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SIECUS study on 1998-1999 Sexuality Education Controversies in the United States

Original article authored by: Martha E. Kempner, M.A.

The content of this journal article includes:

The SIECUS Community Advocacy Project, created in 1992, uses information collected from community contacts and a clipping service to summarize and analyze sexuality education trends for each year. The project was designed to aid educators and community members in responding to attacks on sexuality education. During the 1998-1999 school year, 140 controversies in 33 states were documented.

Overview of Controversies

Most controversies in 1998-99 erupted over:

  1. inappropriate information presented by books, videos, speakers or curricula;
  2. teachers’ speeches and actions both in and out of the classroom; and
  3. the availability of condoms and contraceptives on school grounds.

Many controversies also revolved around how to teach abstinence. Much of this type of controversy is due to recent federal funds allocating $50 million per year from 1998-2002 for abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) education.

This article gives nationwide highlights on the following topics:


Federal Funds

A national study by SIECUS found that many states put their federal abstinence-only education money towards media campaigns. Some of these were positive, such as Maine’s "Not Me, Not Now" campaign, while others, such as California’s "Hold Off on Sex. Hold on to Your Life," were fear-based in nature. Other states put the money towards curriculum development, but not all communities accepted these new programs. Waco, Texas; Charleston, South Carolina; and the Colorado Council of Black Nurses all rejected federal AOUM programs, stating that programs lacking information about disease prevention and contraception were not acceptable for their target populations.

Abstinence Without Federal Funds

While federal funding was a catalyst for many controversies, many state and community level debates were unrelated to federal funds. Some debates were settled in state legislatures, others within communities.
Some examples of these debates are:
  • In 1998, bills passed in Virginia, Ohio, and Missouri required sexuality education programs to include abstinence as either the only or the preferred method of sexually transmitted infection (STI) and pregnancy prevention.

  • The issue over medically accurate information in sexuality curricula led the California State Assembly to pass a bill requiring that all information "be medically accurate and free of racial or gender bias." A similar bill in Indiana failed to pass the Senate due to fear that it would require schools to educate about homosexuality.

  • Defining abstinence is a task not easily accomplished. Controversies arose in Barrington, IL and Westmoreland County, PA when parents did not agree with the school boards' definitions and philosophy statements.

  • The Idaho Springs, CO school board rejected a fear-based AOUM curriculum by Friends First. The board’s president was enraged by a demonstration given to the board in which the presenter "removed a live goldfish from a bowl and placed it gasping for air on a table" to demonstrate sexual activity outside the covenant of marriage. The president further described the program as "sexist, racist and very judgmental."

Emerging Trends

Two new trends identified this year are dual-track sexuality education and youth abstinence rallies. Since a September 1998 board vote approving a dual-track program in Osseo, MN, other local, state and national debates on the issue have occurred. This concept essentially allows parents to choose between a more comprehensive program and a new AOUM curriculum and may allow abstinence-only programs to enter more communities than they otherwise would.

Rallies that aim to promote abstinence have long been sponsored by faith communities but are now entering non-religious arenas. A Pennsylvania law designating May 2-9, 1999 as Chastity Awareness Week and the increasing number of rallies held during school hours are a few examples of the growing acceptance of such activities.


Continuing Trends

Controversies continue over issues such as:

  1. the availability of too much information in curricula, books, videos, and school publications or by guest speakers and teachers;

  2. the availability of contraception on school grounds; and

  3. other issues such as sex separation and opt-in/opt-out policies.
Some case examples are:
  • In Ohio, a debate arose when two unrelated issues were confused with one another. The state’s Department of Education has long received Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) money, part of which has been used to train HIV educators. In 1998, the state also began creating a model health education curriculum to be used as a guide for school boards. Media reports misled the public to believe that some of the more explicit information in the CDC training would be delivered directly to students through the model curriculum. The debate went to the state legislature, where an amendment was passed requiring legislative approval of programs using CDC funds.

  • In Beach, FL, a couple opposed the use of Winston Groom’s novel Forrest Gump, stating that it contained "inappropriate information about human sexuality." On the other hand, a parent in Conroe, TX complained that a new sexuality education textbook was too restrictive in its description of methods of contraception, failed to discuss homosexuality, and used the term "unborn child" to describe a fetus.

  • The student editor of a New Hampshire University newspaper successfully defended an ad for Lifestyle condoms after officials disapproved of the ad by citing the ad’s appropriateness for the target population of college students.

  • Guest speakers often draw attention since parents may not always be given advance notice of the speaker’s visit to a school. California’s response to this issue was to pass a bill requiring schools to notify parents ten days in advance of a speaker’s visit, inform them of the presenter’s name and organization, and notify them of their right to refuse permission for their child’s participation.


Youth Lead the Way

One of the most encouraging trends noted by SIECUS is that of students themselves promoting sexuality education. Student council members in Mancelona, MI conducted a survey of students’ attitudes and behaviors and took their findings to the school board to negotiate solutions. Three eighth-graders in St. Louis, MO developed a sexuality education curriculum and delivered it to 40 fellow classmates. The pilot class covered contraception, STIs and HIV/AIDS, and stressed abstinence.


Support is Encouraging

It is encouraging to see that, while some of the controversies described in the study ended in favor of abstinence-only education, many resulted in continued support for comprehensive sexuality programs.

In addition to the initiative taken by teens to educate their peers on topics vital to their reproductive health, also encouraging is the support the majority of Americans give to sexuality programs. A recent poll commissioned by SIECUS and Advocates for Youth in 1999 indicates overwhelming support by the American public for comprehensive education programs in schools. For specific statistics from this poll, please see ReCAPP's "Controversy in Sex Education" statistics.

Implications for Practice

  • Know the position of your school officials, local school board members, and state legislators on sexuality education, including dual-track programs, abstinence-only-until-marriage, and opt-in/opt-out policies.

  • Stay in touch with parents, fellow educators, community leaders and students regarding their views on these issues.

  • Know how to gain support for your views should a controversy arise in your community.

  • Get your students involved! Create an activity that encourages them to research, discuss and analyze controversies in your community or state.

Kempner, M.E. SIECUS Report, Vol. 27(6), 4-14.

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