The Dangerous Campaign to End Sex Ed
Far-right conservatives want to keep students in the dark about sexual health. What could possibly go wrong?
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On Monday, April 23, Elizabeth Johnston, known in the far-right world as “Activist Mommy,” organized what participants called a “Sex-Ed Sit Out,” a day across the globe for parents to pull their children out of public schools as a protest against allowing educators to come into the classroom and teach their children about the basics of healthy physical and emotional relationships, how bodies work, how pregnancy occurs and how to prevent it, and/or how to stop bullying on the basis of sexuality or sexual orientation. The overwrought Mrs. Reverend Lovejoy-esque panic made me recall my first real sex-ed class.
Growing up in Nebraska in the ’80s and ’90s, we would attend a “health seminar” for a few hours once a year, starting in fifth grade. It was like something straight out of Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret—all period talks and explanations of how eggs get fertilized, absent the explanation of how the sperm actually makes its way to the egg. Which was fine since my mother had already had “the talk” with me years earlier—not to mention the fact that I’d supplemented with the Danielle Steele books I’d snuck out of her bedroom.
By eighth grade, we actually started talking about sex in the classroom, when we devoted about a quarter of the year to “Human Growth and Development,” a euphemism for learning how to navigate puberty and stumble our way into adulthood. The teacher appeared mildly embarrassed and cleared her throat a lot as she explained intercourse. We learned the proper names for our genitals. We were told repeatedly that sex may be good if you are older and married—but premarital sex would surely guarantee an STI. There was no mention of condoms to prevent STIs or even birth control.
If that seemed mediocre at best, consider where we’re at now: While there have been a multitude of studies revealing how useless abstinence-only education is—the most recent one published just last September in the Journal of Adolescent Health—37 states currently require that abstinence be taught to school children, with 26 of those states saying abstinence “must be stressed.” By comparison, only 17 states and the District of Columbia mandate that contraception be discussed in sex-ed classes. In schools that focus on comprehensive, age-appropriate sexual-education programs rather than shame-based, abstinence-only lesson plans, foundational building blocks are being taught to students as early as first and second grade as relationship-building skills and modeling consent, and the earliest “sex-ed classes” offer little more than helping kids understand that everyone is different, we want to build friendships with people who are kind to us, and that we should be kind to each other regardless of gender or sexual identity.
Which of course has conservatives frothing.
Activist Mommy, a.k.a. Johnston has been supported in her efforts by members of the North Carolina Values Association, the Benham brothers (sons of anti-abortion, anti-LGBT preacher Flip Benham, formerly of Operation Rescue), even former Planned Parenthood worker Abby Johnson, who told Breitbart News that in her experience, “There were even some Planned Parenthood educators that were going into public school systems with stuffed animals in elementary schools and showing different graphic sexual positions with stuffed animals to kindergarten and first-grade students.”
Did the sit-out have an impact? Probably not. Only about a dozen and a half sites participated, and a handful of those were outside the United States. Where there were organized efforts, only “small groups” joined in to leave the schools. And Johnston herself couldn’t truly participate since all of her children are homeschooled in order to protect them from the “moral decay” of public schools.
But the fact that Johnston’s own kids are utterly unaffected by the public school educational efforts isn’t going to stop her from doing everything she can to make teaching sex-ed illegal. “We’re going to start suing these schools for pandering obscenities to minors,” Johnston told the Christian News Broadcasting Network. “There are 43 states that have loopholes so that you cannot prosecute obscenity to minors in schools and we need to get these loopholes closed so that in all 50 states if you’re caught pandering obscenity to a minor even during public-school hours, more so during school hours, you will be prosecuted.”
Prosecuting teachers for talking about birth control, STIs, or even the names of their own genitals sounds like a return to the Comstock laws era, but what the parents of the religious right simply cannot grasp is that refusing to tell children that sex exists doesn’t simply make sex go away. It only ensures your children are completely unprepared and ignorant when they eventually do learn about it.
Despite my own background in reproductive health (and having given birth to a number of babies myself), I was utterly unprepared to find out exactly how early kids end up hearing about sex. I assumed I could have the discussion on my own timeline, only to be blindsided when my daughter asked me, at 8 years old, if it was true that she’d have a baby if a boy peed on her stomach. At that moment I pledged to provide information to my children as soon as they asked, in a non-judgmental manner, and with the caveat that they should always feel free to speak about it to me and ask me questions, and to correct other children who give out incorrect information, but not to bring it up on their own because other children may not be as ready to talk about it as they are.
But not every parent has that background, that ability or, frankly, may not even know that in early elementary school sex, bodies and relationships are already being discussed—on the playgrounds, on their buses, at their sleepovers. Schools have the opportunity and the ability to open up that conversation in a non-shaming, fact-based environment, perhaps long before the parents are aware that it is necessary, and despite all claims to the contrary by conservatives, it doesn’t lead to children engaging in sexual activity at a younger age.
While homeschooling families like Johnston’s would remain unaffected by a loss in comprehensive sex-ed programs, children who attend public schools would bear the costs of her campaign for “morality.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 40 percent of high school students interviewed said they had had sex before, with 30 percent stating they had sex within the last three months. Of those respondents, 43 percent didn’t use a condom and 14 percent use no form of contraception at all. Students are having sex—and they aren’t doing it safely, resulting in pregnancy, illness and infertility, all of which could harm their long-term health and educational success. Sex-ed programs aren’t teaching kids to have sex—kids are figuring that out just fine on their own, and have been forever, regardless of protestations and beliefs of the religious right that it’s the teachers who corrupt them.
“This is something that has been going on for a long time. They tell you parents need to be afraid, that sexual educators are coming in and leading your children to promiscuity. It’s an age old tactic, since the beginning of time,” Debra Hauser, president of Advocates for Youth, told DAME Magazine. Advocates for Youth is an organization focusing on comprehensive age appropriate sex education and relationship building skills for the next generation.
According to Hauser, in K-12 schools, comprehensive sex-ed programs start in the early elementary-school level with lessons that have nothing to do directly with sex. Instead, they model good examples of issues like relationship building and consent to build on as they get older. “When you talk with kindergarteners about how you ask to borrow a crayon and respect your friend’s answer if they say no, that is the very same thing that a child will build upon later in middle school or high school when we talk about bodily autonomy and sexual assault,” Hauser explained. “This fear that we are teaching young people to have sex is really unfounded.”
The Sex-Ed Sit Out may have been a flop, but with the Trump administration pledging to cut teen-pregnancy-prevention programs and reallocating funds to organizations that will use abstinence-only sex education tools for classroom settings, comprehensive sex-ed classes are in more danger now than at any time in the last two decades. The only thing slowing down the dismantling is a court ruling telling the President to slow his roll. The Activist Mommy may not be able to prevent real educators from coming into the schools, but the White House very well may, and if so, it will be back to scare tactics for all public schools across the nation unless we step in and tell our schools to teach our children to value themselves, their bodies, and each other.
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