’s against the law in California. We’re just trying to get a commonsense approach.”


Boz Tchividjian (Handout)

What comprehensive sex ed does right

A good feature of the National Sexuality in Education Standards is that they also require students to learn about sexual assault, sexual abuse, and dating violence—and how to find a trusted adult to report such violence. That is an area where evangelicals are lacking, according to Boz Tchividjian, the executive director of the Christian anti-sex abuse group GRACE.

“Conservative Christians, when they hear the term ‘sex ed,’ become very uncomfortable and have a very negative response, and sometimes for good reason,” said Tchividjian. At the same time Christian parents, he said, are often uncomfortable discussing the topic of sex with their children, so they avoid it. Tchividjian himself, even though he talks about sex all the time for his work, found it awkward to discuss with his three daughters.

But he said if parents aren’t addressing the issue of “body safety” with their children, then school or church should. GRACE is currently doing its “church certification initiative” to train churches to teach about and guard against sex abuse. If schools conduct fire drills to save children’s lives in a fire, Tchividjian reasons, they should teach about identifying sex abuse, which is much more common than a school catching on fire.

“You think about how many things we teach our kids on a daily basis, ... how to pump gas, balance a checkbook,” he said. “And some of the most serious things, such as this issue, we’re not having a conversation about.” —E.B.


North Point Community Church (Handout)

Sex ed at church

When asked, Sydney Patterson, 21, couldn’t remember initially whether she had sex education in her public high school in Alpharetta, Ga. She turned to her younger sister Taylor Patterson: “Did we have that in high school?”

“We had one freshman year health class,” Taylor returned, and that jogged Sydney’s memory. Sex ed had lasted one day. The teacher gave the students a worksheet, mostly about human anatomy.

What Sydney remembered more clearly was the sex education she received from her church, North Point Community Church in the Atlanta suburbs. The megachurch taught four classes over four weeks every year from middle school through high school, based on curriculum from North Point’s pastor, Andy Stanley.

The classes were voluntary, but they were always packed out. Sydney estimated 800 to 1,000 attended the weekly gathering. The church course addressed more of the “emotional” side of relationships and sex rather than just the anatomy worksheet Sydney received at school.

“At that age you can’t tell people what to do, what not to do,” said Sydney. Abstinence-focused sex ed instructors from all over the country repeated a similar comment to me over and over. “For the most part, yeah, I think it was helpful,” she said of the church program. Sydney doesn’t remember it using the word abstinence—the course was designed for the unchurched and new Christians—but it was “implied.” —E.B.

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.


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  • JerryM
    Posted: Wed, 08/30/2017 05:50 pm

    We live in an increasingly hyper sexualised world.  Children are being targeted and taught to elevate their sexual identity above all else.  This is western culture giving itself over to the depravity of our flesh.  The church would do a better job in this area if it understood what life in the Spirit (vs. flesh) actually means and is experienced...