Ask the Experts! Comprehensive Sex Education
Abstinence-only-until-marriage instruction is still taught in a surprising number of Northern California school districts, despite a state law that prohibits it in public schools. Reproductive Justice Policy Director Phyllida Burlingame discusses the challenges of enforcing the law and what the ACLU is doing to help young people get the information they need to protect their sexual and reproductive health.
Why is sex education a civil liberties issue?
Sex education addresses many of our most deeply held rights and freedoms: the right of girls and boys to be treated equitably, the right to engage in a loving relationship with the person of one's choice, the freedom to decide whether and when to have children. How schools approach this subject and the information they provide is vitally important.
Abstinence-only-until-marriage instruction is firmly based in political and sometimes religious ideology, not public health. Curricula tell girls "watch what you wear - if you don't aim to please, don't aim to tease," promote "purity" and "secondary virginity" for youth who have been sexually active, and are rife with antiabortion bias. By teaching that sexual activity is only positive and acceptable in the context of heterosexual marriage, abstinence-only-until marriage instruction is inherently biased against LGBT youth and students with LGBT parents.
Comprehensive sex education, in contrast, provides information about the benefits of delaying sexual activity while also providing medically accurate information about condoms and contraception that young people will need at whatever age they become sexually active. Grounded in science, its goal is to provide young people with important information that will help them make healthy decisions about sexuality and relationships.
Your sex education work spans state policy advocacy and local organizing. Why is it important to do both?
When policy work and community organizing are connected, they inform and strengthen each other, creating a powerful feedback loop that is essential for both winning and sustaining change.
In 2003, California passed the Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Act requiring that sex education taught in public schools be comprehensive. The ACLU-NC sponsored this law, along with Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California, and it has become a model for other states.
But winning policy change isn't enough. Many school districts won't follow the law without being pressured by parents, students and community members.
For example, until 2009 the Fremont school district was using an abstinence-only-until-marriage curriculum. After an organizing effort by the ACLU-NC that involved a cross-section of the community, a mobilized opposition, and a four-hour school board debate, the district finally agreed to adopt a comprehensive sex education program.
What do you mean when you say that sex education should be approached from a reproductive justice perspective?
Sex education advocacy sometimes focuses exclusively on the need to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. A reproductive justice perspective is broader. It takes into account all the factors that can negatively affect young people's health - including racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, immigration status, and language barriers - so that the goal of sex education advocacy expands from preventing unintended pregnancy and disease to promoting a holistic vision of well-being for young people.
Approaching sex education from a reproductive justice perspective compels us to challenge the dominant narrative that teen parents are an economic and social drain on our country. Instead, we advocate that young people need access to reliable, accurate health education, as well as access to services, support to stay in school, and future opportunities.
How has the California budget crisis affected this issue?
A $20 million state program that provided grants to community partnerships for teen pregnancy prevention was entirely eliminated in the current budget proposal. This will result in a dramatic decline in the number of agencies that provide sex education in both schools and community settings. Programs that provide supports to pregnant and parenting teens have also been eviscerated.
In addition, funding pressures on school districts, combined with increasing testing requirements, mean that districts are de-emphasizing sex education and reducing or eliminating health classes.
What is happening on the national level, and how does it affect sex education in California?
Opponents of reproductive freedom have launched a juggernaut of attacks in Congress and in state legislatures across the country. In the first half of the year, states enacted 162 new provisions related to reproductive health and rights, nearly all restrictive.This has been described as a battle over abortion, but in fact these attacks are aimed at the entire spectrum of programs critical to reproductive freedom, including contraception for low-income Americans and sex education.
California's legislature, in contrast, has moved forward this year on progressive reproductive justice legislation that would prohibit the shackling of pregnant inmates and allow minors to consent to preventive treatment for sexually transmitted infections, such as the Gardasil vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV).
Our major roadblock in California is the state budget, not negative legislation. However, we have a huge stake in what happens nationally: Congressional Republicans are seeking to eliminate federal funding for comprehensive sex education, with a vote on one program currently pending in the House of Representatives. If they were successful, it would remove one of the last remaining sources of public funding for sex education in California. It is therefore a critical time to write to California members of Congress to ask that federal funding for comprehensive sex education be preserved.
What's next on your agenda?
In the next year we plan to expand our work in the Central Valley, which has high levels of poverty, limited access to reproductive health services, and widespread abstinence-only-until-marriage instruction in schools. In our work to support youth in the Valley, we will partner with organizations including Fresno Barrios Unidos, ACT for Women and Girls of Tulare County, and California Latinas for Reproductive Justice. We will continue our efforts to pressure state agencies such as the Department of Education and Department of Public Health to take a greater leadership role on this issue. And we look forward to working with more parents who are ready to challenge their school districts and demand comprehensive sex education.
This interview was conducted and compiled by ACLU of Northern California volunteer Jessie Seyfer.